I followed a set of fingernails down the hall one day at school. Not just ordinary fingernails, but amazingly long fingernails.  Each one, and yes, there were ten of them growing from each of one of my colleague’s fingertips, was at least two inches long.  It makes my skin crawl just to think of them.

The long fingernails reminded of a book my Aunt Millie used to have called Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It was a compilation of the best and weirdest from the newspaper column by that name which ran in newspapers across the country.  Each time I visited Aunt Millie’s house in Florida, when I was a kid, I read it from cover to cover with horrified fascination.  One item which particularly repulsed me was the rather sinister drawing of an ancient Mandarin official with fingernails like croton leaves which corkscrewed and bent back on themselves.  They were three feet long. Believe it or not.

It seems that during a period in Chinese history, men of a certain class let their nails grow extremely long as a symbol of their exalted position.  The longer the nails grew, the less able were the officials were to perform any sort of labor, and finally, any sort of task at all.  Others had to do everything for them.  This was a sign of great power and wealth.  Paradoxically, the more helpless the men were, the more powerful they were.  This is the same kind of thinking that produced the custom of binding feet.  Women of the upper classes in that same country became utterly dependent on others to move them from place to place because their tiny, mutilated bound feet were thought to be a sign of beauty.  Ripley’s drawing of the nails was meant to be grotesque, to shock, and it did.  So did hearing about bending little girls’ feet back and tying them.  And, like so many things which shock at an early age, they formed an indelible impression.

In China, it was certain men who grew their nails so long.  In our culture, it is certain women.  Being a lifelong short-nailed person, I don’t pretend to know what motivates someone to grow really long nails or to have acrylic ones glued on.  I have trouble imagining what makes a woman spend 75 dollars plus to have inch long slivers of plastic, called backscratchers by some, glued over her own nails.  This is only the beginning of a ritual meeting with a manicurist. A ritual which involves shaping, polishing, buffing and who knows what else.  These pseudo-nails must be periodically reapplied by the manicurist to hide the nail’s natural growth, like coloring your roots.  But, this is the fashion among certain women.  Women who stop short of the kind of nails I followed down the hall.

The nails I followed down the hall were different.  They were natural.  Our school secretary wore long acrylic nails.  I asked her how she was able to type with such nails.  She demonstrated for me.  She used the pads of her fingers rather than the tips.  Typing that way didn’t seem to slow her down. I mentioned the fingernails I had seen.  The secretary told me that they were much shorter they used to be.  I was amused that her reaction to the natural nails was much the same as mine:  They turned her stomach.

I wonder what kind of life a person with fingernails that long must lead.  Certainly, no life that resembles mine.  How does she dial her phone, zip a zipper or pick up anything tiny?  I wonder why she grows them so.  Perhaps it is just because she can.  Is it a display of power and status like the Mandarins, or simply vanity?

I think of all the things she can no longer touch with her fingertips, of cheeks she can no longer caress, babies she can no longer cuddle, of hands that must go unheld, of how her lover’s lips must go untraced. I wonder why someone would pay such a price for status, for power, or for vanity.