Picking: a couples grooming ritual some consider horrendous but others love.
My husband is leaning over the bathroom sink, and instantly I'm lured from my comfort zone on the couch. I'm seduced by how the fluorescent light outlines the curve of his bicep, the muscles of his back.
He looks up and returns my devilish smirk in the mirror's reflection. I make my move.
A bright red zit in the small of his back has come to a head — and I must have at it this instant.
"I don't get why this amuses you," he sighs, exasperated at my zeal.
"Because your body is no longer yours," I calmly explain. "It's mine."
Gross? Uh, yeah. But I can't help myself.
Before we started dating, I was a picking virgin, but I'd always longed to find a man who would satisfy all my needs, including this one. And it wasn't until we were well into our relationship that I gleaned the courage to approach him with my grubby little mitts. Now, more than ten years into it, there's no stopping me.
My friend, Julie thinks my compulsion is absolutely revolting.
"I don't get it," she said. "I always want to see my husband in the most attractive light. It's nasty to pick his skin. I need some boundaries!"
Like Julie, I'd assume that most gals prefer to keep their hands to themselves, but in researching this article, I've found a sorority of "pickers" who are as enthusiastic about the practice as I am. Yes, couples popping pimples is a thing.
Alexia M., a 24-year-old grad student, says there's "some sort of satisfaction in seeing something to pick" on her live-in boyfriend of about a year. "If I see something, I almost can't control my hands. I have to do it. I sometimes try in public, but he won't let me."
Kim G., a 26-year-old account executive, can't even wait until she gets indoors to come at her man. She says her boyfriend of three years allows her to sate her "overwhelming" compulsion right out on the street. "We went out Saturday night and I saw a zit on boyfriend's neck on the subway platform. I had to have at it right there!" she explains. And he let her.
She also assists him with a myriad of other self-maintenance exercises, such as hairstyling, eyebrow-plucking, and the increasingly popular Biore-stripping. "I won't get the box for him, but I'll get it for me and offer him a strip," she explains. "I feel like I'm helping him take care of business. I think you should shower and brush your hair every day. When we first started dating, he wouldn't brush his hair for days and I was like, 'How could you not brush your hair?' I like to be clean and groom myself, so I want him to do the same."
What's behind this epidemic compulsion to pick at and groom our men? Are we but primates in skirts and heels? Sure, picking is messy business. Is there blood? Sometimes. Pus? Oh yeah. Those are the best ones.
But the common consensus among us pickers is that as nasty and repulsive as these personal excavation missions may seem to some, we aren't afraid to get in there and get our hands dirty. Maybe there's a parallel there about how we approach our relationships?
"Women see grooming as an indication of a serious, long-term romantic involvement," explains Dr. Michelle Sauther, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado. "In social mammals, grooming is much more than hygienic — it demonstrates strong bonds and relationships. A lot of grooming women do may be to demonstrate to other women that this man is their partner."
That would explain the compulsion of couples popping pimples publicly, but private grooming and tending seems much more about intimacy.
"Grooming seems to help facilitate social relations and establish dominance hierarchies," affirms William McKibbin, a Ph.D. candidate in evolutionary psychology at Florida Atlantic University. "I suspect that the social relations aspect may help to explain, in part, why human women might 'groom' their partners. Because humans are unique among primates in forming long-term monogamous relationships, grooming may help to form and maintain those relationships. Certainly grooming someone, or allowing someone to groom you, would seem to be a sign that you are comfortable with and care for that person."
Still, it can take a while to get to that stage. Felecia H., a newlywed, waited out their initial courting period before she got to "play nurse" with her husband, Derick.
"When we started dating, we were at that awkward period where you don't want to say anything (about his blemishes). Then I'd say, 'Babe, why don't you take care of that?' But he wouldn't listen. Eventually, it just became a thing where we'd be watching movies and I'd just start picking at his face. Now we'll joke around and he'll say, 'Come play doctor with me! Exfoliate me!' I guess you get comfortable when you start living together, so it became an acceptable thing."
Felecia does feel these habits are part of her role as nurturer. "I have a younger brother, so I'm used to taking care of him."
When I ask Alexia why she thinks she does it, she suspects it's because she's a neatnik in general. "I'm like that about my house. I like to have everything really clean and I think that's sort of how I see it on him. If I see a blemish, I just want to pop it to make it clean."
Or she might be looking for payback cleaning of some form. McKibbin says that among apes, such give and take is common: "Chimpanzees are more likely to share food with a chimp that has groomed them in the past. So literally, it can act as a 'scratch my back and I'll scratch yours' type of interaction."
Fortunately for Alexia and her man, this mutual "scratching" is reciprocated and even fun. "He's a picker himself and he likes to do it to me and he likes it when I do it to him. We'll get into bed and I'll ask him to do my back. There will be times when we are having sex or being really intimate, and I'll see something and have to go for it. It's ridiculous!"
And believe it or not, his picking might bode well for her relationship.
"Male primates often use grooming to establish sexual relationships with females. They do so for the same reasons the females do — to publicly demonstrate to others that there is a bond and to assess the parenting qualities of their partner," says Dr. Sauther. "A couple of months before the mating period, male baboons will follow the females everywhere and try to groom them and huddle with them."
My husband, meanwhile, isn't quite there yet. When I summon him from the couch to attend to a "situation" I can't reach myself, he rolls his eyes with dread, yet dutifully rises to attend to my needs. In spite of his reluctance to perform an act that in his words is "gut-wrenchingly disgusting," I suspect he secretly likes the fact that he's the only one I'm asking.