Out of sight, out of mind… though, not so much lately as the calluses on my feet enjoy fewer hours tucked away in boots each day. Now, as I dwell over our daily political/economic/viral disasters, my fingers can freely trace the hard, dead skin of my heel and the mound of insensate flesh beneath my pinky toe. At once, I am all too aware that something must be done.
There is a condition called “psychogenic alopecia,” in which a cat responds to prolonged boredom or anxiety by excessively grooming its fur. Distressed felines will lick and chew with such diligence that they expose vast swathes of bare, irritated skin. When under duress, dogs, too, will lick away their fur and chew until their flesh breaks.
It’s a feeling I know well: this sudden impulse to scratch and file; this relentless, all-encompassing itch, satisfied only by hairs plucked or scabs picked. It is passive and involuntary — a reflex to mysterious stimuli, surfacing from the depths like a yawn. What veterinarians call psychogenic alopecia, physicians call trichotillomania, or sometimes excoriation. I call it The Urge.
When I was younger, The Urge compelled me to rip bundles of lashes from my eyelids and brows, to sprinkle them across the carpet like chicken feed; or to strip my fingernails of their cuticles, leaving the skin mutilated and raw; or to wring blackheads from my nose with a single-minded determination. When all the grime had been coaxed out, and blood began to well up from my pores, The Urge demanded I squeeze harder, dig deeper — a tireless excavation.
Foot calluses, however, pose a distinct challenge: they are more stubborn than fraying scabs or feebly rooted hairs. Hours can be spent trying to pry them free from the heel, but without the proper utensil, these efforts only concentrate the surrounding flesh into denser, more obstinate obstructions. They taunt, egg on, until all of my attention is absorbed, until I am employing new tools and ever more advanced strategies to accomplish the necessary task — to quiet the screaming Urge.
My mind thus engaged, I eventually found that my foot calluses could be hacked away with a sturdy pair of toenail clippers or a sharp pair of kitchen scissors. I’d cleave generous chunks of dead skin from the bottoms of my feet and collect them in neat piles on my bedroom carpet, before flushing them down toilets and bathroom sinks. But this method tended to leave behind a craterous, lunar terrain which required further smoothing: a task which would have required a high-speed sander, or some other such industrial appliance, to achieve. In my childish panic at witnessing these craters form, I’d hew more and more away — as if trying to correct unevenly-cut bangs, hacking until the entire forehead is exposed. Except, of course, what became exposed was not my forehead, but the uncharted depths of my flesh.
Afterwards, when I walked, I felt like The Little Mermaid in the disquieting Hans Christian Andersen fairytale — gifted two feet to dance with, but cursed to feel the cut of a knife each time sole met earth.
Even after various therapists had a go at me, after my lashes and brows grew back and The Urge slowly lost its grip, the calluses continued to nag. At some point in high school, I acquired a debit card, which gave me the freedom (and the privacy) to acquire a new tool: the Ped Egg. Long had I watched infomercials that advertised this foot grater — this maker of fine foot dust. Long had I desired to drag its rough metal surface across the bottoms of my feet — to empty my powderized flesh from its ovular receptacle.
Indeed, the Ped Egg was a welcome improvement upon the crude, boorish work of the toenail clippers; and, as anticipated, I found immense pleasure witnessing that soft, ashy pile of skin emerge from the egg.
But that pile deceives. Blades gentle enough to be scraped across one’s palm — as the Ped Egg proudly advertises — were too gentle for the work at hand. My calluses remained; reduced, but intact. Perennially firm. Unyielding.
Most recently, I came across a new solution — a radical solution, tinged with the thrill of danger — known as the callus shaver. Apparently most salons do not permit them, something about infection risk and a woman in North Carolina who almost had a leg amputated. Hazards aside, they’re available online for as little as $4.99(!). This little tool is the soulmate I’ve been waiting my whole life to find me.
The callus shaver cuts as deep as the clipper or scissors, while maintaining a smooth surface, like the Egg. It’s easy to use, easy to clean, and easy to assemble and disassemble into its various parts: just a sleek handle with a detachable straight-edge razor blade.
