Ode to the Pimple

It was a cold February morning when I was on my way to Amsterdam from Haarlem station. Like any other person commuting by train, I normally keep my business to myself but this time I was distracted by the guy sitting in front of me. It was a Spanish tourist who was browsing through his Hollandia guidebook and occasionally folded the corner of the page that seemed to interest him. At first I didn’t notice it but, when he turned his head to the window, admiring the mist hanging over the gloomy Dutch polder landscape, there it was; a blackhead, proudly sticking out on the edge of his olive skin chin. When he caught me staring at him, I resumed reading A Picture of Dorian Grey but all I could think about was “Was that a hair I saw growing out? When is he going to pop it? Or is he going to ask someone else to do it? If so, who is the lucky bastard that gets to see what comes out?”

Sorry for being so graphic. I’m afraid my fascination for pimples is hereditary. I remember my puberty as being haunted by the hands of my grandmother who took every single weekend visit as an opportunity to hunt for spots on my hormone corroded teenage face. I am sure it was because she loved me, but also 30% because she couldn’t help herself. “God, that one is huge. You really need to get rid of that. Want me to pop it? No, wait it’s not ready yet. Here, put some toothpaste on it so it will dry out.”

Now, after years of popping sessions with my grandma, I’m afraid to say that the pimple’s magnetism has affected me as well. For me there is nothing more relaxing than watching someone pop a dilated pore that has been harvesting human skin on someone’s back for several years. There’s no kink or fetish, or anything sexual going on here. The satisfaction from seeing pimples being extracted is like peeling off the plastic from a new phone, the first stroke of fresh paint on a wall, or crunching leaves. It’s not about the pus or fluid that comes free from the popping itself, but rather the relief of seeing someone being cleansed from the unwanted residues of the human body. Pimple-shame me all you want but at least it keeps me off the streets and God knows there are grosser things on the internet.

A classic in the pimple popping genre is “Operation Kill George”, a 10 minute video backed with dramatic music from Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows part 1 that shows the removal of George the giant Cyst[1]. The camerawork is exceptionally bad; the angle is wrong and gloved hands repeatedly block the view of George’s eruption to the annoyance of the people in the comment section. In spite of this, George has over 24 million views on YouTube. “Everyone got their safety glasses on?” jokes the dermatologist before terminating George from the back of its host.

So I am not the only one. Another star in the pimple popping community is dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee (aka “Dr. Pimple Popper”) who currently has over 2.2 million subscribers on YouTube. Her “educational” channel shows us a window to her pimple popping world through recorded sessions with superhero titles such as “Superpop Cysts! 2017 Edition”, “Fat-tastic Lipoma”, and “Booty Cyst Returns!”. One of her latest videos is a St. Patrick’s Day Special, a compilation of quick pops that are heralded by Irish Folk music. The videos are narrated by Dr. Sandra Lee’s soothing voice, who talks about her children’s fascination with Pokémon Go while removing a 10cm cyst, and has occasional “nerd fits” over unexpectedly found in-grown hairs. The compassion for her clients and her inexhaustible Californian cheerfulness make for a relaxing and calming experience. When patients timidly ask to see the insides of a cyst, she answers with an excited “of course!”, before slicing the cyst she just surgically removed in half.

Why is such a large group of people attracted to this kind of  stuff? Daniel Kelly author of Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust argues that, evolutionarily speaking, repulsion and disgust has kept us away from the dangers of contagious diseases or infection. And so “something you find disgusting”, he claims in an interview with Salon[2], “will definitely capture your attention because we’re quite sensitized to them”. Yet, this explanation suggests a sensation-seeking drive behind the video’s popularity but, like I mentioned before, it is not really the gore that makes me watch “Return of the Cyst” over and over again.

Someone mentioned to me that she likes to watch these videos right before she goes to sleep and I, too, often find myself stuck in a loop of blackhead pops during exam periods because they are so relaxing. In The Guardian Dr. Sandra Lee writes via email that some of her viewers mention ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) which is a pleasurable tingling sensation, a so-called “braingasm”, experienced in response to certain sights, sounds, touches, and smells. The whispering, finger tapping, and scratching of ASMR videos is on a different side of the “How did I end up here”/ “I can’t believe I’m watching this” spectrum on YouTube but is similar in affective responses and popularity. “I agree that there is something hypnotic about pimple popping,” Dr. Sandra Lee writes, “Sometimes when I upload my own videos I find myself watching certain parts over and over.” [3]

My love for the pimple is difficult to describe. Yes I find it relaxing but it doesn’t give me a “braingasm”, nor can my fascination be reduced to the desire for sensation. It’s more than that. When watching an amateur pimple popping video, I cannot help but find it heart-warming to see a family gathering around the removal of a giant cyst on the back of one of the uncles. I find the idea that a family is comfortable, accepting, and loving enough to look each other in the eye after having witnessed what comes out of uncle John’s lump quite endearing.

For me it was a friend who introduced me to Dr. Sandra Lee pimple videos. We were having a sleepover and were watching Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It wasn’t until the mines of Moria that my friend noticed the pigment spots and tiny blackheads on Gandalf’s nose. Had my grandmother been part of the fellowship, Gandalf wouldn’t have set a foot outside of Rivendell without the impressions of her fingernails on his nose. Shyly my friend asked, “Do you like pimple videos?” I responded “Yes” at which she ecstatically exclaimed “Me too!” and showed me the world of Dr. Pimple Popper. We didn’t finish the movie but revelled in the communal enjoyment of “the disgusting”, both knowing that through the discovery of our shared quirks, our friendship had reached a new level.   

[1] Naming cysts is not uncommon in the genre.

[2] http://www.salon.com/2011/07/24/disgust_interview/

[3]https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/apr/30/cyst-popping-explosion-pimple-popping-extraction-behind-community

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