There was a new woman in my life. That sticky season of infatuation, we sat in front of the panting air conditioner, shucked our clothes, and studied each other’s skin. Hers was still untouched by the summer sun, smooth and cool like a stone at the bottom of the river, flecked with freckles. She took painstaking care of that skin every morning and night, standing in front of the mirror to apply all manner of tinctures: salicylic acid, snail mucus, sheet masks, Aztec clay mixed with apple cider vinegar.
My skin, lying alongside hers atop the sweaty sheets, was red and greasy and scarred. In the era of elaborate self-care, I opted instead to stick with the skin care routine I’d discovered during puberty. I would search my skin — my chin, the space between my breasts buried beneath a fine layer of hairs, the spot on each shoulder I can only see when I strain my neck like a flamingo tucking into its feathers — and destroy every pimple I found.
One night, finding nothing in the usual places, I turned to my bikini line. I pulled up the leg of my shorts and smiled at what I found. A whitehead, ripe on the vine. I pushed a finger up along each side of it and squeezed until its dome broke, releasing a white liquid tinged green. I pushed again. More liquid. I dug with the frenzy of a predator who smells blood until my body’s well ran dry.
That new woman came into the room moments later to find me grinning, fresh off the kill. We were starting to share the pleasures of skin, and maybe it was time to share this one, too.
“I just popped the biggest zit on my vagina.” She looked a bit squeamish, but I barreled on with all the pride of a toddler showing off her macaroni artwork. “It just kept coming out for 20 minutes, like a tube of toothpaste!” Now she was horrified.
“Why would you tell me that! Did you wash your hands? Go wash your hands. Right. Now.”
We fought. I walked over to the bathroom, wondering where I had gone wrong.
The truth is, I love popping pimples. It’s so deeply satisfying to hear the whispered snap of skin, to drain the pus until the skin becomes flat again. There are big, juicy baubles full of fluid and tiny barnacles embedded in the landscape of my face that, when coaxed, release a hard squiggle that looks like a comma, or sometimes, if I’m lucky, a curly spring. Some are buried so deep under the skin that they can’t be popped, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I tell myself, with an addict’s convenient logic, that I probably shouldn’t let that stuff stay inside my body.
Afterward, I still don’t measure up to the glossy magazine beauties with their unblemished faces, but at least I feel relief. I pop pimples when I’m bored or anxious, when I wake up in the morning unwilling to face the day or before bed in an attempt to relax, or when they just get too big to be ignored.
Everyone offers up advice about how to get rid of pimples as if they were doctors. Eat less refined sugar. Take birth control. Use face scrub with salicylic acid. Moisturize more. Moisturize less. As if colonies of acne on my skin were the mark of a woman who wasn’t really trying.
If they asked my opinion, I would blame my father. He claims that during his Catholic-school days, his face was so dotted with zits that if you just touched it, the pustules would ooze.
“I’ve never had bad skin in my life,” my mother brags. “The mosquitoes don’t like me, either.” We glare back at her. “Yours wouldn’t be so bad,” she says, “if you could just leave it alone.”
I can’t. I’ve tried to trick my brain into changing its patterns. For a day, I moved a rubber band from one wrist to the other every time I thought about popping a pimple. I spent a whole week staring at them in the mirror, telling myself I could look but not touch. Sometimes I fidget with a paper clip instead. But I always give in. It feels as good as crossing something off a list, a task with a beginning, middle, and end that can be completed without much thought. It is a relief from the constant tick of my anxiety.
I have my suspicions about where the pimples come from, but I’m not sure about the anxiety. Does an anxious thought start with diet or hormones or habit? Is it in my genes or in my control? Once an anxious thought bubbles up, I can’t leave it alone. I pick at it, turn it over until I can see it from every angle. But the sense of calm I hope will arrive never materializes. I’m left with the buildup of thoughts, a clogged neuron. What if I could just pop it and set all the thoughts free? I settle for something tangible instead, like a pimple that I can eliminate in a matter of seconds. There’s a moment of relief, until I start looking for the next one.
It’s the beginning of another summer, my first spent living with that no-longer-new woman.
I get an offer to have my makeup done professionally. The stylist has loose curls and a little fanny pack that sits against her hip, filled with tools I don’t recognize. She leans in close to my face, like a jeweler with a magnifying glass, and then zooms back out again.
“What’s your skin care routine?” she asks.
I shrug, unwilling to admit my vice. “I don’t really have one. I just get out of the pool and go to work.”
She feels along my cheeks, as if the real answer is written there.
“The chlorine must be drying out your skin. Your body is producing more oil to make up for it, and it gets trapped in your pores. Just put lotion on after you swim, and you should be all fixed up by the end of summer.” She rubs concealer on my face, then dabs my chest and shoulders, too. “Oh,” she adds. “And stop picking. I know it’s hard, but try your fingers instead.” She splays out her hands in front of her. They are red and bitten, and I know that she must feel the urge too.
Hers is the first advice I want to take, so I go out that night to buy the lotion. Standing in the aisle of the drug store, products labeled with smiling women stretching out in both directions, I begin to wonder who gave us the dream of clear skin.
I text my father, who has gone from acne-riddled Catholic-school boy to mustachioed Classics professor. Did the Romans have acne?
