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How I finally learned to stop biting my nails

I had a manicure the other day, my fourth in a lifetime. I'm 72 years old and a nail biter. But I think I've found the cure. Paint your nails red.

Why didn't I think of this before? I had my first manicure 49 years ago in preparation for my wedding, and in all those years, I've had only two more.

I was always too ashamed to present my nails to anyone. They have never been strong, and broke easily. The skin around them was ragged.

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As a teenager, I tried an evil-tasting liquid that you apply to your nails to keep from biting them. That worked for a while, then I started biting them again.

I tried false nails, but they caught on things, and when they came off, I was back to biting.

All my life I have been an observer of women's hands, wistful and envious of their smooth skin and shining, perfect nails. It never occurred to me that I would or could achieve such beauty.

Most women are dissatisfied with some of their body parts. I have lived for years dissatisfied with, among other parts, my hands and nails.

My mother's hands were gnarled from arthritis. She never had a manicure. But then, being one of those lucky, nearly hairless women, she never shaved her legs or underarms. She didn't wear makeup. And she never dyed her hair. She didn't believe in such vanities. Nor did she hide her age.

I am my mother's daughter. I have only once dyed my hair. It was a henna rinse. My son John took one look and said, "I'm not sure I like your cheveux dangereux, Mom."

I never did it again. I wear very little makeup and never hesitate to tell people my age.

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As I grew older, I waited for my own hands to become gnarled. At the slightest twinge I'd think, this is it. I asked my mother once if I would inherit her arthritic hands.

"You won't," she pronounced, as though she were uttering a protective incantation. And I haven't. But I never considered that my hands could be anything but what I saw them to be - big, with long fingers, at the end of which were those unattractive nails. I kept them hidden most of the time.

But last month, amateur actor that I am, I was in a play. Called Duet for Bear and Dog and written by Sybil Rosen, the short play was put on by an acting school and studio for people 50-plus as part of an arts festival.

My character, a Russian esthetician, needed red nails. At least that is how I envisioned her.

So I took myself off to the drugstore, where I perused the array of colours and found a startling dark red polish, perfect for my character.

With trembling hands, I painted my nails. Not a good job, but definitely eye-catching.

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In fact, I couldn't take my eyes off my hands. Whenever I moved them, I glimpsed red flashes. It was thrilling. I wondered if anyone else noticed the red tips of my fingers and found them as riveting as I did. Were these really my hands?

Something miraculous happened. I stopped biting my nails. I stopped picking and started to pay attention to them in a totally different way.

Now, even though my paint job was less than professional, I couldn't help but admire them, Narcissus-like though it was. And as the days went by, the skin around them healed.

When the polish became chipped, I touched them up. Eventually I redid the job entirely, my hands shaking less as I painted.

Recently, we visited our son and his wife in their new home in Quebec. "Your nails look beautiful," Michele said when she saw them.

"Thank you," I replied. I told her why I was going to keep them painted, and how I felt about the new look.

And then, another little miracle: Michele came home the next day after getting herself a pedicure and said, "I've booked you for a manicure tomorrow, and I'm treating."

We walked there together. Michele introduced me to the manicurist, a beautiful woman with gorgeous, natural nails. Clear nail polish, not red, like my Russian character.

Real estheticians, it turns out, don't paint their nails red, because any chip would be noticeable, she informed me.

After removing my old polish, she soaked my nails in warm, soapy water, filed them and reapplied the bright red polish I had brought with me. First she applied a base coat of something clear, then a top coat of something else clear, to keep them from chipping.

"You have beautiful hands," she announced when she had finished.

"Really?" I said, astonished. "Look at those liver spots."

"Never mind," she replied. "They are nice hands and nice nails."

Half believing her, I said thank you and stepped out into the day. I gazed at my brightly polished fingertips, recognizing that I now had an obligation to maintain them in all their glorious redness. Because I am a 72-year old former nail-biter with newly discovered nice hands.

Ruth Miller lives in Toronto.

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