When I was a young girl and my parents left me home alone, my idea of a good time was to open up the dishwasher mid-cycle and put my face down in the steam. I imagined that this must be what it felt like to go to the spa. Now I’m older and I have been to a spa exactly one time, but I found that it paled in comparison to my old dishwasher-steam facial because at a real spa you have to get naked and lay bare on the table with all your body’s imperfections.
These days there is no dishwasher in my apartment to stop mid-cycle, but you might occasionally catch me lingering over a pot of boiling water for a bit longer than necessary. Somewhere along the lines, though, I mostly stopped luxuriating in steam, no longer taking the time to breathe it in deeply and notice the cool condensation it leaves on my skin after I’ve pulled away. Instead, most nights, I stand over the sink and wash my face with near-scalding water while my husband Nathan tiptoes around me brushing his teeth. When he’s ready to spit, I step aside so he can use the sink and I lean over to examine my face at close range in the mirror. Usually we’ll chat for a moment here before he, with his unblemished skin, retires to bed without even bothering to moisturize.
In his poem “To One Waiting to Be Born,” Malachi Black wrote, “…you will spoil like a plum, but still / wash every day and wash again the rancid blemish that your body has become.” The perfectionist in me despairs at the thought of decay, but still I rejoice to read this because washing every day is something I could do with exactness, and this is extremely rare. The things a person can truly be perfect at in life are few and far between. But a person could be perfect at washing her face.
However, I am bad at perfectionism. I’m the kind of perfectionist whose aspirations for excellence stem from a masochistic impulse. It seems I derive as much satisfaction out of being disappointed in myself as I would in achieving actual perfection. Some days are so long that, at the end of them, I don’t even have the energy for the simple act of washing my face, and I retire to bed with the makeup and muck from the day still on me. When I wake the next morning, I feel like a spoiled plum, and something inside me laughs while I grumble in front of the mirror.
I’m not sure why I do this. It’s not as if I didn’t have good face-washing role models growing up. Being the youngest child in a large family means that as far back as I can remember, I had older sisters in high school who set a fine example of proper skincare. Not to mention my mother, whose bedtime routine is well established and regulated—right down to the silky robe she wears and the creams she uses. Even my brothers washed their faces before bed, rubbing solutions on their skin with cotton rounds. My mom, my brothers, and my sisters each washed their faces with a certain orthodoxy that I could never manage.
A few years ago, before I married Nathan, I studied abroad in Paris for three months. While there I met a handsome, young Parisian American with a well-groomed beard, who took me to upscale restaurants where, after the meal, the servers brought out platters with twenty different kinds of cheese to choose from. On our first date, we walked around Paris all night, our path taking us along the Seine and up the stairs of the Bibliothèque Nationale before walking back through honey-lit cobblestone streets in search of a crêpe stand still open at 4am. By the time I got home, I had only enough energy to throw myself into bed without a single thought for removing my makeup or contacts. The next day we went out again, this time to get macarons at Ladurée. From there we walked a short distance to La Madeleine and sat on the steps of the old church looking out at the city. We bantered about which flavor of chocolate macaron was superior and finally settled on doing a blind taste test.
“Here, close your eyes,” he said, and he leaned in to place the confection on my tongue, his hands brushing my lips as he did. And I think he would have kissed me then if it weren’t for the fact that at that moment, while his face and lips were so close to mine, I was holding a napkin to my eye, wiping pus from my tear duct. You see, I’d woken that morning with a pinkish and swollen left eye from sleeping with my makeup on and contacts in, and I’d spent much of that afternoon sweeping the yellowish discharge away. Perhaps this is something I should have disclosed to you sooner, but it is a detail I prefer to discard. In my recollections, I am prettier than I was, thinner than I was, happier than I was—so when I can, I neglect the memories of faltering pauses, disagreements, and the way Paris at midnight reeks of piss.
That eye infection could have been easily avoided if I were the type of person who was unfalteringly consistent in her face-washing routine. Growing up, I was fascinated with the bedtime routines of all my family members, but it was my sisters who made the biggest impression. Often, after my parents thought they’d put me to bed, I would sneak out of my room to watch my older sisters laugh and gossip as they scrubbed their faces. After they’d cleared the day from their skin, they would linger there in front of the big mirror, the countertop beneath them cluttered with makeup and curling irons, and pick at the blemishes on their faces. I liked to watch them because they were happy and beautiful; they seemed to glow as they danced around the bathroom, singing along to Shania Twain, and popping zits. Eventually they went away to college, but when they came home for visits they began to include me in their face-washing routine, and so, at about ten years old, I was washing my face before many of my peers, before I actually needed to.
It wasn’t very long before I started washing my face even when my sisters weren’t home. But the last half of the routine quickly began to consume me, and I picked at my skin relentlessly. With all of my siblings gone from home, I had my own bathroom, and I would sometimes stand in front of the mirror for an hour or more, seeking out pimples and vanquishing them. Often I could only pull myself away from the mirror after midnight when I was half asleep and bleeding. This, of course, was counterproductive, but I would not, could not, heed the advice of my dermatologist who said to just leave things be. Over time it became less about the blemishes themselves and more about the satisfaction of popping each zit, extracting each blackhead. Yes, I loved the relaxing qualities of the hot and sudsy water on my face, but the process was not complete without the pain that came next from clawing away at my own skin. I became familiar with the sound of a pimple tearing through flesh and the feel of pressure building to a release. There seemed to be a sort of balance and order in this whole routine that mirrored life: pressure, pain, release.
I have recently discovered that I am not alone in this fixation. There are entire YouTube channels dedicated to watching people pop zits. The most popular one has nearly four million subscribers and is run by Dr. Sandra Lee, a dermatologist in Southern California who is mostly known on the internet as Dr. Pimple Popper. Lee refers to her followers as popaholics, and, in interviews, she acknowledges that many of them may suffer from dermatillomania, which is defined as repetitive, compulsive picking of skin that results in tissue damage. Reading the Wikipedia page on the disorder has me convinced that I have some sort of mild case of it.
At the peak of this obsession, it was interfering with my sleep. I’d stay there in front of my reflection for hours studying the shape of my nose and the line of my jaw until the girl staring back at me seemed unfamiliar and strange. Running my hands over the planes of my face, I would claw away at imaginary blackheads visible only to my own scrutinizing gaze. I’ve always wanted to believe this fixation is about more than a shallow pursuit to look like the girls in magazines, but maybe it isn’t. Rationally, I know their airbrushed perfection is not a reality, but even still, I wonder what it might be like to have their velveteen skin.
I try to abstain, but there are nights when I find myself hovering over the mirror for lengthy periods again. I must look much like Narcissus peering into his reflection in the water. Like him, I am endlessly compelled and intrigued by what I see there, and I too am grasping at a shadow. Both of us are obsessed with unreachable perfection. Narcissus was so enthralled by his own beauty that even when he realized what he saw was merely his own reflection, he could not leave. What fascinates me about his story is that even after he realized the truth, he stayed. He wanted to tear himself in two so he could hold his other half. He wanted to possess himself in a way he could not by simply being himself. I remain fixed before my reflection, but for the opposite reason: I want to be something other than what I am—a creature without blemish. Each flaw I find demands to be remedied and perfection is perpetually one popped pimple away. Soon, I think, I will be able to reach it. And so, it is water and suds, heat and steam. With my face in a rag, the rag in my hands, I rub my eyes and sigh.