Your past is written on your body

Just like the rings on a tree stump can tell us what year there was a drought or heavy rainfall, your body can tell you something about your history.

Earlier today, I was examining my toenails (as one invariably does when bored) when I noticed a prominent ridge running horizontally across my big toe.  It was about a millimeter in length and half a millimeter in depth.  I looked at my other big toe and there it was again, the same groove on the surface like a wave on a pink ocean.

Normally, I write these physical observations off as ‘just another imperfection’ (deep sighing ensues) but something about these funny little dents made me want to learn more.  About two months ago, I read an article about Ötzi the Ice Man who died an unfortunate death which turned him into a very well-preserved blessing to scientists.  In the article, scientists try to piece together Ötzi’s life by analyzing his body.  Including his nails.  They found that he was ill a couple of times in the six months before he died.

They knew this because of something known as “Beau’s lines”.

NailDespite having a name that makes you think of chubby cherubs, Beau’s lines is a condition caused by trauma, low calcium levels, skin disease or an impending heart attack.  It is characterized by a deep indentation running from one side of the nail to the other. The cells in the nail matrix (the skin under the nail plate) stop dividing and as a result, the nail plate on top has nothing under it, therefore causing it to grow ‘downwards’. Not until cell division begins again will it raise back up – hence, the “groove”.

The average human toenail grows 0.05 mm a day, so by measuring the distance between the root of the nail and the groove it is possible to determine when a person experienced the trauma or illness.  Upon learning this, I scrambled for my ruler which I hadn’t touched since high-school maths class and measured my toenail (what a sight that would have been for an unknowing visitor)!  10 mm from root to groove.  One day is half a mm so times 10 by 2.  Twenty.  Twenty days ago, I was either ill or traumatized.

I knew the answer immediately.

About twenty days ago, I went through a break-up that left me, well, very broken.  This had to be the ‘trauma’ because other than an illness of the heart, I was fine.  After a brief flash of annoyance that my ex made a reappearance in my life in the form of a line on my toenail, I found it quite interesting that the human body – in a strange way – can become an autobiography.  If we were to ever forget something, looking at the marks, burns, scars, tattoos, Beau’s lines or whatever could help us remember our past.  This could be useful if you were Leonard Shelby in the movie Momento but I imagine it would generally be an undesired liberty for the average person who doesn’t want to be reminded of their worst moments every time they bend over to put on a sock.

But whether we like it or not, these markings are a permanent part of our bodies. And our history.  As trivial as it is, two little grooves on my toes taught me an important life lesson: we should not regret our past and instead embrace it, because it is what makes the person we are today.

(Well, either that or I have heart disease…)


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