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Acrylic nails

How my acrylic nails helped me overcome a lifelong hair pulling disorder

Although now I must reconcile them with my Muslim faith

The running joke between my friends and I for the best part of my teens was how to figure out the difference between my identical twin and I: “How can you tell Layla and Salma apart? Salma’s the one without eyelashes”.

Though I’d laugh along, most mornings during my mid-teens followed the same pattern: waking up with blurred vision, a stinging sensation between my lashes and inspecting just how much damage I’d done to my face in the mirror.

My trichotillomania – as the condition is known – started off slowly. I’d pick hairs from my scalp, my brows and later, my lashes. It was comforting, giving me a sense of control over exam stress and friendship anxieties. The moment I’d pull out the strand, I’d coil it round and round my fingers and inspect it. The rush would only last a few minutes so I’d be back to pulling out even more strands.

It wasn’t long before bald patches on my scalp resembled the size of 50p coins. With that came the fear people might find out. I’d avoid public hairdryers at the gym like the plague, wouldn’t stand too close to anyone in case they noticed the empty gaps between my lashes and wear lashings of red lipstick to distract people from my eyes.

"I didn’t quite realise how coffin-shaped nails could help me beat a disorder I’ve spent a decade desperately trying to cure"

When the disorder was at its worst during my teens, I’d attack my pubic hair when I’d run out of places to pull, fistfuls of hair secretly stashed in the bathroom bin. Other times, my eye would involuntarily twitch for days at a time. I’d lie in bed panicking that it might never stop.

When I was first taken to have acrylic nails for a wedding last April – each of the bridesmaids had to have a matching red set – I noticed almost immediately that the sensation felt radically different. I wasn’t able to grab hold of a strand of hair, let alone pull it out. The effort it took to tug each lash no longer became as gratifying. At first, I panicked and considered removing them but within a week, I realised that I’d barely bothered to pull anymore. A month later, hairs sprouted between my lashes for the first time in years.

Since then, they’ve transformed my life: I didn’t quite realise how coffin-shaped nails could help me beat a disorder I’ve spent a decade desperately trying to cure. After years of wearing (and failing) to keep gloves on at bed, nail bracelets, fidget toys and trying other tips exchanged over trichotillomania forums, none seemed to quite have the staying power that false nails have had. It’s not just me – forums are awash with trichsters the world over praising them for ‘curing’ their disorder. I’ve never sought professional help as I never believed it was a ‘real’ disorder – though, in hindsight, trichotillomania deserves to be recognised as a mental health condition in the same vein as depression or OCD.

Now, I spend hours at a time trawling through nail inspiration on Instagram and devouring the latest nail trends. Aesthetically, my coffin nails, usually in a bold, bright hue, look like I have it ‘together’ – the complete opposite of how trichotillomania makes me feel: at its mercy as it ravages by body beyond recognition.


"However, I’ve found that my faith and my love of acrylics can be at odds"

Even so, that’s not to say that there aren’t downsides. Acrylic nails do dent on my bank balance since I spend on average £35-£40 at least once a month and occasionally, £10-£15 on infills. Once, I blew £70 (never again) while other times I’ve splurged on a set when I was down to my last funds that month. At times like this, it becomes a crippling burden I wish I could do without. Which is something that resonates with members of my support group, some of whom are prevented from returning to the salon because it’s too expensive, which can lead to their trichotillomania returning. As student Phoebe Bower-Appleton tells me: “I’m low on money and haven’t had them in about five months and I started pulling again. I’m going sailing in Greece this summer, where I’ll be swimming every day and now my hair has big bald patches. I hope that by summer, I’ll have made some progress.”

Disorders like trichotillomania are little understood, particularly within communities of colour. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told it’s a ‘habit’ and can be easily controlled. I’m not exempt from what can be insidious beauty standards in my respective communities – I’m half-Lebanese, half-Pakistani – I’m expected to be ‘hairless’ in all the right areas while sporting a thick mane, thick brows and full lashes. My relatives don’t quite understand why I’d willingly attack my lashes and make myself look ‘unfeminine’. In preventing me from pulling, acrylics, thankfully, have saved me from having these conversations and unwanted judgement. I am, at least on the surface, finally ‘feminine’.

However, I’ve found that my faith and my love of acrylics can be at odds. Scripture has long discouraged Muslim women like me from altering their appearances – getting a tattoo is forbidden, for one. Though acrylic nails aren’t explicitly forbidden in the Quran, Islamic forums stress that UV gel and varnish, both of which are involved in the acrylic nail process, create a barrier from water reaching my nails. Given that water must touch every part of my skin before praying – praying is one of the five pillars in Islam and we’re expected to do this five times a day – I often fret that my prayers might be invalidated.

Ramadan, the month-long fasting period observed by Muslims the world over, can also present challenges. As it’s the holiest month in the Islamic calendar and presents an opportunity for me to renew my faith, I forgo acrylics altogether this month in the hopes that my prayers might be accepted. With that, it’s become the most difficult month to control my disorder. While fellow Muslims might bemoan abstaining from food and water, sometimes for up to 19 hours at a time, I find that without my talons as obstacles, my acrylic-free fingers will absentmindedly tug at my lashes once again. It’s during this month that I remember how comforting and familiar the ritual of hair-pulling can be and all my progress over the past year is undone.

"Last Eid, instead of feasting the first morning I could in 30 days, I spent it in an Essex salon, breathing in the familiar chemical fumes."

By the time Eid rolls around 30 days later, the empty patches between my lashes have returned, as have the tell-tale redness around my eyes. Last Eid, instead of feasting the first morning I could in 30 days, I spent it in an Essex salon, breathing in the familiar chemical fumes.

I’m nine months pull-free, a sentence I wouldn’t have thought I could ever say a decade on. The last time I went to get eyelash extensions a few months ago, my therapist swooned at them after the session. “I don’t know why you get them done, you’ve got really thick, long lashes,” she tutted as she handed me the obligatory mascara wand. It feels worlds away from bracing myself before my appointments, my technician pausing over the middle section of my lashes and inevitably wondering why there wasn’t any. Usually, I’d let her believe I’d ripped them off with fake ones.

I’ve come so far from the days I’d wake up to a sore scalp, day-long involuntary eye-twitches and patches of bare skin between my brows. I have so much to thank my acrylic nails for. That’s not to say that what works for me will work for anyone else with the disorder – squeezing a stress ball or keeping a hair-pulling diary, (all NHS-recommended), might have the same effect as a fresh set of nails does for me, for someone else. Joining an online support group works wonders too – not only has it made me feel less alone, once I knew women the world over face the same issues I did, but I now have a whole community of people who can recommend everything from the best wigs to try to new beauty products.

I’m still going to remove my acrylics this May before Ramadan begins, a decision that I keep going back and forth on. Though I keep fretting how I’ll manage to keep my hair-pulling at bay, for now, a more pressing concern is what colour to go for next month – right now, it’s a toss-up between burnt orange or lilac.

For more information on Trichotillomania, and available treatment visit here.