The Skin We’re In: Because sometimes beauty really is skin deep.
Dr. Pimple Popper’s new reality show starts this week, a piece of information that tends to divide people pretty cleanly into two opposing categories: There are the ones who shudder a little bit and wonder, silently or aloud, how anyone could stand to watch that kind of thing without getting nauseous – and then there are the ones who are really, really excited about the prospect of seeing a dermatologist pop a bunch of big, juicy zits.
Even for members of that latter camp, though, the reasons behind their enjoyment can feel a little mysterious: Everyone agrees that this is supposed to be gross, so what is it about you that you also find it … fun? Below, a few reasons to explain why you can handle — even enjoy — watching blackhead squeezing, ingrown hair plucking, and all the other cringe-y characters in the wild world of gross-out skin-care videos.
You have your own gross habits.
Researchers who study disgust will often use a measure called “disgust sensitivity,” which measures, well, how sensitive you are to to disgust — not how easily you get grossed out, but how intensely you feel the emotion when it comes, and how much it bothers you.
Importantly, though, disgust sensitivity isn’t a blanket emotion; you can have it in abundance in certain contexts and barely any in others. “It’s not always that you have sort of a global squeamishness,” says Daniel Kelly, a philosophy professor at Purdue University and the author of Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. “Some people have high disgust sensitivity with respect to foods but not with respect to dog crap.”
And one thing that influences your own particular squeamishness triggers is exposure. Part of that is cultural: If you rarely encounter something because you live in a society that’s deemed it disgusting — say, eating horse meat — you’re going to have a higher disgust sensitivity to it. But on a more micro level, our disgust sensitivity is also shaped by family environments, norms within our smaller social circles, and our own daily routines and private behaviors.
If you’re fine with something like pimple-popping videos, then, it might be because you’ve already become desensitized to those images by picking at your own skin in day-to-day life, says Dean McKay, a psychology professor at Fordham University who studies disgust. Watching pus come out of someone else’s skin is inherently grosser than watching it come out of your own, but if you’ve seen the latter enough times, your disgust for the former can start to fade, too — and in its place, you feel only the same satisfaction you’d get from squeezing your own zits.
You’re less neurotic.
In this case, we’re talking about neuroticism the way personality researchers do, as one of the “Big Five” personality traits (the other four are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience). Neuroticism — a tendency toward negative emotions — has been linked to anxiety and moodiness, and multiple studies have also found a connection between higher levels of the trait and high disgust sensitivity. Neuroticism doesn’t necessarily deserve the bad rap it gets sometimes, but a lack of it does open doors in terms of the things you can watch online without squirming.
You get pleasure out of feeling bad.
In a 2013 study in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, a team of psychologists unpacked a concept they called “benign masochism,” or deriving pleasure from small jolts of emotions and sensations that we’d avoid in larger doses: sad songs and movies, the terror of riding a roller coaster, the burn of spicy food or the hurts-so-good pain of stretching sore muscles. One key component to keeping it benign, they explained, was “the context of feeling safe, or pleasure at ‘mind over body’” — you can enjoy what’s happening because you know it won’t really hurt you.
Or, as Kelly puts it, “You’re sealed from the danger. You get the emotional voltage for free.” Disgust is a protective emotion, he explains, that helps us to avoid things that could make us sick, like rotten food or other people’s bodily fluids. If your benign masochism takes the form of watching the latter explode toward a camera on YouTube, it’s only because you know none of it will actually hit you that you’re able to enjoy the experience.
You crave stimulation.
As for that “emotional voltage” Kelly described — one of the same studies that found a positive correlation between disgust sensitivity and neuroticism also found a negative one between disgust and sensation seeking, a psychological term for the enjoyment of novelty and emotional arousal. It makes sense: If everything grosses you out, you’ll want your world to stay smaller, cleaner, and more familiar. If, on the other hand, you need excitement or novelty to feel good, you’re going to have to be a lot more tolerant of a lot more things that could otherwise disgust you.
While there’s not a ton of other research out there on the connection, seeking out gross images to consume seems just a stone’s throw away from enjoying horror movies, which has been linked more strongly to sensation seeking. “An analogy I always go back to is fear,” Kelly says. “Physically, there’s this emotional frisson there. It’s certainly more exciting than sort of your dull baseline. People go out of their way to go to scary movies or go on roller coasters, things which are designed to activate these emotions.”
And it’s a “plausible hypothesis,” he says, that the same psychological process is at work with people actively trying to feel disgust in order to feel something. Which is fine! We all do different things to feel alive, and this one happens to be cheaper and more accessible than most. And if no one you know has the same opinions about pimple-popping, it’s still not hard to find a like-minded community: The internet abounds with people who love it just as much.