In grossness and in health

Psycho-dermatology, female gorillas, and why women love to pick their boyfriends' zits.

Published August 11, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

"One of the signs that a female gorilla is in love is that she can be seen picking nits off her male companion." So said "Sex and the City's" Carrie Bradshaw in a recent episode of the hit HBO series. Although these words of wisdom -- written by SATC staff writers Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky -- were being used as a metaphor for overly critical women, they nonetheless touched on an issue I've been wondering about for a while. Namely, why exactly women love to pick at their partners. And I mean picking, in the literal -- not metaphorical -- sense. As in: skin, hair and nails. As in: popping, squeezing, sloughing, scraping, trimming. No one admits to it (unless, well, pressed) but almost everyone does it.

Julia M., a 25-year-old architectural designer in southern Connecticut (who, like most of the women interviewed for this article, asked that her full name not be used) has been involved in a serious relationship with her computer-programmer boyfriend, Dave, 23, for the past two years, a union that includes cooking, cats, and lots of picking. Although Julia also directs her picking behaviors at her own skin (particularly her face), she finds going after her boyfriend's blemishes, facial hair and yes, even toenails, supremely satisfying. "It's difficult to explain, but picking at Dave and removing his blackheads or ingrown hairs makes me feel like I've done something useful ... something good." Other women concur. "It's like you're fixing something, getting some sort of closure," says Gail (not her real name), 32, a fiction writer living with her boyfriend Peter in Brooklyn. Adds Rebecca D., 32, the general manager of an upscale sex-toy retailer in the Pacific Northwest: "I feel that by squeezing his blemishes I'm eradicating some sort of fault, cleaning him up, fixing him and making him more perfect."

To the uninitiated (and even many of the initiated themselves), inclinations such as Julia's, Gail's and Rebecca's might sound like grotesque, obsessive fetishes, but such behavior is in reality perfectly normal, say cultural anthropologists and primate specialists. Helen Fisher, author of the bestselling "Anatomy of Love: Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray" explains that, among hunter-gatherer societies, the brains and physiques of females are simply better at the fine motor-coordination necessary for good grooming (and other skills such as berry-picking and textile-making). "In primate societies, females groom more than males: their children, their relatives and individuals that they are going to copulate with," she says. "And they'll do it for hours." Fisher speculates that, in addition to promoting cleanliness, grooming serves as a way for women to connect to a man and keep him, because touch involves increased levels of oxytocin, a hormone long associated with attachment (it goes into overdrive after a woman gives birth, for example, the better to bond with her baby).

Dr. Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool and the author of "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language," says that the chief manner in which primates regulate their relationships with one another is through grooming, whereas we more evolved humans rely on verbal and written language. "Relationships are negotiations and we use many devious ways and wiles to get close to members of the opposite sex," he laughs. "At the end of the day, grooming and language are part and parcel of the armory we have to facilitate and build relationships." Language, he says, is "a very inefficient mechanism in terms of making the social wheel go 'round. Grooming is a much more powerful way of conveying a sort of emotional state; nothing you can say verbally can compare with what you say through touch."

What exactly, though, are we trying to "say" when we engage in blemish picking and hair pulling of others? Experts in the fields of psychiatry and psychology (who refer to such behavior as "psychogenic" or "neurotic excoriation") differ on this issue. "At the most superficial level, all of us have a fantasy that if we pick these things off, we are improving ourselves and others," says one prominent Philadelphia-based dermatologist/psychoanalyst who asked not to be named. "And I think it's part of the care-taking aspect of women's personalities: It's like how people are fussy about putting their children in nice clothes; picking at others to make them blemish-free is a sort of narcissistic extension of the self." This same doctor also wonders whether there isn't some sort of ritualistic/purification element at play, and hints at issues of sadomasochism. Just as obsessive-compulsives engage in rituals such as hand washing in order to master their anxiety, picking may be a "rather soothing thing in a frenetic life." In addition, she adds, "Although there are no studies behind this sort of behavior that I'm aware of, I do wonder if these sorts of pickers aren't just transferring the pleasure of picking at themselves to some other person in a sort of sadistic fondling."

Dr. Fred Penzel, a psychologist and expert on dermatological obsessive-compulsive disorders such as trichotillomania (compulsive hair-pulling), laughs off psychoanalytic theories and the experts who espouse them. "The field of psycho-dermatology has gone nowhere," he scoffs. "It's just a bunch of people trying to come up with psycho-sexual interpretations of why people do this sort of stuff. It's all symbolism with them, like interpreting poems and literature. In psychology we sort of look at the whole picture, both behavioral and biological, and believe that these compulsive behaviors are neurobiological and maybe even genetic." One theory that Penzel is pushing lately is that people use certain grooming behaviors as means to calm themselves during times of stress or anxiety or to provide focus while feeling bored or sedentary. Although these behaviors are most often self-directed, they are sometimes also performed on other people, even animals and objects. "Of course I've had patients who mention that they pick at their spouses. I also know people who pull threads out of clothing and furniture, or whiskers and fur out of their pets," says Penzel. He adds that there is scant research on such other-directed groomers. "People don't talk about these sorts of things."

