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  • Picking At My Face by Ali Kelley

    I love picking at my face the way other people love a shot of tequila. I get this immediate rush of adrenaline and a brief, but intense satisfaction before, during and after I rip a hair out or pop a zit. In a word, it’s euphoric.

    When I’m tweezing I fall into a catatonic state, I leave my body until the cat knocks something over or my boyfriend walks in on me and I snap out of it. I always do it with the door closed because although I’ve been living with my boyfriend for 7 years, this is not an area of my life I want to share with him. It’s how I remain mysterious after all these years. This is how we keep the magic alive. 

    When I first started tweezing, freshman year of high school, I practiced on my eyebrows. They became my first casualty. I repeatedly carved them down into little fingernail slivers, until finally I looked like the porcelain doll on my bookshelf with the painted on brows. When I stepped back from the mirror I didn’t recognize myself. But that was good. That was the point. I was trying to reinvent myself.

    I looked like my father, I still do, but back then we shared the same wild and wiry eyebrows, the kind you can’t tame with a comb, the kind of deeply rooted hair follicles you need to clamp down on and summon an inner strength to free.

    This is not how I wanted to enter high school. I had dreams that I would be the opposite of the person I was in middle school. I would have straight hair, straight teeth, and straight A’s. And I, for the first time in my life, would be confident. But then a month into school, I received my class photo and a familiar face looked back at me.

    I didn’t want that face, resented its masculine and unkempt features, so I created a new one. I ditched my glasses and started wearing contacts and I stood in front of my full-length bedroom mirror, the one glued to the back of my door, and tore big chunks of hair out of my eyebrows using my mom’s dulled Revlon tweezers. With each hair I pulled I felt a relief; a tiny weight had been lifted.

    Eyebrow growth has slowed considerably since the high school massacre, but the hair is not gone, it has just relocated to my upper lip. Every month I get this single, black hair that sprouts from the corner of my upper lip. You wouldn’t know it though. The hair is microscopic. It’s the iceberg that lies under the skin that is the darkest, coarsest, most durable and goddamn resilient strand of hair you will ever meet. Removing it from my face consumes me. I must get it, it is my Moby Dick.

    I anticipate this monthly sprouting like a farmer awaiting his harvest. And when the time comes, when the hair has broken through the skin just enough that I can take hold with my precision tweezers, I run into the bathroom, push my face up against the mirror, push my tongue up against the corner of my mouth so the skin is taught, and I pull. Often it takes a few tries. I revel in it because I know that all the effort will equal a greater reward. And it’s true.

    When I finally tear this jet-black hair out, my hand is shaking. I let it sit on my fingertip for a moment and I inspect it like a prize catch. I’ve landed a big one. I have done my monthly duty and lived to see another day. The cycle begins again. It’s day 1 of the stray hair growth and we have 30 more days to go. I can’t wait.

    I learned how to tweeze from my mother, the master plucker. She taught me the ideal conditions for removing hair from your face and/or scalp. You want afternoon natural light and car mirrors work surprisingly well. You want to be parked in an Old Navy/DSW/Panera strip mall, leaving enough open spots between you and the next car so you can do your thing in relative privacy. You can cover lots of ground under these conditions.

    Growing up I used to stand on top of the toilet and help my mom pluck out the white hairs from her head, the ones that she couldn’t reach herself. This was my task and I felt so qualified for the job I didn’t even mind that it pulled me away from my shows. I felt like a surgeon isolating the white hair from the black and keeping a steady hand so as not to tear out any “good” hairs. I didn’t always do this and my mom would wince in pain. There was little time for apologizes though, we had lots to get done.

    Though I grew up helping my mom maintain a certain aesthetic, I was never that interested in making my own beauty routine. There wasn’t enough incentive. In middle school, boys had not reached my group of friends yet, not in the all-consuming, take hold and never leave your thoughts for 8 periods, way that they did in high school. I was still in a bubble. I put on a sports bra and Chapstick and that was the extent of my beauty regimen.

    But then a month into my freshman year of high school I got back that stupid class photo and suddenly my glasses looked so lame and my hair, ugh god my hair, it was pulled back so tight to my head it would be right to assume I was wearing a hairnet. My face was hiding and I wanted it to show, so I stabbed contacts into my eyes and landscaped my brows.

    Tweezing can be destructive and may cause long-term damage, but it’s nothing compared to the carnage of a zit massacre. And that’s why I do it, every single time, because there is something so strangely satisfying about seeing the result of your obsession. You gave it your best shot and what you have to show for it is a swollen, red mound, partially scabbed over and suffocated in concealer. The delusion that a drugstore concealer has the power to cover up anything, let alone your carved up face, is just another darkly humorous and gruesome part of the ritual.

    I once picked at a zit in the middle of my chin cleft for so long that the scabbed over remains resembled a recent, albeit amateur, piercing, and my cousin called me out at a family picnic. I was pretty humiliated; it was bad and it took a long time for the wound to heal (both emotional and physical).

    In college, 1 year after I got my nose pierced, I tried to remove and replace my silver stud but underestimated the complicated corkscrew backing. When I finally ripped it out of my right nostril, I immediately jammed a fake diamond stud into the hole for fear that it would close. But it would not go in, so I pushed and punctured, the earring stem was too wide for the hole, so it was as if I was getting repierced. By the time the stem made it into my nose, there was blood pooling around the piercing, the inflamed skin was raw and red and swelling. But I did it. I fucking did it. I accomplished what I set out to do.

    Shortly after I went to the cafeteria like nothing was wrong. I looked cute rocking my bloody, cubic zirconia, nose jewelry. But then in line for stir fry, I ran into a kid that lived on my dorm floor. And just like the incident at the family picnic, this kid called out my self-inflicted wounds. “Is your nose ok?” he asked, a question he clearly already knew the answer to. “It’s a new ring,” I said and quickly exited.

    I kept the diamond stud in for a few weeks after for pride’s sake but then ultimately took it out when the word “infection” started to be floated around. 10 years later and my right nostril is permanently scarred from my mania and my stubbornness and my pride. Still worth it, though.

    And that hasn’t stopped me.

    I am most satisfied in the moments after I’ve removed a hair or a zit from my face. I feel accomplished in a way that cannot easily be matched. If I still got slivers, I imagine the process of digging one out from under my skin would give me a similar feeling. It is something incredibly simple that I am solely in charge of.

    There is little I can control in this world. Which is terrifying for a control freak like myself. But you know what I can do? Remove that single, relentless, black hair from my face, every single month. I can also take down whole families of zits that set up camp on my face, even in the weird outer reaches like on my neck and ear. There is a great comfort in knowing that I will always have these things to tend to and that keeps me sane.