I was always ashamed of my hands as a child.
I bit my fingernails. I was always picking at the nail bed and tearing the nails. Though sometimes I made them bleed, there was a weird pleasure in the pain of that self-destruction in the moment it was happening. Later, regret set in, and then shame.
As a young girl, I would make play fake nails out of Elmer’s glue and stick them on, pretending I had lovely, long nails like the women I admired on TV and in magazines. They did not stay on very well, however. Just a few, brief moments of the illusion before they fell off, semi-hardened ovals of Elmer’s again.
I also had what I considered a misshapen right thumb. It was shorter and wider than my left. I hated my right thumb and it’s squat ugliness. I would sit on my hands in elementary school. Didn’t want anyone to see my defect, fearing it as outer proof of my innate defectiveness.
Around the summer between sophomore and junior years of college, I discovered artificial, or acrylic, nails. There were also, at the time, inexpensive, temporary stick-on nails available in stores, but for whatever reason, I never tried or trusted those. They were too obviously fake. They would never pass as my own. (So I would never pass.)
But the acrylic nails? They were an answer to my prayers.
These artificial nails were not a replacement, but an extension for natural nails. They involved the application of tips made of lightweight nail-shaped plastic forms that are glued onto the end of the natural nail. They would then don masks and brush on acrylic powder to cover the nail. Then an artificial nail is sculpted out of the acrylic and shaped and buffed to a shine.
In over an hour’s time spent in front of a nail salon employee, I, too, could have perfect, long, beautiful nails.
But the best part of it all was the polish.
I chose the richest and darkest red being made at the time. This was before get manicures and the myriad of colors of polish in fashion today.
I was drawn to the red. I had always loved old Hollywood glamour, so I guess that influenced my taste. Subsequently, I also started wearing red lipstick to match. It became my signature look in my last two years of college. (I also wore a lot of black before it was chic. I got a lot of comments on all of these things. I didn’t mind the attention as long as my nails were perfect.) My nickname was Maybelline.
After discovering acrylic nails, I fell in love with my hands. I felt more attractive in every way. Suddenly, my hands were available for self-expression and communication in a way they had never been before.
Great, right? So what if I had to pay a fortune. So what if I had to spend two hours each week in the nail salon breathing what must have been toxic fumes and having toxic substances put onto my nails in order to feel whole and worthy? Small price to pay if you ask then-me.
The problem is, when you rely on an external factor of your appearance for your sense of worthiness, you are depending on something that is transient.
And acrylic nails, while petty durable, were known to break off at times in-between salon visits. They were a system not without flaw.
If my acrylic-enhanced nails were less than perfect, I felt unpresentable, imperfect. Life had to stop until I could re-perfect myself again. But salons are not open 24/7. So that meant hours of waiting, feeling awful, until I could be restored to lovability again.
I remember literally plummeting to the depths of despair one time bowling with friends.
I am right-handed, so I was using my right hand to bowl. My “special” right thumb had trouble fitting into the thumbhole of the ball that fit the rest of my grip. It was a bit snug for it. And, well, you guessed it, disaster struck.
There I was, in all my shame, my deformity not only exposed but highlighted. The naked odd man out against perfect and polished siblings.
When I think back, I feel compassion for the girl I was then. Sad that my entire esteem of self was riding on such a superficial thing as my nails. But it was.
It took some years after college to begin to learn to let that kind of outwardly-obsessed perfection go. It symptomatically focused on my nails then, but that was not the only area of my appearance that suffered.
I have had to delve deep, to find my core self, the self worthy of love, having nothing to do with externals of any kind. I am still working on that one.
Perfectionism and obsessive-compulsiveness seem to be a shape-shifting animal that morphs from one area to another.
Whereas over the years my perfectionism has often been fixated on my appearance (nails, weight, sustaining a youthful appearance,) in the last 15 or so years it has also been on my career and accomplishments.
I am still working to find full value in myself just as I am. Nails or no. Big acting credits or no.
Today, I try to love who I am, how I look, just as I am. I try to enjoy the work I get and to treat every job as if it is “big time” because in my heart of hearts, where I don’t care if anyone else is looking or not, it is.
In over words, I am trying to live from the inside-out.
It is challenging. The outside world with all of its social media trappings and the business-of-acting business bytes is like a siren call that draws me off course to crash on the rocks.
Am I doing enough? Am I meeting the right people? Do I have the best headshots? The right representation? Am I in the right mindset? Am I relevant? (Yes, I have actually just recently gotten an email from an industry professional who council actors suggesting that as the focus of what actors must ask themselves. To whom? In what regards? And what if I am not relevant? Does that mean I should just stop pursuing what I love?)
And then there are the ever-present questions of well-meaning people: What have you been doing? What have you done that I would have seen you in? Anything big? Are you doing anything important? Yikes. So easy to slip off my own core-driven track of loving what I do and start to question my validity. Easy to feel lost at sea and doubt that I am on the right path, despite having a map that I love right in my own hand. Easy to feel like I have to use yours or hers or buy a new one in order to be marketable “enough” to feel worthy.
But thankfully, I know what is what. I may have to work hard to stay centered within my self some days, navigating the seas of the outer world that used to have such reign on my sense of worthiness, but today, I know what is what. And that is huge. I recognize the siren calls for what they are. I can course correct back to my own route.
I confess, I do still love nice-looking nails. Today, we have gel technology, so I only have to go to the nail salon once every two weeks. (I can barely stand to be in there. Some people love it. I just spent too many hours there for the wrong reason in the past to enjoy it. It is a reminder to me of where I have been. I do not want to go back to that.)
I have a new signature nail polish. It is called Always and Forever. It is a purplish nude matte color that is subtle, like a pink or a white without being pink or white. It is different, unusual. I love it. It suits who I am right now. Next year, it might be something different.
I do still wear red every so often. I enjoy the bright red shock of color. I always feel a bit more glamorous when I wear it.
My nails do not have to be perfect today. Neither do I. I am the captain of my own career ship most days, and the sailing is fine.