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Toenails and Long-Term Habits

At this point in my life, I have developed a routine of giving myself a personal pedicure every two weeks. This ritual always brings up so many memories and associations. It reminds me of the years when I worked as a nail technician, starting in middle school and throughout high school, and it reminds me of the times during my childhood when I would regularly have my nails painted at home. My nails were always painted and adorned with pretty designs, something which sparked many compliments from friends and teachers at school. No matter what else was going on in our family life, I could always trust that my mom, dad, and my sisters would be there to keep my nails in good shape.

Doing my nails also reminds me of the gradual shift in which I became the sole caretaker of my own nails. It was bound to happen—as my sisters became more occupied with their lives, and as my parents became busier with the nail salon, there was simply less time. When I started working at the salon, I learned how to do nails myself. In fact, I sometimes even preferred the autonomy of being able to deliver my own pedicure. By the time I moved out, it was clear that I would rarely, if ever, have my nails done at home again.

A couple months ago, however, I had returned home for an extended period of time in order to take care of some family matters. One day, my mom insisted that I let her do my nails. Because she insisted, I agreed, and soon I found my feet in a warm bucket of water and my mom sitting on a stool in front of me, a towel resting on her knees to dry my feet.

Though I couldn’t tell when we last did this, I could tell that she her back was stiffer and more hunched, that her hands gripped a little less tightly, and that the flesh of her fingertips was softer than ever before. It was obvious that she was getting older, but her voice remained as reassuring as ever, and despite her slower movements, she still acted with confidence.

As she filed my toenails, she squinted her eyes and began to press down on the sides of my big toe, exposing the edges of nail. After a pause, she said, "Have you been filing the corners of your toenails?"

Her question caught me off-guard. I responded, slowly, “Yes.” It dawned on me that I had indeed been trimming off the edges of my toenails in order to remove more of the dried skin and cuticles underneath.

She shook her head with concern and said, "You need to stop doing that. I know you’re doing it to clean out the corners, but if you keep this up, your toenails will continue digging into your skin, and then the more you’ll have to cut them to get them out. Over time they will get pointier and pointier.” She told me to look at the curving profile of my toenail, “See? Its already happening.”

I stared at my toes in quiet disbelief. She was right, of course. I was merely dismayed at my own unawareness. When I had worked as a nail tech, I so often saw the pincer nails which my mom spoke up, with thick nails triangulated to a point, the sides of the nail digging so deep into the flesh that it made the entire toe engorge into a bulbous shape. It would always take a lot of work to file down the nail and pick out all the dead skin from the side grooves. Every time I worked with pincer nails, I always wondered how they became this way, never thinking that it could happen to me.

"How do I fix it?" I asked.

“You just file it straight across, nothing else" my mom said, demonstrating while she explained. I watched as she expertly slid the nail file several times flat across my toenail, squaring out the shape, and I trusted her entirely in that moment. "It will take time, maybe years, but your toenails will get better."

She continued on shaping the rest of the toenails as I solemnly reflected on how small, harmless habits can cause so much damage with enough accumulation. I had nothing but good intentions when filing the sides of my toenails, but because my actions were misguided, I was steadily and unknowingly turning my toe into a monster. The mind, too, works in this way. Even the slightest complaining thought, or ounce of jealousy, which may seem small enough to be forgiven or overlooked in the moment, can cultivate a toxic mind with enough repetition. When my mom finished with my toenails, I asked her if she wanted her feet done too, and she happily agreed.

Since then, I've painted my toenails a couple more times. Just earlier this week, I had spent part of an afternoon giving myself a pedicure. I had taken care to straighten only the front edge, leaving the sides untouched. As I began to smooth the lacquer onto my big toe, I recalled other bits of advice my mom had given me when she first started training me: “Dip your brush so you have just a bead at the tip. Make sure that the first layer is thin as possible, and let it dry completely before putting on a second coat.” Her most recent cautions also resurfaced, and I took a moment to examine the shape of my toe nails. It had only been a couple months, but I could notice a small improvement.

Already, the shape of my toenail was broadening and evening out, making it much easier to apply the polish in thin layers. When I finished, I realized with both sweetness and sadness that I missed my mom—sweetness because even when I thought I knew how to care for my own feet, she had yet another lesson for me; and sadness because I knew that our times together are growing more and more numbered as she gets older. A slight breeze then came through the window, and the sadness and the sweetness mixed together into a palpable sense of poignancy: that though my mom won’t always be there to hold my feet, my feet will always be beautiful because of her.


Some questions for reflection:

  • What are some habits you have been unaware of that have caused things to turn into the wrong shape?

  • Who takes care of your feet?

Feel free to comment below or send me a message! May all beings be happy.

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