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 …….