Laura Diaz de Arce
At the time of this writing I have a small scab beneath my left eyebrow. The scab is there because I had tweezed an errant hair a little while ago, and rather than growing outwards, it became ingrown. That ingrown hair became a painful, small zit, which I popped. But the hair stayed stuck inside, so I had to dig it out with a sharp pair of tweezers. As the hair was plucked from this small open wound, I could see a small ball of pus at the base. Both lumped out and bleeding, leaving an open wound that will take more days to heal. All this mess because I wanted a thinner brow shape.
Blemishes. Body Hair. The taming of our skin is a billion-dollar industry. It creates a strange relationship to our bodies. We can get into the habit of maintaining our bodies like manicured lawns. We pull out the weedy portions, reshaping the surface of ourselves to look prettier or cleaner or more human.
I am constantly picking at or plucking at something. This includes hair in inconvenient places, black heads, and cystic acne.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a diagnosed anorexic in recovery. One of the symptoms of that and bio-dysmorphia is a tendency to “pick”. It is a habit I have failed to break. Most likely if you see me without makeup, you’ll see a small wound somewhere on my face. The result likely from me wrestling with a cystic zit or a blackhead and an inability for me to just let it run its course.
When I was younger, this manifested itself in my obsessive plucking of my body hair. It started innocently enough with eyebrows. Like most middle school age 90’s kids, my brows became consistently over-plucked. Funny enough, my sister was the first person to pluck my eyebrows. She argued that she would tie me to the chair if she had to, just to get me to deal with my unruly and now bushy brows. Puberty sucked.
I remember taking almost daily care of my brows, plucking and plucking away at any out of the way hair. I began to even pluck my friend’s brows. Pro-Tip: Never let a twelve-year-old pluck another twelve-year-old’s eyebrows.
While I went on to shave my underarms and legs in my early years, plucking remained a staple. My body hair was a gross aberration as far as I was concerned, one that needed to be exterminated at all fronts. I even began to resent my arm hair, which I sometimes absentmindedly plucked at with tweezers. In high school, I began to us Nair chemical hair removal on my arms. The hair on my arms is thin and pale blonde; only noticeable on close inspection.
Yet, the mere existence of it offended me, especially when it contrasted with dark surfaces against the horizon of my forearms.
There’s a story one of my teachers at the time told us in class a few months after I had started this routine process of chemically burning my hair. He had been a lifeguard, and shaved his legs and arms to make it easier to apply sunblock. One of his co-workers suggested he also try Nair, and he did it late at night, and not wanting to wake his parents in the small house they were in by turning on the shower to wash it off, he jumped in the pool. He ended up with chemical burns.
We all laughed at the story. Me especially, because that was the product I was using. We laughed at the painful itch that happens when you leave it on. Still, I did it, to correct some perceived imperfection. Still I watched as the Nair took my arm hair and shriveled it, then as I wiped the tangled malnourished-looking hairs from my arms. And still, for a special occasion, I will go back to it. I will slather the stuff on my arms as it scratches my fingerprints. I will sit and burn for a few minutes to wipe it off. And I do this attain an image of cleanliness.
While I do shave, plucking will always be my first love. It satisfies the “picking” impulse from my anorexia. Tweezers and I are finely good friends, and lucking is one of my lazy-day activities. Not only do I pluck my brows, but I will absentmindedly pluck at ingrown hairs in my armpits, digging them out until bleeding with the sharpened ends. There are hairs I pluck for the simple offense of being an aberration. Such as the slightly longer single pale hair that grows on my nose above my right nostril. Or the one darker hair that appears on my aureola once a month when I’m supposed to be menstruating.
When I was younger, I wasted entire hours tweezing and plucking away at hair in a systematic fashion. On more than one occasion, I went row by row, plucking out the hair on my mons pubis until it was smooth, bald and aching. It hurt like hell. It hurt for a long while after, plucking out hair in one of my most sensitive regions.
It was a long and arduous process, that pain radiating after the deed was done.
Pain was part of the goal though. Pain was a way to punish my body, to make it conform to the hairless standard I desperately wanted to achieve. Every pluck, every tear of root and follicle was a reminder that my body in its natural state was an aberration. Removing the hair from the root meant that I could also prolong its regrowth, the longer I stayed hairless in a miniscule way. Pain seemed worth it.
My skin itself was its own frustration, not just the hair on the surface. Acne has led me to make poor decisions. When I was a child, our pediatrician suggested my mother use a sewing needle or a pin to pierce the heads of our zits, and then disinfect the area with alcohol. This treatment was detestable, and also very humiliating in a way, as we sat on our bathroom counter, having our whiteheads excavated. Rubbing alcohol drying out our skin.
While I pick at whiteheads and blackheads, the acne I am most plagued with is cystic acne.
These are painful zits that occur beneath the surface and don’t necessarily develop a head. I can feel them, often days before they are fully formed, as sore lumps beneath the surface. There are a few techniques I’ve developed for dealing with these types of zits. One is taking a metal spoon and heating it in almost boiling water. Then taking the heated metal, and with the convex side, pressing it just above where the lump is forming.
Sometimes I do as I was taught, and take a needle dunked in rubbing alcohol and lance the pore right above the lump. Sometimes, that relief of pressure allows me to actually pop the damn thing. More often though, I end up scraping away layers of skin trying to pop it, trying to remove the pus-filled lump from beneath the surface.
This isn’t to say I haven’t tried acne and skin products. They usually lead me to some other torturous routine. Proactiv didn’t work for me, my skin began to peel off in layers, the say a sunburn might peel. I gave up after two months of light sensitivity and no surface improvement. That green tea moisturizer was dope though.
I’ve tried masks, scrubs, soaps, washes, and still. The only thing that has alleviated any of this to a degree has been birth control. Thanks IUD!
These peels and skin care projects haven’t been the only way I’ve tried to correct my skin. When I was younger, I was often teased for being so pale. To rectify this, I took on a project to tan myself regularly through middle school. I wore a light sunblock and sunbathed in our backyard. I went to friend’s pools to layout. Still I remained white, if not eggshell.
I became accustomed to sunburns that left dark stains on the surface after they peeled.
At 29, I had my first incidence of skin cancer. It’s not Cancer Cancer, as far as Cancer goes. Basal Cell Carcinoma rarely metastasizes, but it was jarring all the same. It manifested as a wound that would not heal on the bridge of my nose, ironically poetic.
I learned a lot during the procedure to get this cancer removed. I learned that this cancer gets taken off layer by layer. I learned that, when I’m being cauterized, I smell a lot like bacon. During the plastic surgery to stitch me up, I learned what my nose looks like on the inside. Most painfully, I learned that my body metabolizes anesthetics and therefore, I now know what it feels like as a needle punctures and sews up the skin.
I’ll probably have to deal with all this again. While my tanning probably wasn’t the only catalyst to getting this, years of Florida sun exposure can do that on its own, it probably didn’t do me any favors. All this because I didn’t want to accept the very skin I was in.
I’m fine being pale, and learning to live with imperfections. Imperfections like the long scar on my nose, the occasional blemish, or a stray hair.
Alright, I still pluck those, but not with the rancor of before. That’s only a small lie.
Laura Diaz de Arce is a South Florida writer still learning to make peace with her own body. She writes for Book Riot regularly. In 2018 she was published in Tragedy Queens by CLASHBooks. She also published a collection of short stories, Monstrosity. Send her llama gifs on twitter @QuetaAuthor.