Why It’s All About Skin. (Don’t Read This if You’re Squeamish, Part 2)

Salon’s David Marchese has an essay up today about our secret addiction to pimple popping which is worth reading, though I can also summarize it for you in one line: Squeezing your zits is gross, but everyone does it anyway — what’s that about?

So here’s a maybe not shocking answer: It’s because we don’t like our bodies. And more specifically, we don’t like our skin.

Because an awful lot of our body anxieties reside in the epidermis. After all, it’s not your kidneys, lungs, and other internal organs stacking up that make you feel fat, It’s how much skin you can see in the mirror. And whether it’s smooth, or lumpy, or skin you can lift using both hands because it’s got that kind of heft. Skin is also where all of our unwanted hair sprouts from. It’s where we agonize over wrinkles and other signs of aging.

And of course, it’s where our pimples brew. Here’s the best quote in Marchese’s piece:

“Pimple popping offers instant gratification,” seconds Laura Cooksey, who “pops pimples all day long” as an aesthetician* at the Face Reality acne clinic in San Leandro, Calif. “People find it pleasurable the way that having your legs waxed is pleasurable. It can be uncomfortable and sort of nasty — we’ve all been grossed out when the pus hits the mirror — but you’re doing something that can help you toward your goal of clearer skin.”

Yes. I’ve talked about the perverse pride we get from extracting before, but I had a bit of an epiphany when Cooksey compared it to waxing. Both of these skills are still so novel to us at Beauty U, that whenever someone comes in with a really big pimple, several of us will cluster round to watch Miss Stacy go to town on it. (We also watch the gross-out YouTube videos that Marchese references. Which I’m not linking to because, seriously? Don’t.) And when we’re waxing each other, there’s a lot of pausing to admire the evidence. I gave Brooke another Brazilian on Monday and every time she flinched, she’d say, “Wow that hurts! But did you get a lot of hair?” And I’d show her the pellon strip now coated with wrong-side-up hairs, freshly ripped from where the sun don’t shine, and we’d both be like, Damn, you can even see the root balls.

I’ve debated whether to view this as a weird kind of empowerment. We genuinely don’t get grossed out by the site of pimple pus or pubic hair anymore, and I’d like to think that’s a sign that we’re all becoming so sangfroid about the human body; sure, it’s hairy and sometimes oozes stuff, but that’s life.

Except. Our satisfaction is all about getting this stuff out. We want pimples and extraneous hair gone — annihilated!— so we can feel cleaner, smoother, and pretty. Which means our natural state isn’t pretty. It’s gross. And as estheticians, we’re the front line on fighting grossness. The only ones tough enough to face that pimple dead on and take it out in a surgical strike. It’s like the Jack Bauer school of skincare.

This is a pretty violent way of viewing the human body. Of course, that sounds extreme. And when we’re faced with the worst of it — the angry red scars of a recent face lift, for example — we might feel horrified and sad. But we don’t connect that extreme violence to the everyday abuse. Anyone who has ever agonized over acne in the mirror, extracting until you’re red and swollen, knows that violence is the answer. We love popping pimples because it’s a not totally crazy way to punish yourself for failing to meet your beauty criteria. For not loving the skin you’re in.

Now, when you choose to have these things dealt with professionally, you’re paying someone else to inflict that pain on the parts of yourself that you hate. I’m not sure what that says — about how you feel about yourself or how you look at them after. But Brooke did a Brazilian on a client last week who didn’t tip her and at first we were all shocked — who doesn’t tip the person willing to get elbow-deep in their junk? (You know, in a non-sexual/non-gynecological context.)

Then I remembered the shame.

That feeling of how fast can I get dressed and get out of here? that comes after a particularly rough bikini wax, or even a facial when the esthetician extracts so much you’re convinced your face is going to look like Swiss cheese. I understand not feeling entirely friendly towards the person who just beat up on you for an hour.

But you should tip. Because once you stop to think about it, the woman making $11 an hour to excavate your pores is not the person you’re mad at. It’s mostly you, what with all your skin.

*Yes she spells it aesthetician and I always spell it esthetician because that’s how the textbook spells it. I think the A is just for fanciness. We all do the same stuff.

Filed under Beauty Labor, Beauty Schooled, Beauty Standards, Customer Cult

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  1. Caroline
    Posted June 16, 2010 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    love this post!! food for thought… I always sort of thought of it as similar to playing with worms in the dirt when you’re little or something, satisfaction and comfort with the ick in the world. But a lot of little kids do cut them in half, to watch the two halves live and wriggle away… so I guess the happy, healthy dirt metaphor has its twisted side also, especially if you are your own worm!

  2. Marian Sole
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    I think the instinct to look at one’s personal produce may be more primitive. We look in the toilet after we have pooped, we look at fingers after picking noses. Animals do it too. It may be a way of checking what we are leaving for predators or even basic health checks for ourselves – what color is the mucus tells us whether bacterial or viral. we may not understand this but we may instinctively know that green leads to illness. I don’t think it is bodily image that causes a dog to sniff its poop. Pimples left unpicked may leave traces for predators with more alert sensory systems.

  3. Chandler
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    This is fascinating, but would offer one caveat: as someone who had pretty bad acne as a teenager, I can attest to the fact that zits themselves can hurt, not just emotionally but physically, when they’re large enough to be stretching the surface of your skin. I think zit-popping is a bit akin to scratching mosquito bites in that regard: even if the pus comes from your own body, it can feel like a foreign object in there.

    Wow, that got really gross, really fast. Sorry. Good post!

  4. MH
    Posted June 17, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I must be an anomaly because I never, ever pop pimples. Just dry them out with toothpaste, alcohol or tea tree oil. (But then again I’m also lackadaisical with hair removal …)

  5. Posted June 21, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I need to find out who writes this blog so I can tell her she is damn funny, sharp and right on with that violence against self/lack of self acceptance thing at the root (ball) of it. Our culture does breed it. Thank you for the post. Gross as it is, I was laughing out loud at the uncomfortable truth of it!

  6. Denise
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Extractions and waxing are my most favorite. Very satisfying. Fact is, we are not these bodies but are very much identified with them.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] About Why It’s All About Skin. (Don’t Read This If You’re Squeamish, Part 2) [...]

  2. [...] But what’s most sad is that we’ve received exactly zero Beauty U training on how to handle these situations beyond the above anecdotes, which only ever come up because students ask if this kind of stuff was ever an issue. The lesson seems to be “this is inevitable and you should stand up for yourself when it happens,” mostly because it certainly hurts the professionalism of the industry if you don’t and even more people walk around assuming estheticians are sluts. And because, as I’ve discussed before, there’s a lot of bravado among estheticians that we’re professional enough and tough enough to handle the less savory sides of life (pimples, pubic hair, you know). [...]

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