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Random acts of joy — Fingernails

Yasotha Browne is a GP Locum and RCGP Faculty Education Lead for Wessex

Fingernails apparently grow at an average rate of 3.47 millimetres per month, or one tenth of a millimetre a day.1 This is only an average and the rate of growth varies with hormones, age, sometimes with chronic disease and how often you file your nails. I examine mine after realising the charm of growing them to this length is starting to wear away. At a certain length they really are not much use other than as ornaments or for an itch. While measuring them I realise it could be a hundred and ten days since I trimmed them down to the nail line and again I feel somewhat cheated by the passage of time realising this.

These Keratin timelines speak of the last few months of birthdays, a wonderful Christmas and a lot of hours of building greater self-awareness, the latter of which I feel many are doing at the moment. More completely it captures and signifies this time of ‘I feel a bit stuck. I really don’t know what to do.’ I’m a GP and I feel like that’s all I have to say for myself sometimes. I love general practice in a nostalgic way but I really do resent the politics, the way the workforce pressures and environment hinder you and take away your job satisfaction.

Perhaps a psychoanalyst would coax out of me that growing my nails is an act of quiet liberation; I can decide how long I want my nails to be, I can decide what I want to next choose for myself. taking control of the things I can, and choosing contentment in the simplest of things.

Perhaps a psychoanalyst would coax out of me that growing my nails is an act of quiet liberation; I can decide how long I want my nails to be, I can decide what I want to next choose for myself. taking control of the things I can, and choosing contentment in the simplest of things. Today this manifested as the length of my nails and as an avid photographer I was very happy to document this timeline. It has been an achievement being able to grow them but I’m glad I cut them down afterwards. What most interested me about my nails when they were long was that they seemed to encourage a discussion about people’s desire to grow their own nails. As a healthcare worker it’s a requirement to keep them short and so it’s not a conversation I can normally be part of. Something that seems banal actually might not be.

The condition of other people’s nails say something to us. Growing nails without the annoying consequences of chipping, unevenness, dominant ridges and awkward growth to make them pretty is enough of an industry from where UK nail salons can extract  an annual revenue of over £3 billion.2

The condition of other people’s nails say something to us.

There are quite a few speculations for why we grow our nails. Longer nails make our fingers appear more elongated and delicate and is associated with femininity. It could be used in non-binary communities as a form of expression while it could also be a mark of a society where appearance is strongly gendered. For some, nail maintenance, particularly at salons, involves regular pampering time and can be a form of sociability and self care. In other cultures, long, luscious nails are a marker of good health and wealth and not having to engage in work involving manual labour (or healthcare work). There are records dating back to 3200 bce that Chinese royalty and ancient Egyptians would manicure their nails with various oils and dyes as well as grow them long.3,4

In the 1940s, Rita Hayworth was associated with popularising long, red nails in US culture, this being more symbolic of celebrity or being trendy than wealth, good health or being part of high society.5

I was surprised to read that it was a dentist called Fred Slack who invented the earliest version of fake nails in 1954. He used dental acrylic to fix a nail he chipped at work. Realising this may be a useful product he patented the idea and the profitable family business which sprang from this continues to run with his son at the helm.6

Acrylic nails in some cultures are seen as a vehicle of self-expression; a homage to lost heritage and identity that is being reclaimed. Sadly aesthetic acceptance for some false nails is very hostile with derogatory rhetoric, echoed in mainstream media.7 Something seemingly as trivial as long nails therefore can even be a signal of common interests or differences.

As GPs we are more likely to be asked to examine the natural nail rather than take our cue from an opportunistic nail examination during a consultation. Part of this is because effective health advancements such as vaccines, have meant nail signs for worrying conditions, such as hepatitis, are no longer commonly seen. The terms we use to describe nail conditions such as pitting, leukonychia, crumbling, subungual hyperkeratosis, onycholysis, and splinter haemorrhages are further examples of information nails can collect and reflect.

Nails are culturally and medically interesting and can be important markers of diseases. Perhaps where two come together the most universally is with onychophagia, aka, nail biting or gnawing that may be indicative of anxiety, stress, a nervous habit or other mental health problems that we can sensitively enquire about.

 

References

  1. How fast do nails grow? Contributing factors and tips for growth. Healthline, 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/how-fast-do-nails-grow (accessed 3 Mar 2022).
  2. Are Nail Salons Profitable UK? https://www.ictsd.org/are-nail-salons-profitable-uk/ (accessed 8 Mar 2022)
  3. Chinese Fingernail Guard — Customs and Traditions. Chinese antiques, 2020. https://www.chineseantiques.co.uk/the-chinese-fingernail-guard-customs-and-traditions/ (accessed 8 Mar 2022)/
  4. Yara S. From Ancient Egypt to Today: History of Nail Polish. Sada Elbalad English 2021; 27 Jan: https://see.news/from-ancient-egypt-to-today-history-of-nail-polish/ (accessed 3 Mar 2022).
  5. Hawkins A. The most Iconic red manicures in Hollywood history. Good Housekeeping 2014; 6 Oct: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/beauty/nails/tips/g1457/iconic-red-manicures/ (accessed 3 Mar 2022).
  6. Macharia F. Fred Slack: How American dentist invented artificial nails. Gotta News 2021; 10 Aug: https://gotta.news/fred-slack-how-american-dentist-invented-artificial-nails (accessed 3 Mar 2022).
  7. Nittle N. Nail art is bigger than ever — so why aren’t black women getting any credit? Refinery29 https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2019/04/229971/nail-art-black-cultural-appropriation (accessed 3 Mar 2022).

Featured image and insert by Yasotha Browne 2022

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