On Eyebrows

What if being dissatisfied is its own kind of pleasure?

Rachel Simon
Jun 11, 2019 · 12 min read
Image: CSA-Printstock

I don’t remember the first time I pulled out my eyebrows, or how it felt; I’ve pulled so many over the years that there is no longer a beginning (and there has never been an end). I pull at night when nobody is looking and watch the hairs float into the keyboard, and the next day I find them peeking out of my Ls and my Vs. I pick when I write, mostly, or when I’m staring at my computer not writing and wishing I was. The eyebrows fall down one by one until sometimes there are so many piled in front of me I wonder if there can be any left on my face, and have to run to the mirror to check. When they cover my screen, the curved black hairs blocking words and empty space, I wipe them away but don’t watch where they go. I have eyebrow hairs in my keyboard like some people have crumbs.

Each time is the same. I isolate the hair, pull until it breaks free from the skin, hold it between my fingers, examine it before casting it aside. I let out a breath I don’t realize I’m holding and feel my body relax, like it has what it needs now. But before long that feeling comes back, so urgent it feels brand-new, like I need to reach up and pull that hair out, too, in order to be okay. And so I do it, and I am okay. For a moment. Until the next one.

I isolate the hair, pull until it breaks free from the skin, hold it between my fingers, examine it before casting it aside.

There’s a name for this, I know — trichotillomania — but it’s never felt right. I see photos of girls with bald spots on their heads and eyes without lashes and it makes me shudder. Those girls are not me. My problem is bad, I know, but not like that. I can get away with mine. I fill in the thin spots with pencil and will myself not to touch my brows until they’re better. Sometimes, it works. Other times I just use more pencil. But I’m not the girl with bald spots and wigs and support groups online. I pick, but I am not them, even as I look up after a meeting and realize I’m the only one who spent the last hour mutilating her body.

My therapist asks me why I do it and I tell her it’s habit, nothing more. And mostly, that’s true. There are times I don’t realize I’m picking until the hairs are piling up beneath me; I’m watching TV or reading a book and my fingers are moving without my knowledge. But sometimes, I see myself doing it and I don’t stop. I like the feeling too much, the relief it gives me. I like the After.

My therapist asks me why I do it and I tell her it’s habit, nothing more. And mostly, that’s true.

Kurt knows about the picking, but he doesn’t think it’s as big of a deal as it is. When I first told him what I do, he was surprised; he said he didn’t notice anything was different about my brows until I pointed it all out, the thin spots but also the misshapen arches. I believe him, now, but I didn’t then. There was no way he didn’t see my fingers reaching up again and again to pick out the hairs, leaving blankness in their wake.

I pick when I’m stressed and I pick when I’m bored and I pick when everyone can see me, even though I never used to. If people notice, they don’t say anything, but they can’t not notice. Eyebrows are in now; everyone is shaping and growing theirs and putting away the tweezers like they’ll never be used again. It’s a bad time for me to be taking mine apart, but I am. Here I pick away at my brows while everyone else is filling theirs up.

When it comes to my body, I do everything wrong. I looked up a list of “body-focused repetitive behaviors” the other night and I checked off eight out of ten; I don’t eat my hair or chew away my tongue but everything else is spot-on. I pluck out my eyebrows, pick at my skin, bite my nails until they hurt, gnaw at my lip until it bleeds. The worst right now is the joint cracking — not just my knuckles but my neck and back and knees and legs, always the legs. It’s the only behavior of mine that Kurt will admit to being bothered by. He hates the sound of it so much he’ll roll away in bed if he hears it beginning. We laugh it off when it happens, but still, he flinches every time.

And then there’s sex. I have never had good sex — I don’t know what that is, not really. I have had bad sex and fine sex and close your eyes and hope it ends soon sex and decent sex, but it has never been good, the way people talk about. They talk about orgasms and endings and losing themselves in it and it feels so far away, something too foreign to ever comprehend. What do you think about during sex? I ask Kurt once. You, he says, and I say yes okay, but what exactly? He looks at me strangely and tells me he’s not really thinking at all, just feeling, and I almost laugh because it’s impossible to comprehend. When he is inside me I feel something, of course, but it’s mostly the motion and pressure that I know are supposed to come with the pleasure, not instead of it. It is not pain, but it is not enough.