What is known, even without reams of research, is that imperfections and blemishes on the skin are highly fascinating. Dunbar, the evolutionary psychologist, says that most primate species are "absolutely enthralled by" blemishes, moles, and other flaws on the skin. Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist with Emory University's Yerkes Primate Center, likens a primate's desire to pick at the skin as just as instinctual as his appetite for food and sex. "If I have a scab on my hand, for example, I have to keep it out of the reach of the chimps because they will start smacking their lips and focusing their attention on it because they want to get at it," he says. Our human counterparts can get just as excited, he adds. "I've heard of women talk about [picking at others] as an almost orgasmic experience," he says. Indeed, one woman writing in New York-based Vice magazine's January 2002 issue (in an article titled the "ABC's of Guilty Pleasures") explained that she had to promise sexual favors to her boyfriend in order to get access to his blemished back, then went on to say that the practice of squeezing his blemishes was "one step lower than an orgasm."

The, ahem, symbolism of pressing out sebaceous material from a pore in the skin is hard to ignore. "If a woman is squeezing something and there's material coming out of the skin, surely a sexual similarity is in play," says the dermatologist/psychoanalyst from Philadelphia. "There is an undeniable buildup of tension and undoubtedly an orgasmic component to the release. I've even had nurses who admit they really 'get off' on removing blackheads." Pimple-squeezing can even get in the way of actual sex, says Julia M. "I will say that Dave and I have had to stop having sex before because I've become so obsessed with getting a pimple," she confesses. "We'll be in the midst of foreplay and I'll see something on his face and become fixated. I can't stop looking, and I can't think about anything else." One magazine-writing colleague of mine, Nanette (not her real name), 32, admits that with one ex-boyfriend, she was more interested in picking at his back than in having sex with him. "I jumped on his back with a certain zeal and enthusiasm that I can't say I had with regards to sex." (She still misses the pimples, although she's now involved with a blemish-free boyfriend). As Dr. Brad Katchen, a dermatologist and founder of the hip Manhattan spa SkinCareLab delicately put it, "Perhaps there's a playful sort of gratification in the extraction ... the mechanical process of release is kind of just, you know, fun." So fun, in fact, that some pickers have become professionals in the process. Nina Gromov, 52, an aesthetician for the Le Boe Day Spa in Coral Gables, Fla., admits that she got into the business of blemishes because of her love of "extractions." "Ah, yes, I love picking and I've always loved it," she says excitedly. "My grandmother had a lot of blackheads and hairs and I just loved to pick on her skin and back. It was my dream to become an aesthetician and work with skin, and I love what I'm doing." Gromov adds that most of her friends in the skin care business have been passionately picking at others since childhood.

If, unlike the picking enthusiasts quoted above, you're not turned on by blackheads and whiteheads, you're not alone. Many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who heard about this story reacted with swift and damning derision, peppering my e-mail inbox with comments like "Gross!", "SICKO!" and "I am totally revolted." ("This must be a joke," wrote one ex-porn star I correspond with sometimes. "Oh my god!" e-mailed an editor. "You is nasty," complained an art director, who then contradicted herself by adding, "Don't forget peeling sunburned skin ... it's just as fun!"). Even the women who knew what I was "getting at," so to speak, expressed a sense of shame with regard to picking and pulling (the word "guilty" popped up time and time again). "Being quoted about this grosses me out for some reason," said a 31-year-old New York law student. "Please change my identity to protect my insanity," said another, who went on to describe in excruciating detail just how she takes a Tweezerman to her hirsute honey's shoulders and back.

Although they couldn't articulate exactly from where their sense of shame stems, pickers had plenty to say about why they do what they do, and the majority alluded to the intimacy of the act. "Dave is the first guy I've trusted enough to reveal what I consider to be a gross compulsion," says Julia M. "I certainly felt the desire to do it on other men, but I didn't because I didn't know them well enough. And the fact that I can do it to Dave and he won't reject me, that he accepts that I do it, makes me feel really loved." It's as much about loving as being loved, say other women. "When you're in love, nothing about the other person's body is gross, including their blemishes," says Gail, the fiction writer. "They are kind of an extension of yourself." Jackie, a 35-year-old health care marketer on Long Island, says that the picking of her partner (now husband) began within the first year of the relationship while the couple cuddled and stroked one another (she came across an ingrown hair in his beard). "Paul was my first, very serious close relationship," she says. "And I haven't picked at anyone else, except my mother, when I was young."

As one expert intimated, such intimacy involves a certain amount of manhandling and possessiveness. Gail says that she enjoys her live-in boyfriend's submissiveness with regard to her picking, which she usually initiates in bed. "I'll tell him to turn one way or another, and he'll comply and even keep on reading while I pick," she giggles. "I feel kind of proprietary towards him, like 'this is my person, and I get to pick at him!'" Some guys even -- gasp! -- enjoy the once-overs. "My ex used to [pick] all the time," says a 30-something acquaintance named Philip, a technology consultant in New York. "Most of the time, I thought it was hilarious, and I actually appreciated it because she was really good at it. My skin has certainly gone downhill since we broke up." Biore-Strip-aficionado John Halcyon Styn, 32, a Web developer from Southern California, says that blemish-picking is evidence of a significant stage of intimacy in a relationship. "Skin blemishes are in the same family of horrific, embarrassing things, like peeing with the door open, that you can only go through with an intimate partner," he says, adding that although he loves it when a girlfriend picks at him, "it's nowhere near as satisfying as getting at it yourself."

By Anna Holmes

Anna Holmes is a writer and editor in New York; her first book, "Hell Hath No Fury: Women's Letters from the End of the Affair", was published last fall in hardcover and will be published in paperback by Ballantine Books in February 2003.

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