Bite Me! I'm a Nail Chewer

After two decades as a nail chewer, could Sarah Z. Wexler break her bad habit?

hand with lace sleeve holding a chanel wallet
(Image credit: Greg Delves)

I carried a stack of papers into the Big Boss's office, ready to present my pitch. I'd thoroughly researched my ideas, triple-checked for typos, worn a crisp dress. Ten minutes in, the Big Boss was nodding and smiling — until I pointed to an item that made her visibly wince. As she okayed the idea, I realized what she'd really been reacting to: my raw half-nails that looked like they'd been gnawed by a beaver.

"I didn't know you were a nail biter," she said matter-of-factly. But what I heard was judgment; all I wanted was to curl my fingers — retract them — like the Wicked Witch of the East's stocking feet. What was the use of knowing my stuff and suffering through 10 hours of "take me seriously" heels if my nails telegraphed "frazzled, neurotic nutcase"?

Before that moment, I'd seen no real reason to stop. Jackie O was a nail biter, as are overachievers Anderson Cooper and LeBron James; according to a 1995 study, nail biters even average a higher intelligence rate than non-biters. I figured it was a sensible enough outlet, an always accessible security blanket when stress boils over from reporting on Iraq, winning the NBA championship, or just giving a presentation to the boss. And wasn't I always wary of those women with the perfectly manicured talons, proof that they led the unexamined Barbie life, never delving into the issues that kept me up at night? But at 26, I figured maybe it was time to get a stress reliever that didn't involve self-mutilation. I knew I needed to quit, but I also knew that after two decades honing my habit, stopping for good would be tough.

I decided I'd reward myself every day I didn't bite my nails with the only other thing I enjoyed as much: a cupcake. In a month, I gained five pounds and realized I'd rather have stubby nails than a whole damn stubby body. So I swung the opposite direction, to aversion therapy, painting on several coats of Orly No Bite, which tasted like trash marinated in lemon juice. Of course I kept biting, but any other hand-to-mouth contact, like eating wings or, yes, cupcakes became repulsive. (I lost the five pounds.)

One day, I read a study from the University of Arizona that said the average computer keyboard — the very place I was Googling from — harbors five times as many germs as a toilet seat. Disgusted, I dropped my finger from my mouth and spent $65 on fake nails, hoping they would force me to stop biting for 21 days — considered the magic interval for busting a routine. I added a "habit substitution," chewing gum or a pen, when I felt the urge to bite (now my pens looked like they'd been through the office shredder). A month later, I confidently had my fakes removed to reveal glue-crusted, power-sanded nail slivers that had hardly grown a millimeter. Frustrated, I promptly resumed biting. Dr. Michael Twohig, a psychology professor at Utah State University who ran a study on nail-biting habits, says it's almost inevitable that once the fakes go away, so does the habit change. I wish I'd known that $65 earlier.

Next, I decided to try hypnosis. In the nondescript office of New York psychotherapist Susan Dowell, I waited for a swinging pendulum that never came. Instead, she had me sit on her dark leather couch, close my eyes, and visualize the last time I bit my nails, then she walked me through almost a guided meditation. As a cynic, I was surprised to find myself quickly sinking into that fuzzy half-listening state, like when someone's talking as you fall asleep. In just an hour, we discovered that I bite when I have to stay put — sitting at my desk at work, in a car, at the movies. Now that I was more aware of when I was biting, it was up to me to anticipate those situations and thwart the behavior.

The following week, Rescue Your Nails: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Perfect Fingers & Toes — with an entire chapter devoted to nail biting — landed on my desk, which naturally prompted me to book an appointment with the author, Rescue Beauty Lounge owner Ji Baek. She diagnosed me with "nail-bed trauma" and said my nails had become weakened from constant saliva baths (ew, but dead-on). In addition to weekly manicures, Baek suggested applying nail oil every few hours. At first I was hesitant, imagining my Crisco-slick mitts sliding right off the keyboard or giving a greasy handshake. But after one day (and learning to use about half as much as I'd originally applied), I was a convert. My nails got stronger and smoother and my hangnails disappeared, so there was nothing calling out to be bitten; it was the most effective strategy I'd tried — and the cheapest.

Four months in, I'm far from cured, but I'm biting much less compulsively. I've even started wearing huge, attention-grabbing rings. I still have moments when I tear into a nail salon, knowing if I don't get perfectly polished edges I'll go at them with my teeth. But the act of trying to wrestle down a bad habit has boosted my confidence. Just ask the Big Boss.