The scoop of the wax
At the bottom of this essay are animated images of earwax removal and spot squeezing.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend in around 2011, before I started thinking about any of the content of this article. I’d discovered him in the corner of his kitchen, rooting around in his ear with a cotton bud. His eyes were closed and he seemed so serene that I was reluctant to say even a word to disturb him. Except I had to speak, if only to tell him that I knew what he was feeling. It was a strange connection over something weird and private and gross.
“It feels great, doesn’t it? Cleaning your ears out with a cotton bud?”
We were both then quick to admit that we did it regularly in spite of the fact that we knew full well that it is very bad for your ears, and in some cases can drive wax further down the ear canal and cause hearing problems. Yet we couldn’t wait for the wax to build up so that we could scoop it out again. The larger the amount of wax, the more satisfying in fact. For some reason.
In recent years, I’ve discovered the full extent of the complications using cotton buds in your ears can cause. I also know all about the negative impacts of using hopi-candles in an attempt to clean out the ear canal. I know this because over the last couple of years I’ve watched countless “educational” videos on YouTube, published by private hospitals and hearing clinics, of patients having abnormal and copious amounts of wax removed from their ears. There are thousands of these videos on YouTube, and they’ve got a significant following. For example, one channel, that of audiologist Nick Chitty, has amassed a staggering 24,000 subscribers and 19 million total views across 80 videos. Why? I’m not really sure, but I should be, since I’m one of the 24,000.
Chitty runs a private hearing clinic in Devon and posts real videos of his patients, that he films using an endoscopic camera inside their ears. The footage is accompanied by a reflective voiceover recorded by Chitty after the fact, in which he explains the specifics of the procedure. From watching the videos I’m now aware that there are three main methods of ear wax removal: irrigation, microsuction, and a tool called a Jobson Horne. Irrigation involves jets of water in the ear to “wash out” the canal and microsuction involves the use of what is essentially a very small but relatively very loud vacuum cleaner. It’s the last method however, the Jobson Horne, that is most popular with Chitty’s viewership (this is apparent from the comments section). It’s also the method that I enjoy watching the most.
The reasons for this are I think quite clear. The Jobson Horne is a sort of metal hook that works in much the same way that we civilians often attempt to use a cotton bud. The audiologist will go in behind the wax with the Jobson Horne and remove in usually reasonably large solid pieces. I find this extraordinarily relaxing to witness, and the bigger and more whole a single piece of wax the better.
So do lots of other people, clearly. Chitty’s is by no means the only channel of its kind, and all of its videos are swamped by people who get a relaxing effect from the content without really understanding why. At first however, it was obvious to me. Their enjoyment is vicarious for sure, and is coming from recollections of feelings like my friend was having in his kitchen back in 2011. But here’s the thing – it turns out after a bit of research (and from listening to comments from Chitty himself) that many of Nick Chitty’s patients won’t have exactly been having a great time during the videos. Having ear wax removed with a Jobson Horne can be, if not painful, at least uncomfortable and strange, as it often involves a certain amount of rubbing against the sensitive walls of the ear canal. So…hang on then…what exactly are we vicariously enjoying?
To find that answer I feel as if we need to visit another, more popular but similar, corner of YouTube. Somebody will have shown you a pimple popping video if you’ve been on the internet at all in the last five years. Sometimes they even appear on Facebook. They involve all manner of zits, blemishes, and even large cysts being popped by dermatologists. The Queen of pimple popping YouTube is Sandra Lee, aka Dr. Pimple Popper, an American dermatologist whose pimple popping videos are so popular that they’re now a major part of the funding of her clinic. Put simply, if you’re willing for your treatment to be on YouTube, then you get it free, because it gets paid for by the ad revenue Lee receives from the video. Sandra Lee has an astonishing 4 million subscribers and 2 billion total views on her channel. People really enjoy watching other people having their spots squeezed, apparently.
But that can’t be vicarious can it? Because as anybody whose parent or significant other has ever pinned them down or even anybody who’s had a go at their own zits in the bathroom mirror knows that it’s not a pleasant experience and is in a lot of cases pretty painful. It might not be excruciating, but it’s certainly not nice. It’s certainly not relaxing in the conventional sense.
I watched a series of pimple popping and ear wax removal videos side by side recently (purely for research purposes, I promise) to determine exactly what was so relaxing about them. What it appeared to boil down to was the emergence of the pimple from its pore and the emergence of the wax from the ear canal. In both kinds of video, it was far more satisfying if all of the material came out in one piece. In fact, to see the puss or the wax extracted in dribs and drabs was downright frustrating and I had to click away. There was something about that clean removal that was alluring in the extreme. And commenters agreed.
In time, the algorithm led me to a third kind of video that at first seemed unrelated to (but equally as inexplicable as) the first two. There’s a whole corner of YouTube and Instagram where you can watch different objects being crushed by a hydraulic press, or in a variation that more fits my line of enquiry, by a “worm maker”, a sort of industrial press that makes any solid object into a number of wiggly spirals through the use of a series of holes. Again, they’re extremely popular videos, especially if (you guessed it) the crushing or the “worming” is clean and tidy.
The hydraulic press videos were a huge turning point in my investigative pursuit. I quickly began to speculate that perhaps this vicarious satisfaction was nothing to do with the sensation of any real audiological or dermatological procedure at all. Maybe, I thought, it was more to do with physicalising the act of putting something into a tidy package and expunging it from ourselves.
Maybe my conversation with my friend back in 2011 had been a red herring. Yes, the gentle rub of a cotton bud in the ear does tickle nicely. But what I was more invested in was the scoop of the wax, and seeing it gathered upon the tip of the bud afterwards. I have little to no interest in operating a hydraulic press. I don’t enjoy it at all when my girlfriend attempts to squeeze my spots. The gift of these online videos is the sense of ejaculation they give us without having to pay the price. We use a body other than our own to free ourselves of something unwanted.
Molly Martian is a writer, poet and podcaster based in North London. She writes a poem every day on her Instagram page, poetrybitsdaily, and sometimes performs them live. They’re generally concerned with eccentric spaces in everyday places. As a podcaster, she’s released more than 50 episodes of Galactic Yo-yo, on which she interviews fans of Doctor Who. In 2016, she released her first album of original pop music, Feelings Are Hard But Your Hair Looks Amazing.