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Why Pimple Popping Videos Are So Strangely Satisfying

YouTube is full of videos of nasty skin conditions getting treated, many of which have over a million views. What’s behind our morbid fascination with such entertainment?

“The Cyst Whisperer Has Your Back”

This article is about videos of skin conditions being treated. There is some gross stuff here. You have been warned.

One of YouTube’s most enduring subcultures is a broad ecosystem of videos described by users and uploaders as “Strangely Satisfying.” This is the haptic side of the site, a constellation of different videos that seek to activate the senses of pleasure-seeking audiences. There’s the ASMR (auto-sensory meridian response) video, which uses gentle sounds to generate a tickling sensation in the viewer. The slime video is a gelatin playground for disembodied hands and fingers. Industrial shredder and hydraulic press videos send iPhones, pineapples, and other unexpected objects through the aforementioned equipment. The “hot knife” video sets a superheated blade to anything you can imagine. Mukbang is a Korean-born cousin of ASMR that swaps whispering for chewing. That’s to say nothing of the “chiropractic adjustment” video, and numerous more that please, tingle, and relax those susceptible to their sway. 

The pimple popping video is one of the most popular variants of this phenomenon, perhaps because it centers on an act so many of us are familiar with, from adolescence through adulthood. But the most popular pimple popping videos — with colorful names like “Nasty Pimples Gone Wild,” “Stomach Churning Cyst Is Popped On Mans Face,”  “Extreme Blackheads – Oiliest Skin You’ll Ever See,” and “NASTIEST PIMPLE POP EVER!!!” — are a little more intense than the blemishes we’re used to dealing with in the morning. They vary widely in visual quality, from low-fidelity phone footage of amateur dermatologists putting their unfortunate family members’ zits on display to well-lit recordings of professional medical procedures.

They’re filmed everywhere, from suburban kitchens in America to day spas in Vietnam, and probably viewed in as many places as well. Some of them feature cystic acne, which needs to be slit open before pressure is applied, while others showcase minefields of blackheads and “soft pops.” Sometimes the pus comes out smooth, like icing from a pastry bag, while other times it doesn’t want to give. If you’re really lucky, a projectile might fly out and hit the camera, an organic reminder of the layers of glass and electronics between our eyes and what we see.

The pimple popping community has received a certain amount of mainstream attention thanks to Dr. Sandra Lee, a dermatologist better known as “Dr. Pimple Popper,” star of the TLC TV series of the same name. Contrary to her moniker, little of Dr. Lee’s show features pimples or popping. She only features the most severe epidermal abnormalities and invasive procedures, true to TLC’s exhibitionist programming prerogative. Unlike her YouTube videos, which show only the surface of the skin and are soundtracked by casual conversation between Lee and her patients, Dr. Pimple Popper spends a lot of time telling the often heart-wrenching life stories of Lee’s most unique clients.

The real popping action is reserved for the Dr. Pimple Popper YouTube channel, where so-called “Popaholics” can find a smorgasboard of skin protrusions to watch get taken care of. There are the usual oversized whiteheads and blackheads, as well as lipomas, pilar cysts, calcium deposits, warts, abscesses, rhinophyma, sebaceous filaments, keloids, and other dermal delights. For some, more nauseating than the contents of the videos might be the language Lee uses to describe them. She regularly compares her patients’ cysts and growths to food items, such as cottage cheese, chicken, pinto beans, oranges, egg yolks, and oatmeal. She is perhaps the first person in the pimple popping game who could be considered an auteur — her posts are a far cry from the borderline snuff that constitutes most entries in the genre. Viewers of her “educational videos” (each one features a lengthy disclaimer) can recreate the experience at home with the official Dr. Pimple Popper “Zit Happens” acne spot treatment kit from her digital store. You can even cop a Dr. Pimple Popper Halloween Costume.

No matter what Dr. Lee would have us believe, the appeal of pimple popping videos isn’t in their educational value. Like the other varieties of “Strangely Satisfying” fare, the attraction is in their unexpected activation of our senses. Society considers pimples unsightly, so to find a kind of relaxation not just in images of acne but also in their removal is doubly taboo. The rupture of skin and expulsion of pus produces an eerie kind of stimulation that eludes easy articulation, hence the “strangely” in “strangely satisfying.” It’s not just visual satisfaction that these videos offer, but a feeling of mastery over our own bodies. They allow us to clearly see areas of the body that we normally can’t. Pimple popping videos let us simultaneously be doctor and patient, popper and popped.

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