The primal appeal of pimple-popping videos: Our obsession with gross anatomy has deep roots

Woman Popping Pimple

(Credit: Iakov Filimonov via Shutterstock)

“OK. This is the craziest thing,” the man says in the video. He points to a curly tuft of hair, like a single nascent pube on his neck. “I’ve had this gigantic black mark on my face for months, and it looks like it’s literally a pound of hair.”

He then takes a tweezer — a pink, girly tweezer — and starts to pull. He pulls and pulls and pulls for a minute, until he’s fully extracted “like, a year of hair.” For the life of me, I cannot tell you why I am watching it. I am wincing in horror and disgust and yet I am still watching it.

I’m not alone, either. Since it was originally posted in 2014, that clip, by a guy who only calls himself “Joe Gross,” has been viewed on YouTube over 31 million times. To put that in perspective, only 26 million Americans watched the Rio Olympics‘ opening ceremonies. We humans really love our gross stuff.

As further evidence, consider the surprise viral star of the summer: that dark, hairy growth an Oklahoma woman painstakingly removed from her belly button in August. When she posted a video of the extraction on YouTube — complete with guttural screams of “Ewwwwwwwww!” — it became a worldwide news story.

And then there’s Dr. Sandra Lee, aka “Dr. Pimple Popper,” the California dermatologist who’s amassed more than 2 million Instagram followers and over 750 million YouTube views for her chronicles of extracting blackheads, cysts, lipomas and so much more. In a recent clip, she tenderly squeezes out some yellow pus and observes how it’s “like butter.” I can’t believe it’s not!

The phenomenon of body fascination and horror was not invented with YouTube. After all, we’ve tried to purge our zits and ear wax and insane belly button growths for the duration of our humanity. A 17th-century folk guide suggested taking “your first urine of the day on a white washcloth and patting it around the acne area.” The 1779 guide “The Toilet of Flora” offered a recipe for “an excellent water to clear the skin and take away pimples.”

We struggle with our icky body stuff and then strangely, we need to see what’s on that Q-tip. Biore’s entire ’90s-era ad campaign was about directly appealing to women’s need to see their recently extracted blackheads.

Our warts and growths and grossness have been a staple of art, fiction and nonfiction. The anatomical museums of Florence, Vienna and Budapest have for hundreds of years served as sources of both education and morbid fascination. Philadelphia’s famed Mütter Museum, part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, contains “wet specimens” like cysts and tumors, a jar of dried skin, a necklace of genital warts, and wax models — like one of a woman who grew a horn on her face. The facility can be rented out for events. For several years, it sold a popular calendar of photos from its collection. Would you like to see a photograph of its 74-pound cyst? It’s not out there because you don’t.

Yet the oddly cathartic modern phenomenon of extraction — or “popping” — videos does feel uniquely ideal for the short-form video audience. A popping clip is a story with dramatic tension and resolution, often all in the span of mere seconds. And Gainesville, Florida, psychiatrist Dr. Andrew J. Pierce understands the curiosity from a unique perspective — his wife is an aspiring dermatology nurse practitioner.

Pierce says that she “loves those videos — and they gross me out. Their ability to create such strong emotional responses is fascinating. . . . The most common way I see one of these pimple popping videos is at night, we’re in bed, I roll over. . . . and look over her shoulder. So I’m not prepared.”

Continues Pierce: “I think the emotion it elicits for her is different. A lot of people talk about disgust or repulsion; she finds it intriguing and satisfying. There’s healing occurring; there’s the extraction of something bad from inside the body to outside the body. She sees the therapeutic side.” Stands to reason.

In an interview with Daniel Tosh earlier this year, Dr. Sandra Lee said, “A lot of people like these videos because they relax them. . . . I think it makes people happy.”

Pierce theorizes that the allure of these videos is almost primal. “A lot of the neurocircuits in our brain are, for want of a better term, holdovers,” he says. “We still have this part of our brain that triggers disgust and repulsion that’s led us to do great things, like recognize inedible objects and have better sanitation. . . . Now we’re more or less protected. These videos, in a safe way, are kind of tapping into that. . . . Disgust and fear are two separate but closely aligned things. . . . These videos are eliciting similar emotions.”

Anna Rothschild, a journalist and host of “Gross Science” on “Nova” who spends much of her career mucking about exploring the realm of poo and slime and bugs, has some other ideas, too. “My feeling is there’s this element of voyeurism that is deeply satisfying, and part of it is because in our daily lives we aren’t allowed to express the gross side of ourselves.”

Rothschild notes, “We go to great lengths to try to not be be disgusting creatures. We try not to do the things animals do. We don’t poop in public. It’s considered unsavory to spit on the street. . . . But in truth they’re natural parts of life. We do have to poop, and we have saliva in our mouths, and sometimes we have gases that need to be released. Watching gross things allows us to experience this natural side of life without engaging in it. That’s my idea.”

Yet one person’s mesmerizing clip is another’s oh hell no. On her site, Rothschild has a video of a tonsil stone extraction that she calls “one of the most revolting pieces of footage I’ve ever seen.” Yet while she describes it as “deeply horrifying,” because “the idea that it’s something lurking in there that I’d have no control over is really unsettling,” I find the same clip borderline satisfying.

The extraction is so clean, so decisive, so free of pus or hair. It just pops out like a little tooth. It’s the more . . . liquid videos that make me want to hurl. I also remain horrifically baffled at those clips of foul things that have quite clearly been lingering within a person’s body for an inordinate amount of time. Have these YouTubers’ friends and families been spending years avoiding looking at their EGG-SIZED CYSTS?

All I know that I have learned from researching this story while shrieking “Oh God no whyyyyyyyy?” repeatedly at my computer screen is that there’s an obvious reason I never went to medical school.

Ultimately, Anna Rothschild wonders if perhaps part of the allure of these videos is “because grooming is such an innate thing that we do. And removing something from their body that’s unhealthy is almost tapping into this deep grooming desire we have.” There’s got to be something to it because if you want to watch “massive and nasty” ear wax removed or the “world’s worst” blisters draining, you will find yourself in the company of millions of other viewers.

And maybe it just comes down to, as Rothschild suggests, “There’s something satisfying about seeing people purifying themselves.”

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