Ok. So you may not be used to hearing the words erotic or fetish in a sentence with zits and popping, but that is surprising. In the world of psychoanalytic theory, where it is quite normative to consider all the ways the body eliminates and evacuates its contents, zit and pimple popping are noticeably absent.
It is common analytic fodder to consider bowel movements, indigestive issues, and bladder pressure. We identify periods of development by areas of the body that fluids and substance enter and exit; namely oral, anal and genital. We link bowel issues to toilet training and themes of emotional control. We notice when clients need to urinate in the middle of sessions as a sign of psychological pressure. We analysis dreams about ice cream cones as desire for the maternal breast.
So you may have wished you didn’t need to know how much some of us psychotherapist care about how you poop and pee and breast or bottle feed and how we might wonder if a cigarette or cigar are symbolically linked to a wish to suckle on a breast or fixation on penises. I am sorry, but it is true. And given that, how is it we don’t think about pimple popping.
If you aren’t a popaholic, you definitely know one. If it wasn’t you, you have certainly seen someone hovering over some poor soul’s blemish, with excitement pulsing through their veins, saliva in their mouth, promising to make it quick, and then making some kind of moan or groan of satisfaction when the blemish releases its contents.
YouTube Popping Evidence
If somehow you have escaped this experience in life, google zit popping. Really. You will see hundreds of videos with millions of hits of people who have uploaded videos of their zits being popped, or of them excising someone else’s pimple. Watch the videos with the sound on. It is the only way to appreciate the erotic, sensual, enthusiastic pleasure of the poppers. Sometimes a whole group of people are watching, with squeals of delight. In fact, click here for a video of a guy using his popular YouTube channel to share his reactions to videos of pimple popping (contains lots of profanity).
In fact certain dermatologists, whether they are erotically driven fetishist themselves or not, have turned videos of their medical procedures into a highly profitable revenue stream with YouTube channels like Dr. Pimple Poppers who has the number of subscribers and viewers a network TV show would be pleased to have.
The comments section of these videos are filled with questions about why so many of us are fascinated, riveted, compelled by and driven to watch these videos. They are filled with self-flagellations at deriving pleasure from such a revolting source. They rhetorically ask “why do I love watching these”?! I have often joked with friends that my first professional analytic article will be on this topic. I am not ready for that level of research and inquiry just yet, but here is my first playful stab at this topic.
First: A Definition of Terms
Fetish: a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc.
Erotic: relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement.
Symbol: conventional representation of an object, function, or process
Zit: Pimple, cyst, blemish, blackhead, whitehead, boil, abscess, pustule, etc.
Also, for Purposes of Clarity, A Differential Diagnosis
I am not exploring the painful version of obsession-compulsive disorders that includes a fixation of finding “imperfections” on one’s own body to “eliminate”. While attention to blemishes is part of the activity, it includes none of the joy and excitement, but is rather filled with stress and suffering.
I am also not talking about self-mutilation, which can use “damaged” parts of the body, and includes a fair amount of relief upon excising an area of the body, it is not playful, and is driven by terrible emotional pain, versus the sight of a juicy zit.
Who are the Popaholics? The Unofficial Demographic
In my informal study of friends and video voices, it would seem woman are more interested in popping than men. By a huge percentage. With a much smaller test group, I would say gay men are a close second. Heterosexual men seem to sometimes appreciate the evacuation of a particularly large or explosive cyst or zit, but are not particularly interested in being the poppers or driven to watch videos of them. My informal study group numbers for trans, gender queer and non-binary folks is too small to identify a pattern. Also unable to attest to a pattern distinguishing hetero, homo and bi women.
Why do we do it? 2 Considerations (Hardly Theories Yet)!
Okay, so I am hoping we agree already that there are lots and lots of people a bit obsessed with zit popping. And that their anticipation at squeezing a pimple is a level and type of desire that doesn’t look that different from someone seeing a very sexy picture of someone they wish they could touch, with accompanying effusive language of excitement. And that during and after popping, someone hearing the moans and groans of satisfaction from the next room might think someone was having sex.
I am well aware that penis envy is an unfavorable theory in general, and truth be told, I also don’t think it is particularly key or core, certainly not as much as Freud and even most contemporary Freudians believe. I have seen some female clients who display unconscious evidence of penis envy, which to be clear, certainly doesn’t mean they literally want a penis. (I have also seen symbolic womb envy in men, and more concretely, envy of breasts capable of feeding infants).
I think zit popping is an expression of penis envy. It seems clear, emotionally, and symbolically, that it has something to do with penises, clitorises and ejaculations. There. I said it. Are you with me popaholics? There is definitely a build-up of tension during the act of excision and when the pimple explodes, resulting in verbal sounds of satisfying relief. Remember, we are thinking symbolically.
I once had a dream that I had a pimple on my cheek, and upon squeezing it, a penis came out. Yes, it was kind of a gross dream. But penises and snakes are also often symbolically representing power and it was definitely a dream about me attempting to access/galvanize my power.
There is something so clear and concrete and satisfying about men’s orgasmic ejaculations. Sure, as woman we also have very satisfying orgasms, but they are rarely so clear and concrete. I think that is why women are more likely to get into the whole pimple popping thing…men already get to have that experience.
Management of Psychic Internal Badness/Ugliness
It is of course notable, that while there are moans and groans and squeals of delight for popaholics when they pop a zit, there are also lots of shouts and declarations of grossness, disgust, and repulsion that are not common in relation to sexual pleasure.
There are many ways people symbolically dispel unwanted internal objects/feelings/experiences/memories. There are well known examples such as the purge in bulimia, which those who struggle with disorder describe as moving them from feeling filled with horrible feelings to feeling empty of feelings. Those who self-harm through activities like cutting themselves also describe a release of internal pressure. But there are lots of other ways people do this, like “sweating it out”, that are less pathologized and perhaps less harmful, but serve a similar unconscious function of symbolically expelling something from the body.
There is a great theorist, Adam Phillips, who in discussing phobias in a delightful book of analytic essays, suggests that individuals select, unconsciously, a phobia based on the frequency they need to release fear and anxiety. So for instance your unconscious would choose spiders over snakes if you needed to disperse fear and anxiety more often, as you would be more likely to see spiders on a regular basis than snakes. Further, he suggested that both those phobias would additionally allow someone to create a moment of fear evacuation at any time, as we could simply imagine that we had seen a spider or snake out of the corner of our eye, versus something like a phobia of heights, which would require and encounter with a height, or if needed, a dream.
So that long layout is to tell this about my own external and internal world. In my own external world, there really aren’t a lot of zits around. I don’t produce hardly any myself, my partners over the years have produced a few here and there, but were not big fans of me getting my rocks off by squeezing their pimples. Nowadays YouTube provides access to the experience of pimple popping. But what is interesting to me, is that before the days of YouTube, I would just imagine popping a zit. Really. I know. It seems so absurd and so gross that I would literally day dream about popping a really good zit.
When I would engage in this bizarre, but perhaps not uncommon, day dream, I would attempt to analyze my goals. I am a psychoanalytic psychotherapist after all. I couldn’t identify a particularly ugly/gross internal experience I was attempting to evacuate (which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there because once you are involved in an symbolic enactment, in this case in the form of a day dream) but I was also particularly stressed out, particularly tense and tension filled. A good fantasy zit popping would successfully serve as a release of some of that tension.
Feedback Needed. Obviously.
Alright. This was only my first stab at this. Thank you for the indulgence. I want comments. Lots and lots of comments. Tell me what you think. Does any of this resonate for you? Other thoughts about what this might symbolically represent? Please tell me and I will follow this article up integrating peoples’ ideas.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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