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Old Woman Hands
On nail biting, and a good book.
I was not blessed with Beautiful Hands. I’m a nail biter and a cuticle chewer; an intermittent guitar player with calluses that have softened and toughened too many times to count. I play with my neighbor’s cat a little too aggressively (the scratches!) and still prefer pen and paper to typing (the ink stains!). If Titanic’s Jack Dawson gazed upon my hands, he would not be moved to sketch them. My fingernails are always naked.
The last time I got a manicure, I was about to get married. That was almost six years ago. Now I’m divorced. I stopped painting my nails — except for one time this winter, when I stubbed my big toe on a block of cement and a splotch of red-black blood pooled and dried underneath the nail, prompting me to give myself a pedicure in the same shade as my subungual hematoma lest the new man I was seeing catch sight of it and think it a foot fungus — for a few reasons. Like:
Nail polish is a soup of mass-produced plasticizers. Applying it and removing it and applying it again, ad infinitum, made my nails brittle and broken and yellow. Professional nail technicians can be over-exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals and under-informed about their potential impacts, may experience chronic respiratory and reproductive issues because of it, and earn a third of what’s considered a living wage in the United States on average. But mostly, I realized painting my nails was not the act of self-expression I’d thought it was — it was an act of obligation, or automation. I no longer wanted to spend my time or money or energy fulfilling automated desires.
Lately, though, my anxiety’s been bad and my biting’s been worse and I can’t help but think I’d feel better if only I had Beautiful Hands! Less alone, more attractive. More compelling and maybe, more worthy of being cared for. (I know, I know. But because conventional beauty is so often positioned as a portal to connection and attraction and love — which is to say, a portal to the meaning of life! — it’s sometimes impossible to uncouple the two in my Beauty Culture Brain.)
I considered a mani-pedi. I mapped the local salons. I imagined my nails red (too garish?) and pink (too Barbie?) and French-tipped (but why bother?). And then I came across this passage while reading Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy:
“One winter afternoon — we were sitting on the stairs — Frédérique took my hands and said: ‘You’ve got an old woman’s hands.’ Hers were cold. She looked at the backs of my hands: you could count the veins and the bones. She turned them over: they were shriveled up. I can hardly describe how proud I was to hear what for me was a compliment. That day, on the stairs, I knew she was attracted to me.”
It was a small reminder that the ways in which our bodies are our own are far more interesting than the ways they bend to the beauty industry. As I ripped another jagged shred of keratin from my too-short fingernails with my teeth, it was nice to be reminded.