Illustration by Mike Hughes
If you’ve ever twisted a cork from a champagne bottle and paused just as the cork meets the lip, waiting for the pressure to provide the pop, you might be a dormant “popaholic”. Dr Sandra Lee, a 48-year-old dermatologist who practices from her San Bernardino clinic in California, and shares popping videos on YouTube and Instagram, says she coined the word.In Lee's videos, you're not treated to Formula One celebration-style videos of champagne gushing from a freshly popped bottle. Instead, the dermatologist's approximately 9 million combined followers tune in to watch videos of her popping pimples, puncturing cysts and recently exhuming a 7lb 12oz lipoma (a benign tumour made of fat).
These kind of pimple popping videos aren’t a recent phenomenon – they’ve been around for years. But as time has passed, the trend has evolved, involving yellowing toenails, infected feet, tonsil stones. And with that evolution, it’s become sexualised. Henry, a Virgin Media engineer and a follower of Lee, tells me: “There’s a tension when she’s pushing at the cyst and you know it’s about to burst. The only thing I can compare it to is like the tension of knowing you’re about to cum.”
Henry started watching these videos three years ago, when a friend had tagged him in a comment. “They probably thought I’d find it disgusting.” He didn’t. “There’s something pornographic about the video, for me at least. I know it’s a bit fucked up, but if I’m honest, that’s why I like it… I don’t think it’s strange to like things because they’re a bit taboo.”A 33-year-old Canadian product designer I spoke to feels the same way. “I don’t know what it is, but they make me kinda horny," he explained. "The pus reminds me of cum and I like that.”The fact people are getting off on these videos doesn’t surprise Dr Mark Griffiths, a professor of behavioural addiction at Nottingham University. In an article on his website, Griffiths notes that “almost every (seemingly non-sexual) fluid that can come from a human body has a corresponding sexual paraphilia and/or fetish.” He lists the more traditional bodily fluids associated with fetish: urine with urophilia, faeces with coprophilia and vomit with emetophilia – all the good stuff. He goes on to explain a new addition – acnephilia, a spot fetish.
These days, popaholics are looking to extremes to get their kicks. Take Ontario-based chiropodist Matthew Doyle, who has treated – among other things – fungal toes, warts, bunions at his own clinic, Waterloo Foot Clinic, since 2014. A little over a year ago, he began posting videos of his more graphic procedures to YouTube and Instagram, which have now amassed 3.6 million views and tens of thousands of followers and subscribers.Unlike the pimple popping videos, Doyle’s are of removals: he pulls out an ingrown nail from a toe so mangled I think that the humane thing to do was amputate. He removes skin so thick and cracked from a foot that it resembles a dried out lake in summer. He clips a corn the size and colour of a boiled sweet but the texture of Haribo. And, he treats a foot with gout that looks like it’s got, well, gout. Personally, I like it when he peels back a nail from the nail bed; in the final moments flesh clings to the now redundant nail and it has to be tugged off. Tugged off? Maybe I’m getting into this stuff too.Doyle started posting videos of his work as an educational tool but after a few posts realised that his audience was not only fellow chiropodists or patients. “We had no idea there is kinda like a subculture, that people just want to watch this stuff and they find it satisfying,” he says, speaking from British Columbia, Canada, while on holiday. I bring up a specific video: a nail being pulled free from a toe as easily as the rind from a satsuma. The fleshy underside of the nail was a camouflage of baby pink, blood red and pus yellow. Disgusting? Not to everyone; a follower had commented “mmmmmm that’s sexyyyyy”.
Alex, a HR manager from Manhattan who liked the comment, agrees. “When I’m scrolling, and I see a video, it gets me in the mood to jerk myself.” Sometimes, these videos substitute porn altogether, so long as it shows “something that looks kinda painful.” For him, he says it’s about sadomasochism. “Some people get off watching people get whipped, for me it’s toe nail removals.”Meanwhile, Rick, a 38-year-old nurse from New Zealand, finds ear wax extractions thrilling. We discuss a particular video; the wax pulled out of the person's ear is as large and dark as a wasp. He thinks it’s gross, but maintains: “Sex is gross! Anal is gross! You’ve got the thing you pee with and then you stick it up where someone shits from. You’ve been conditioned to think that’s hot and ear wax isn’t.”
It’s the procedure he finds arousing: “I don’t just look at a bit of wax and get hard… it’s the control of inserting a tool into someone to remove this stuff… I suppose it’s a dominance thing.”Really, if you head to the right places, Instagram has become PornHub for anyone who wants to see something squeezed, popped, peeled or torn from another’s body. Take a tonsil stone removal. The inflamed tonsil is pressed with a cotton bud and little beans fall out, soft like ricotta. You could watch a case of calculus teeth, with one video showing a fist-sized fossil of hardened tartar getting ripped from a mouth. You could see a man pull a botfly from his own face with pliers. The options continue.Like Dr Sandra Lee, Doyle is producing his own HD content and is quickly growing a following. Her success got her a show on TLC, but Doyle is reluctant to say he would want to follow a similar route. He should though; he is relaxed and effusive in front of the camera, and the fetish of peeling a nail from a toe deserves the silver screen. Right now, anything that can be filmed being extracted from someone has been filmed, except bellybutton fluff. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Well you’re too late; I’ve just created an account as dr_smellybutton – you’ll be seeing me on Channel 5.@JoshSchot / @badnewsmikehughes