This is a no-bullshit tool. Its inventor, a mid-eighteenth century French podiatrist, was a man who understood that such unfeeling flesh must be dominated with violence, not gently seduced by pumice or file. As with a sword or a gun, the callus shaver must not be wielded without solemn respect for its power. You cannot cavalierly scrape its blade across the surface of your palm or set to work while in a state of distraction or hurry. Just the other day I forgot myself, and, while dragging it over the rough mound beneath my big toe, flayed my skin so deeply that the blood soaked through my socks and left little red toe prints on the parquet floor.
Dangers aside, the callus shaver delivers. The blade sloughs off skin like a peel from an orange. Sheets collect and fall to the floor in heavy clumps. You could reshape your feet entirely, if you wanted to. You could chisel them away into the shape of some maiden of myth, Philomena or Daphne, creatures transfigured by misfortune. Make them smooth and creamy, like marble. I promise you, your soles will feel again — actively, like your fingertips. They will have shed their laurel tree bark and emerged as flesh once more, awake and alive to a whole new world of sensation.
Beauty is never the goal of an excessive groomer; nor is good hygiene. If it were, I’d be satisfied with a trip to the nail salon. The floral scent of moisturizer and the slick feel of skin against the foam of single-use flip-flops should be enough.
A day or two passes, and in an idle moment — tracing my arms and legs with soothing strokes, searching aimlessly — my fingers find the soles of my feet. And there it is. Flesh so stiff and immalleable it can hardly be considered flesh at all.
Herein lies the fatal flaw of the callus shaver, being that The Urge is not so easily placated. Tweezers, clippers, blackhead extractors, pore strips, Ped Eggs, and even callus shavers — these are tools which perform the sacred task of removing filth and excess, scraping away all signs of death and decay, leaving in their wake a purer, holier body. But the body continues spindling dead fibers, cocooning itself in dirt and oils and hairs and dandruff and callus — always, always more callus. There is no absolution until death.
Sometimes the impulse fades, and even vanishes. Today is not one of those times. My roommates and I could not invent a reason to go outside, and so we didn’t. We huddle over laptops and phones, read bad news, get our groceries delivered. Our cats yawn and stretch in sunbeams. Occasionally, they sit upright as if wakened by an alarm, then lift a leg to get at the downy fur between their hind legs, licking with rote determination. I pick at hangnails before sauntering to the bathroom mirror for a battle with my latest acne flare up.
A bevy of new creams and tools had arrived earlier: clarisonic brush heads, retinol creams, pore extractors, chemical foot peels. The cats groom away on the living room carpet, gnawing the grime from under their claws and casting tumbleweeds of fur into the corners of our apartment. I prod my face and clip my nails and file my feet and pluck rogue hairs from my bikini line. I dig a little deeper into my sole, and a little deeper still, until that inevitable moment when I cut too deep.
What the callus shaver has given me is not a cure for The Urge — I don’t believe there is one, short of lobotomy — but it has managed to pacify me somewhat, in the way simply having a bottle of Xanax on hand can stave off a panic attack. Knowing — just knowing — that I can, at a moment’s notice, wet the blade and begin to peel, to carve to a point of relative satisfaction, is sometimes enough to render The Urge a suggestion, rather than a command. Sometimes I can brush my fingertips against the rocky terrain of my soles and think, later.
Still, when The Urge seizes me, I am at its mercy. Over time, I’ve learned to succumb calmly and methodically: to sit cross-legged on the floor, line up my equipment — callus shaver, bowl of water, hand towel, bandages and Neosporin (just in case) — and begin, with sharp focus and surgical precision, to cut.
Afterwards, I slip on a thick pair of socks and some slippers. My unearthed flesh — newly born into this world — needs time to adjust before making contact with the cold, punishing floor. Curled up on a sofa or a chair, fresh clean socks on my feet and maybe a warm beverage or a glass of wine in hand, I can finally exhale. I can count my blessings — the callus shaver chief among them. I am not, like cats and dogs, restricted to the awkward work of untrained claws, boorish teeth, unremitting tongue; I have the callus shaver and with it, a glimpse of self-mastery — a glimpse of perfection, of a body freed from urges, from grime, from decay, and all that is impure.