Dea Birkett: A close look at hands

I'm exposing all but three tiny triangles of my body. On holiday in Corfu, I wear a bikini all day and most of the balmy night. Yet, in preparation for this annual fortnight-long ritual of flesh revelation, the part of me I paid most attention to was my hands. They are the only bits of my body I use for my work (apart from, I hope, my brain.) They sit on the keyboard in front of me, utterly exposed. Yet I ignore them. If I indulge in a massage, it's for my back. I rub oil all over my body every day. This year, I've had two facials. But I let my hands rot.

However, before going away I suddenly notice these appendages. A recent survey revealed this as typical; a major expense for women going on holiday is the pre-departure beauty treatments, the most popular of which is the manicure. A male friend of mine calls this "peripheries". Women as they get older, he says, concentrate less on the major parts - whose appearance they cannot alter - and more on their "peripheries" (their hands and feet), which they can.

I first visited a nail parlour when I was pregnant, and my nails were suffering from a lack of iron. I had false acrylics superglued over my own, then airbrushed in stripes of pink and blue with a sequin on each.

But more than the excessive decoration was the wonderful womanliness of the nail parlour, a female equivalent of the old-fashioned all-male bar. As a stranger gently held, caressed and cared for my fingers, we traded secrets as if we had known each other for years. Then another customer arrived. The manicurist is one of the few strangers who touches your hands gently. Adults hold hands softly when they are falling in love, but only for a while. It's rare to see established couples interlocking fingers - they are much more likely to throw their arms about each other's waist or tousle each other's hair.

We don't look at each other's hands when we hold them - that would be more intimate still - we just feel them. But if we looked, they would reveal a startling amount. They are the barometers of our bodies. When you have an operation, you must remove all nail varnish, as one of the first things the nurses check as you emerge from the theatre is the colour of your nails to make sure that you are coming round safely. Soft nails with no lunula - the white crescent moon at the base - can indicate an overactive thyroid. Concave nails can be a sign of iron deficiency.

Nails grow an average of an eighth of an inch each month. But during severe illness, they cease to grow. When the growth restarts, a line is left across the nail, called the Beau's Line. In cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, there may be a number of lines, representing the end of each course of treatment. Strangely, stress is said to make your nails grow faster. Nails can also reveal your lifestyle - how much you drink, whether you smoke. The faint yellow stain of nicotine on a nail can be very sexy.

So what story do my hands tell? I don't believe in reading palms, but still you can learn. Hands often tell you what someone does. My nails are practically short; I can only have acrylics on holiday because I don't need to use a keyboard. You cannot type with long nails, nor can you look after a baby; mothers of young children don't generally wear nail varnish. My boyfriend's father was a builder, and his thick knuckles showed you that. My mother is nearly 70, and her hands are speckled with brown spots.

I have been told that it is impossible to lie effectively about your age unless you are wearing gloves. Hands are horribly honest. Perhaps that's why we spend most of the year ignoring them.

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