It’s not that I don’t like sex. I crave it for the intimacy, for the feeling of his nails scraping against my back and his breath quickening and his body collapsing on mine when he’s done. I crave him needing me, right then and there, and his eyes glued on my body as I pull a shirt over my head or step out of my shorts. I crave the I love you he moans into my neck when he’s close to coming, the words so breathless it’s like he doesn’t even realize he’s saying them. I crave the before and the after.

When we talk about sex, I tell him half-truths. He knows how not coming frustrates me but he thinks I am more fine with it than I am, because he thinks it’s better than it is. I tell him I’m close when really, I don’t know what close is. I tell him I’m turned on when I don’t know what exactly I’m supposed to be feeling. If he knew how it really was, how little I feel when he is inside me, it would drown him in hurt.

It’s not his fault. Kurt is the best I’ve ever had, which is the saddest part of all. He’s kind and patient and wants nothing more than to make me feel good, so he takes his time and does what I ask (when I know what to ask) and is always willing to try anything we think might help. He is more experienced than I am so he knows what he’s doing; he doesn’t mess around like other guys who are simply figuring it out along the way. He is everything I could need.

But how do I tell him that nothing he does leaves me satisfied, that when he’s going down on me I’m waiting for the kisses on my thighs that tell me he’s moving on? I can never tell him that. I can barely tell myself that.

Just explore your body more, he says, they all say. But when my fingers roam I feel nothing. I use a vibrator and that’s something, yes, more than with him and without its help, but it’s not enough. It’s waves of pleasure that never add up, that don’t amount to what I know they’re supposed to. How can I explore my body when it gives me no signs of what it likes, what it needs? I have nothing to go on. I am starting from scratch every time.

It’s waves of pleasure that never add up, that don’t amount to what I know they’re supposed to.

Sometimes I wonder if things would’ve been different if T. hadn’t been first, if I hadn’t spent high school letting him touch me and feel inside me and let me do the same to him. With T., I felt sexy, I felt wanted. But after that party when we crept off to a room midway through the night, he told my friend that I was too hairy to go down on. She cringed recounting it to me but said she felt I should know; after all, how embarrassing would it be if I didn’t? I nodded and thanked her and then, in the shower that night, I shaved. I took it all off so he’d never have to be so inconvenienced again and I wouldn’t have to be so embarrassing. But we never even hooked up again after that — I went to camp and then got home to find he’d moved on to someone else.

Maybe T. was the start, but he didn’t do all the damage. After all, it was so many years ago. Plenty of people have bad hookups in high school or college and move on just fine, to adult lives full of great sex and orgasms whenever they want. It was more than just T. It was L., dismissive and angry even in high school; and then it was E., who thought being with me was funny; and then it was all those boys in college, a blur of boys who took too much and for whom I tried too hard. And there was J., too. We never had sex but we came close, that night in his dorm room, and we probably would’ve if I didn’t start crying (I’d be embarrassed if we weren’t so drunk). It was all the boys up until Kurt, and maybe even him, too. He is not like them — of course he’s not — but he is a guy having sex with me and so I assume I’m not enough.

Kurt tells me I’m beautiful. He kisses my neck and trails his finger down my body and wants so badly to make me happy. And he does, in so many ways; he is my best friend and the love of my life, and when I wake up wrapped in his arms my first reaction is to pull him even closer. I am constantly in awe of the bodily power that relationships bring, that I can just grab his arm or scratch his back or point out a pimple on his neck as if his body is simply an extension of my own.

I am constantly in awe of the bodily power that relationships bring.

But although I love Kurt more than anything, he cannot fix me when it comes to sex. He can listen and nod and kiss me until I’m sore but no matter what, he can’t make it better.

I am not one with my body, whatever that even means. I am pigeon-toed and slouched over and always bumping into walls because depth and space are a bit too blurry. I don’t recognize myself in photos, sometimes, and when the woman at the salon asks me which way I part my hair, I have to think harder than I should to remember. I didn’t start touching myself until my friends made it clear they’d been doing so for years. I didn’t know that I was supposed to. I don’t hate my body, I just don’t understand it.

