ife is wretched enough without indulging in your vices. I’m partial to a litany of mostly harmless foibles that, with the right quantum of ego and self-delusion, I’ve managed to mentally reframe as endearing. The most abiding of these is onychophagia, or nail-biting: a compulsive habit dentists often describe as “oral parafunctional,” in that the mouth is used for activities outside of eating, drinking and talking — things like involuntary teeth grinding or thumb sucking or ripping off parts of your own hands with your teeth.
A cursory Google search will confirm that nail-biting is — unsurprisingly — pretty unhygienic. Broken skin on the cuticle leaves it susceptible to infection, and bacteria can spread from beneath the nail’s surface to the mouth. The insides of your body are exposed to everything your hands have touched, and if you frequent the subway, that probably includes a smidge of urine. Chewing yields objectively ugly results — during the writing of this piece, I sent a picture of my squat, shorn-off fingernails to a friend, and asked him to describe them. “I would use the words ‘jagged spar,’” he texted back. “‘Ragged,’ too. Maybe something about the pinkishness of a lab rat’s claw.”
There was a time when I half-heartedly attempted to kick this proclivity, a rite of passage for lifelong chewers. My mother forced me to apply Sally Hansen’s odorless polish, which swiped on clear and tasted like bitter lettuce, and it worked for a few days, until I grew to like it. Years later, I swore off the impulse internally — curling my fingertips into my palms upon registering disapproving glances in meetings — only to absentmindedly gnaw at them later.
But at some point, around the time of my sole visit to a nail salon where I paid for the saddest and shortest orange gels I’ve ever seen (during which I apologized profusely to the technician, who looked sad about it too), I made peace with the vice. I decided to lean in! It is, after all, very soothing, giving my fidgety, hyperactive fingers something to do when stressed or bored, and indulging a warped perfectionism as each clipped talon is near-identically rounded off. There is something deliciously carnal and profane in hacking away at errant bits of keratin; it feels good on a base level, in that it is a task completed. It literally shoots a load of endorphins to my brain. Most importantly, my best ideas have come to me mid-munch.
I posit, now, that unruly nails might actually be a power move, aggressive and bare-knuckle. (They look great with a suit!) Nail-biting indicates a cavalier attitude to first impressions, like wearing a T-shirt to a black tie event, or taking off your shoes on the subway. As much as it might infer, “I have an outward-facing neuroses,” or, “I cannot open a can,” it also says, “I don’t care about society; we are all animals and I will chew what I please.” Biting your nails is going out for a smoke, except you are permitted to do it within 10 meters of any entrance.
As with other indulgences, this one is equal parts pleasure and pain, which means some loyal adherents will drop off along the way. A fellow inveterate biter — let’s call her My Old Roommate — quit because she got tired of drinking with fingers pointed toward her chest, and wanted to look intimidating with a martini. (Of secondary importance: she was zealous to the point of drawing blood, and her hands constantly ached.) But for the 20 to 30% of the population who enjoy a douse of masochist mastication, it is a hobby of no return. We are not meant to deny every pleasure of the flesh, and this one can be embraced with comparatively little public disdain — it is not as offensive as nail clipping, for instance, whose flying shards prove an airborne biohazard. In this hardscrabble world, the wearied must take their PG thrills where they can. For the uninitiated, my recommendation is to try it: the thrill only comes first-hand.
Illustration by Melanie Lambrick.