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Living In Dirt
A guest essay on letting go and getting dirty from P.E. Moskowitz.
I’m taking July off to focus on finishing my book (!!!) and handing The Unpublishable over to a series of guest writers for the month.1 Today’s guest is P.E. Moskowitz, who runs Mental Hellth, a newsletter about why the world makes you feel so bad all the time. (Subscribe here!) They're the author of the forthcoming book Rabbit Hole, a personal and journalistic exploration of people using drugs, illegal and prescription, to survive modern American life. Below, find their essay on giving up Weleda Skin Food and getting dirty, horny, and down with all the “beauty and grossness” of the world.
Living In Dirt
I have good skin. It used to be better. A combination of hyaluronic acid, Weleda Skin Food, genetics, and a bunch of estrogen injections.
I don’t believe the hype around many skincare trends, but I love body modification. I am transgender. There is something very cool about the fact that you can just fuck with your body whenever and however you want to. Injections in my butt cheek and pills under my tongue and creams on my face and knives in my bones. Modify me, baby.
And then last month, I developed dermatitis on my chin. A red patch. I went to the dermatologist. He said he didn’t know why it was there. Two hundred dollars well spent! I am trying to get rid of it with yet another cream. But it also feels God-sent. Meant to be. A sign. To chill out.
For years, for me, the point of body modification, the point of life, was perfection, or the pursuit of it. To be prettier, dewier, smoother. I wanted to be optimized. I wanted to be on top of my game.
And then, I started to feel bored. Plastic-y. Removed. Life behind a pane of glass(y skin).
I did not make any sweeping changes to my life. I didn’t even realize it was happening. But I simply and slowly stopped caring as much. And through that, I found a form of freedom I did not know I was missing.
My skincare routine became less consistent. I stopped shaving as much. I started showering less. Not in like a gross way, but in a “I’m fine being a little dirty right now unless I need to go see someone” way. And as this happened, something else happened simultaneously: I got happier. I got hornier. I started feeling in life. I wanted to kiss boys and go to raves and sweat. I wanted to stop cleaning my house. Not completely. Just not as much.
When we aim for perfection, even in something as innocuous-seeming as a skincare routine, I think what we are really aiming for is control. In a similar way to the way eating disorders are not only really about weight or food, but about controlling one’s body and mind to the point of unhealthiness, I think we can do this with our skin, with our bodies and faces and lives. Not that a complicated skincare routine is necessarily a disorder, but these things exist on a spectrum. What we decide to control. What we decide to allow to let go. How much we are okay with admitting our powerlessness.
It makes sense that the more hectic our lives are, the more we try to control ourselves. The more the world feels like it’s burning down (because it is burning down), the more appealing the illusion of control becomes — the more we feel if we just get to the right level of dewiness, the right level of hotness, our lives will work out. We won’t be punished by the world if we pre-punish ourselves.
Thus, I’ve found, often, the more controlled your life is, the less it is actually in control. And, perhaps counterintuitively, the way to gain control of the world, the way to feel like it’s not burning down and constantly getting worse, is to let go of control of yourself. To stop the pre-punishment and admit our inherent lack of power, safety, direction, knowledge.
Allowing yourself to let it all go isn’t a revolutionary solution to climate change, capitalism, or anything else. Putting down the Drunk Elephant doesn’t mean picking up a hammer and sickle.
Instead, I think it’s a process and a practice. To let go is to let the world wash over you, and in doing so, allow the world to teach you things you did not previously know, things you could not know when your life was so tightly contained and managed that there was no space for new knowledge, new emotions, new states of being, to slip in. It is about opening space.
As I stopped caring about my face and skin and cleanliness, I found I began to have the space to care about other things. About who I surrounded myself with. About how much fun I had and how I spent my time. I took more walks. At the club, I cared less about what I looked like and more about how much I could lose myself in the music. I stopped working as much. Not a total 180, but a reorientation.
In The Colonization of Psychic Space, the philosopher Kelly Oliver writes about how in this capitalist, racist, sexist world, we do not have the internal space to fully actualize ourselves because we are busy carrying the emotions, responsibilities and expectations of those who oppress us.
“The psyche is the ‘place’ where bodily drives intersect with social forces. Psychic space is robust when drives and their affective manifestations are discharged into signifying systems and thereby translated into meaning, which is inherently social. When the translation of bodily drives into meaning is disrupted or undermined by social forces, particularly oppression, psychic space is restricted and no longer open to the movement between drives and signification. Without the discharge of bodily drives into language and other signifying systems, we become cut off from the world of meaning on which we depend for meaningful lives.”
In other words, the less space we have for true expression and freedom, the less meaningful our lives become.
Is skincare oppressing us? No… and, in a way, yes. It carries with it the burden of what we as a society consider pretty, what we consider clean, what we consider worthy of admiration, which, in this society, is often diametrically opposed to the desire and ways of life of trans people, people of color, women.
I alone cannot create sufficient psychic space to feel truly happy in this world. That is a collective project. But by putting down the Weleda, I was saying to myself, “I no longer wish to participate in this burdensome set of expectations, and rather open up my psychic space to care about something else, or to not care at all. To allow life to flow over me.”
I am dirty. I have a hair on my chin. And I am feeling freer than I ever have. I am feeling the space to breathe. I am feeling the space to let something in, someone in, to let the world in all its beauty and grossness in — even if it ends up giving me acne.
All views expressed by guest writers are their own and not necessarily representative of my personal views or The Unpublishable, etc. etc. etc.