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Anderson Cooper

The agony of adult nail biters

By Anderson Cooper

Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the November 2003 issue.

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Anderson Cooper

Never trust a guy with pretty nails.

My mom told me that, and while most of her advice isn't exactly practical -- I'm still trying to figure out what "Say yes to purple" means -- she's right about the nail thing: Guys shouldn't have well-trimmed, satin-polished fingertips with cutely cut cuticles. It sends the wrong message.

I know this isn't a particularly popular platform right now. But why must we pursue perfection? What's so wrong with just being real?

I'm not saying you should start biting your nails, but if you already do, why stop?

Nail biting isn't sexy or stylish, but it is at least genuine -- an increasingly hard-to-find hint of humanity.

Doctors will tell you that nibbling nails is a sign of anxiety and insecurity, a nasty habit that can lead to infection.

I'm sure they're right. There are certainly plenty of less painful ways to deal with stress, but really, how many times a day can you masturbate?

I've been a biter since I was 8. Which is when most kids start. Sixty percent of 8-to-11-year-olds bite their nails and continue through adolescence.

I am one of the rarer child biters who kept picking and ripping right into adulthood.

I suppose if you've never bitten your nails, there isn't any way to explain the habit. It's not enjoyable, really, but there is a certain satisfaction -- pride in a job well done.

See, each nail breaks in a distinctive way; with time you begin to notice the pattern. It becomes something of a pleasurably familiar routine.

I'm a groomer. In the hierarchy of biters, I like to think we're near the top. I focus most on trimming.

I used to be more unrestrained, occasionally unable to resist ripping off layers of skin, but age and experience have mellowed me.

I try not to gnaw below the new grazing level, but other biters go for a deeper rip or focus on peeling the nail's thin surface.

Of course, some go way too far and give the rest of us a bad name.

There's a point below which a nail should not be bitten; as any torturer will tell you, having your nail removed is not only painful, it makes picking things up difficult.

Every minority likes to have someone to look down on.

Smokers mock tobacco chewers, who deride nose pickers, who shun fingernail biters, who absolutely abhor toenail chewers, the real bottom-feeders.

Clay Aiken admits he used to bite his toenails. If the image of young Clay in a red leather jacket salivating on his big toe doesn't make you ill, I have nothing left to say to you.

There are of course plenty of remedies and products that promise an end to nail-biting. Hypnosis, behavior modification, even foul-smelling lotions that make your nails taste bad.

I tried one lotion when I was a kid. It was really bitter, but after the first couple of licks I stopped noticing.

These days I try not to bite my nails in front of others. I'm not ashamed, but it's like videotaping yourself having sex: not something other people should really have to watch.

So if my office door is closed and work is getting hectic, chances are you'll find me momentarily focusing on a finger.

In the news business, TV anchors like to appear at all times polished and poised. Me? I'm content just being real.

Six slivers of nail were lost in the writing of this article.

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