I am not one with my body, whatever that even means.

You get more freckles in the spring, Kurt tells me one day, when we are laying in bed. I do? I say. I don’t look at myself much, don’t get into make-up more than the basics, don’t analyze my body and dissect it into squares. I cringe when I gain weight and I feel my joints stretch when I’m cracking them but otherwise, my body is irrelevant to me. It’s for someone else to stare at and use, not for me to do anything more than inhabit.

Here Are The Things I Learned How To Do Too Late

• Shave my legs (my mom only let me use Nair on them until sixth grade, and my legs smelled of chemicals all during math class).

• Touch myself (and even now I barely do).

• Put on make-up (but only a little).

• Shave my pubic hair (see: T., “she’s too hairy”).

• Have a skin care routine (we washed our faces and patted them dry, couldn’t have taken more than thirty seconds).

Ironically enough, my mom took me every month to get our eyebrows done, without fail.

So far, with Kurt, I have let the truth of my tics seep out slowly: first, my nail biting (common, no big deal); then, my joint cracking (annoying, but not too weird); then, my face picking and hair pulling (bad bad bad, I only told him with my head buried in another direction). He’s always so supportive, and he even stops me when he sees my hand reaching up to my chin or my brows, swatting it away before it can inflict more damage.

But his help only does so much. You know, your eyebrows don’t match up, a friend said to me once in high school, when we were sitting at the table eating lunch. One is kind of shorter than the other. And I’d laughed it off to a bad plucking job, but the truth was that I’d spent the night before tearing the hairs out absentmindedly, only stopping when my fingers reached up for their next pull to find an empty space. I thought I’d covered it up for school, but I hadn’t, and now I am many years older but still doing the same exact thing — pretending I am covering up the errors on my body while other people look and easily spot the truth.

Here is my truth, as far as I know it: I have never associated my body, or any body, with pleasure. I don’t see those two things as connected. It feels odd to even think that they’re supposed to be. I think I am scared by the idea of pleasure. When I use a vibrator I turn it off right after there’s been some feeling, as if the possibility of more to come is too dangerous to discover. When Kurt goes down on me I tell him to stop after some time has passed, because if feels wrong to have him spend even more time attempting to make me feel good. I say I want pleasure, but what I’m realizing is, maybe I don’t.

No one taught me to hate my body or not to feel good, I don’t think. Not my parents, not anyone else — I did this on my own. I told myself, at some point a long time ago, probably, that to feel good was a mistake, a danger. To stay away. To turn off the sex toy, move a boy’s hands away, close my legs when things start to get going. To view pleasure as the enemy. To believe I don’t deserve it. To know that as a truth that can never be argued, that stays with me day in and day out.

I have never liked being too happy, this is true. When I am truly content — when everything in my life is going well — I search for something to be unsatisfied with. I make problems out of nothing and find comfort in pain, even wish it would come back when it leaves (like fevers, like the flu). When I am happy and healthy I can’t write and when I can’t write I am trapped in my head and when I am trapped there I am not me, not even a fraction. I need some kind of friction in order to be.

When I am truly content — when everything in my life is going well — I search for something to be unsatisfied with.

And so I pick and I pull and I don’t come, and I wonder what my life would be like if things were different — but I don’t call it a fantasy, because I’m not sure I want to find out. I try medications my doctor prescribes to help with the tics and they work, but I still don’t stop myself as fast as I should when my hand reaches up to my face. I go to a sex therapist, finally, and feel so relieved to be there in the appointment, but afterwards I don’t do the exercises she recommends. I am too comfortable, too certain, with who I am and this version of myself to truly attempt becoming another. I like the hairs in the keyboard, the ache in my joints. It’s not pleasure, exactly, but it’s the closest I’m willing to get.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Rachel Simon

Written by

Rachel Simon is the Entertainment News Editor at Bustle. She’s also been published in Cosmo, Glamour, Mic, and the Huffington Post. Follow her at @rachel_simon.

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Rachel Simon

Written by

Rachel Simon is the Entertainment News Editor at Bustle. She’s also been published in Cosmo, Glamour, Mic, and the Huffington Post. Follow her at @rachel_simon.

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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