This story is adapted from Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, by Leigh Cowart.
The ritual goes a little bit like this. Once or twice a month, I prance expectantly into my little bathroom and greet my face in the mirror. In the private sanctum of this intimate space, I scrutinize my skin under a soft amber bulb. The lighting here is gentle and welcoming, but the act I will perform upon my visage is anything but. I select a soft spatula and use it to smear a grayish pink goo all over my face. I take a long look at my reflection, glistening with product and promise, and I wait.
It doesn't take long for the fun to begin.
As it settles into the burgeoning crevices dug by years of smiles and frowns, the penitential goo begins its reign of torture and my whole face screams with alarm. It burns and I love it. It hurts and I revel in it. But why?
I’m hardly the only person who reaches for a highly unpleasant skincare product rather than a benevolent cream that asks nothing of my ability to endure. And honestly, I don’t even know if my painful mask works or not, despite my seemingly monastic devotion to it. What I do know is that the act of suffering somehow makes it feel like it’s working, 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 skincare. I love my harsh facials because they feel like penitence, a deliberate act of earning forgiveness for everytime I sizzled in the sun unprotected. But the allure also lies in the fact that when we endure some amount of pain in order to achieve something, our minds assign extra value to the outcome. The term for these intentionally painful experiences—masochism—comes with all the baggage of the word's inception as a sexual paraphilia. But even beyond skincare, masochism is normal and pervasive, and understanding it is an important step in the process of destigmatizing a common human practice.
In a 2011 study published in Psychological Science exploring the relationship between pain and atonement, researchers asked study participants to write about one of two things: an instance of rejecting or excluding another person, or an innocuous interaction. Afterward, they filled out a survey about how guilty they felt. Then, the fun part: They had to stick their whole hand in ice water for as long as they could stand. Well, some of them anyway. Control group got room temp, the bastards.
The researchers found that the people who wrote about their guilty memory held their hands in the ice water longer, rated the ice water as more painful than the others did, and experienced a significant reduction in guilt afterward. Read that again. The guilty people took more pain, said it hurt more, and felt less guilty after. To explain it, the authors reference D. B. Morris’s book, The Culture of Pain, which holds that “pain has traditionally been understood as purely physical in nature, but it is more accurate to describe it as the intersection of body, mind, and culture.” This model of thought holds that people give meaning to pain, and Dr. Brock Bastian, one of the study’s authors, argues that people are socialized from birth to accept pain within a judicial model of punishment.
“I think that more it’s a relationship between pain and justice. Enduring pain can feel like it provides a sense of justice, and a form of self-punishment,” Bastian says, noting that the embodiment of the punishment can be linked to penitence by varying degrees. “It’s not that people explicitly say to themselves ‘I’m punishing myself with pain’ but rather [they are] going for a hard jog or doing something that’s exertive and fulfills that need to restore justice through punishment.” As Bastian states in the paper, “History is replete with examples of ritualized or self-inflicted pain aimed at achieving purification.”
In the case of skincare, the sense of justice arises when we feel like we have done more to earn the effects of our painful creams and microneedlers. The pain also gives us a taste of atonement through self-punishment, making us pay for all the offenses we have perpetuated against our skin: days without sunscreen, cigarette smoke, compulsive picking, sleeping in makeup. And once we pay for our dermatological sins, we get a taste of that sweet, sweet absolution.
But my attraction to masochistic skincare isn't just about guilt. There's something else going on, something that relates to the ways humans create and experience value. "If something hurts, it can create a sense of value or efficacy," Bastian explains. Generally, putting effort into things increases our perception of their value, "so using skin care products which are averise and hurt a little bit, it probably fades into our perception that they are doing something."
That is, knowingly opting to use products that sting can increase the value we expect to get from suffering through the experience. "If it’s painful it must be valuable, it must be worth something, it must be important,” says Bastian. “Why would I undergo something that was painful if it wasn’t going to be worth my while? It sets that expectation up and then you change your cognition around the outcome to match the effort that you have to put in in order to get there." Since harsh peels feel worse than cooling gel masks, my brain automatically assigns more worth to the results, based on the physical sensations that I chose to endure in my pursuit of smoother skin. What can I say, I come from a long line of Catholics.
And truly, humans really do value pain. In one study from the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, researchers asked people to imagine themselves doing either a charity run or charity picnic for a cause. The participants were then asked how much they’d like to donate to this cause for the thought exercise. Sure enough, those who imagined running donated more because the effort of the activity made it feel more valuable and important. That's right, just imagining the suffering of running was enough to compel additional value. Next, they had participants put their hand in ice water, and then asked them once more how much they would hypothetically donate. (Again with the ice water!) You might think that the harsh cold of the ice water would make people want to give less because they have already given some pain, but that was not the case! People actually gave more after putting their hand in the freezing bucket because the suffering signaled more value. Bastian references the viral "Ice Bucket Challenge" of 2014 as a perfect example of this dynamic. "If that was a bucket of confetti, I don’t think it would have worked in the same way,” he says. “It was pouring buckets of ice water over our heads that signified that there’s something important here and then people gave a lot of money."
It is curious that, despite all this, talking about deliberate pain remains so taboo in so many cultures, especially when you consider its ubiquity in both our daily lives and throughout history. Even beyond skincare rituals and charitable challenges, masochism is everywhere: in gyms and hot sauce bottles, spas and dungeons alike. But it’s worth ridding ourselves of the puritanical shame induced by masochism’s proximity to sexuality, so that we can begin to explore all the ways that consensual pain can bring meaning and pleasure to our lives. That doesn’t mean all masochistic activities are meaningful and pleasurable. Certainly there is a point at which pain on purpose can become harmful and even dangerous, a risk that further necessitates open and curious conversation about the role of pain in our daily lives. If we can’t talk about it, how can we really assess when pain on purpose is serving us, and when it is causing harm? There is much to be discovered about the relationship between humans and consensual pain, and it starts with a willingness to be nakedly curious about the biochemical and psychological rewards we get from it.
When I slather on my painful face skincare, I get more from it than just the chemical results of the goo itself. I tap into the art of resilience and reward, and I reap the emotional benefits of suffering for something I want. And when I wash it off, I feel more than just the relief of cooling the burn. I feel like I have performed a rite of atonement. Black plague flagellants had their whips. John the Baptist had his camel hair cilice. And me? I have a face mask that burns like hell.
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Adapted from Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart, copyright © 2021, PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.