As a child, he had dragged me through silent European museums all filled with the same Roman and Greek artifacts — marble busts, plaster reliefs of statues and friezes, painted jars and vases. Every single figure had flawless skin. It’s a characteristic that can be seen in nearly every wing of the museum, from the Egyptian mummies to Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Not even revolutionaries like Picasso dared paint pimples.
“Yes,” my dad texts back. “People were afflicted with acne in the ancient world. A Roman writer named Celsus talks about it.” I look the guy up. “To treat pimples and spots and freckles is almost a waste of time, yet women cannot be torn away from caring for their looks,” he wrote in De Medicina. Celsus prescribed a mixture containing honey, resin, and alum to get rid of acne.
Cultural historian Tracey E. Robey wrote an article for Racked last year that traced acne cures from the Greeks and Romans all the way up through today. With the professionalization of medicine and the scientific revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, people came to understand that acne was completely harmless, but that didn’t stop them from concocting harsh compounds — including ingredients like potassium carbonate, hydrogen cyanide, and even mercury — to treat pimples.
Now the skin care industry is on track to surpass $130 billion in international sales in 2019, and it already makes up the largest component of the beauty industry, according to Forbes. Modern skin care has gone back to its ancient roots, offering up all kinds of natural and sometimes even edible solutions. There are countless Instagram and YouTube beauty bloggers (my personal favorite is Ingrid Nilsen) to instruct you in how to use all these products, and to show you how your skin could look if you do it all just right. This preoccupation with clear skin, once dismissed as “almost a waste of time” by Celsus, has now been fueled by the fires of capitalism to become a multibillion-dollar industry.
A friend divulges her own pimple-popping routine over lunch as if it were the story of an encounter with a lover: She takes a hot shower to open up the pores, pulls out two clean Q-tips, and goes to work in front of the mirror. She worries about scarring though, so sometimes she watches Youtube videos of doctors popping outsize pimples instead. A whole hour can disappear, consumed by the voyeuristic pleasure of watching someone else’s instant satisfaction.
Looking at her skin—the pop of color painted on her lips, mascared eyelashes clumping in the heat—I know she is beautiful. Who is here to tell her otherwise?
The more I talk to people, the more I begin to see that I am not alone. We all have guilty self-soothing grooming habits —from biting nails to pulling hair to picking skin around the fingers. It reminds me of the foster cat my girlfriend and I took in. She was so stressed out that she had licked her haunches clean of fur.
Living with my new girlfriend, I finally fall prey to the siren song of skin care. Maybe I picked, I wonder, because I didn’t have any other options. I test out the products that clutter our bathroom. A water mask at night to hydrate my face. Prescription-strength acne cream. SPF lotion. I still pick, though, and she tries to help break me of the habit by clapping her hands when she catches me in the act, as if I were the cat, scratching at the furniture. She is nothing like the first woman I dated, who blamed me — my face on her pillow, my greasy skin on her sheets — every time she got a pimple.
One night, the summer heat forcing my girlfriend and I to turn away from each other in bed, I find a cockroach next to the laundry hamper, its legs as big as fork tines. It lies motionless on its back, but I’ve been in this city long enough not to be fooled into thinking it’s dead. We sweep it into a transparent tupperware, and I watch its legs tumble before we flush it down the toilet.
I lay awake all night imagining it crawling back up the pipes. Should we have squashed it instead? Every breath of the wind could be a leg crawling up my arm. Panting, I rush into the bathroom, flick on the light, and stare down into the bowl. Nothing. Once again, I succumbed to my anxiety instead of choosing the long-term benefits of leaving my thoughts alone.
On my way back to bed, I catch my face in the mirror. There is the distinct rise of a pimple on my forehead, drawn out by the evening sweat. I instinctively pop it. In the dead of night, with no one around to witness the act, I don’t feel any shame. There’s no one to tell me to stop, or to see the puffy red spot on my face.
Every time I’ve tried to stop picking, I’ve always done it for those other pairs of eyes — for my mother, for the professional makeup artist, for my ex-girlfriend, even for my current girlfriend, who has tried so hard to give me the gift of skin care. Those shining faces on bottles of cleanser and moisturizer and in classical paintings promised that clear skin would be a beautiful achievement, but I could never see the effort required as anything more than what Celsus deemed it in ancient times: “almost a waste of time.”
But could I give up picking, if I did it for me? Maybe lost amid all those bottles, I had missed the hard-earned lesson my girlfriend was trying to share. Our skin is there for more than just appearances alone. It’s our biggest organ, protecting our insides from the dirt and bacteria of the world. Picking may let the anxiety out, but it also gives the bacteria a way in.
I remember the old Naomi Shihab Nye poem “Two Countries,” where skin itself becomes a poetic protagonist: “[S]kin felt / it was never seen, never known as / a land on the map, nose like a city, / hip like a city … Skin had hope, that’s what skin does. / Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.”
Perhaps it’s time to care for my skin simply because it is mine. It makes and carries me. I can’t promise that I’ll go cold turkey today or tomorrow or even next year, but I could pick less. I could care for my skin a little more. It’s not just a map of where I’ve been, but also a guide to where I’m going. ●