The ritual goes a little like this. Once or twice a month I jump into my little bathroom expectantly and greet my face in the mirror. In the private sanctuary of this intimate space, I examine my skin under a soft amber bulb. The lighting here is gentle and welcoming, but the action I want to perform on my vision is anything but. I choose a soft spatula and use it to smear a greyish pink goo all over my face. I take a long look at my reflection, sparkle with product and promise, and I wait.
It does not take long before the fun begins.
As it settles into the budding crevices dug by years of smiles and frowns, the repentant goo begins its period of torture and my whole face screams in alarm. It’s burning and I love it. It hurts and I enjoy it. But why?
I am hardly the only person who reaches out for an extremely unpleasant skin care product rather than a benevolent cream that demands nothing of my ability to endure. And honestly, I do not even know if my painful mask works or not, despite my apparent monastic devotion to it. What I do know is that the disorder somehow makes it feel like it works and that the pain makes me feel better in the process.
The science of pain and the way it affects guilt helps explain the appeal of aversive skin care. I love my hard facials because they feel like fine, a deliberate act of earning forgiveness for every time I sewed unprotected in the sun. But the lure also lies in the fact that when we endure some pain to achieve something, our mind assigns extra value to the result. The name of these deliberately painful experiences –masochism– brings all the baggage to the beginning of the word as a sexual paraphilia. But even beyond skin care, masochism is normal and pervasive, and understanding it is an important step in the process of destigmatizing a common human practice.
In a study from 2011 published in Psychological science By examining the relationship between pain and reconciliation, researchers asked study participants to write about one of two things: an example of rejecting or excluding another person or a harmless interaction. Afterwards, they completed a survey on how guilty they felt. Then the funny part: They had to stick their whole hand in ice water for as long as they could stand. Some of them anyway. Control group got room temperature, the bastards.
The researchers found that the people who wrote about their guilty memory kept their hands in the ice water longer, rated the ice water as more painful than the others, and experienced a significant reduction in guilt afterwards. Read it again. The culprits took more pain, said it hurt more and felt less guilty after. To explain this, the authors refer to DB Morris’ book, The culture of pain, which maintains that “traditionally has traditionally been understood as physical physical, but it is more accurate to describe it as the intersection of body, mind and culture.” This mindset claims that humans make sense of pain, and Dr. Brock Bastian, one of the study’s authors, argues that humans are socialized from birth to accept pain within a court’s criminal model.
“I think it’s more a relationship between pain and justice. Persistent pain can feel as if it gives a sense of justice and a form of self-punishment, ”says Bastian, noting that the embodiment of punishment to varying degrees can be linked to penance. It is not that people explicitly say to themselves, ‘I punish myself with pain’, but rather [they are] go for a hard run or do something that is strenuous and fulfilling that needs to restore justice through punishment. As Bastian says in the newspaper, “History is full of examples of ritualized or self-inflicted pain aimed at achieving purification.”
In the case of skin care, the feeling of justice arises when we feel we have done more serve the effects of our painful creams and microneedles. The pain also gives us a taste of reconciliation through self-punishment, which makes us pay for all the offenses we have committed against our skin: days without sunscreen, cigarette smoke, forced picking, sleeping in makeup. And when we pay for our dermatological sins, we get a taste of the sweet, sweet absolution.
But my attraction to masochistic skin care is not just about guilt. Something else is happening, something that relates to ways people create and experience value. “If something hurts, it can create a sense of value or efficiency,” Bastian explains. In general, the effort for things increases our perception of their value, “so by using skin care products that are average and hurt a little, it probably falls into our perception that they are doing something.”