Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

The Toxic Notion of 'Mask-Fishing'

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it many unique challenges and experiences, from economic hardships to personal struggles. Yet, if there is one visual factor that I would pick out to discern this time in our lives, it would be masks.

Meeting or seeing people for the first time while wearing masks has become an everyday occurrence in our college experience. Quickly learning to recognize cues from someone’s eyes instead of facial expressions and asking “what?” about one hundred times when ordering in the dining hall, masks have assimilated into our everyday life and changed how we view people. And while we seem to have learned to adapt to this visual block fairly well, it doesn’t come without its own unique set of challenges.

While wearing masks has many benefits (please, please wear a mask) there has arisen a new kind of insecurity surrounding it. “Mask-fishing,” or cat-fishing with masks, is a general term used to describe when someone appears to look better with a mask on than off and can be very detrimental.

Picture this: you’re in the dining hall and your friend points out someone they have an in-person class with. “Hmm, they look better with their mask on,” they say with unwavering disappointment. But, do they really? Throughout this past year, there have been plenty of remarks or conversations that follow that line of people getting disappointed after seeing what someone looks like below the mask. Whether that be through seeing your classmates mask-less on Zoom for the first time or seeing a picture of someone on Instagram. 

When seeing someone without a mask for the first time, there’s this accompanying shock value when faced with what they look like, but why is that? When we meet people with masks on, our brain struggles to come up with images of what they might look like, whether we realize it or not. Vague thoughts of what their nose, mouth, or face shape might be are all happening in our minds even though we aren’t actively thinking about it. In fact, we often don’t realize we’ve created this image until the person reveals their face and we realize that they don’t quite match what we thought. It’s not that they look better with a mask on, it’s that they don’t fit preconceived notions of what you personally believe they might look like. 

But how is this a bad thing? Well, often the image that is created in our mind is the “standard” sized nose, mouth, and face. So when people take off their masks and don’t meet that, why are they automatically coined as less attractive? Why are faces that don’t fit the “standard” mold automatically rejected? Qualities like bigger noses, smaller lips, and round faces all seem to be pushed aside and deemed undesirable. So when they are hidden then suddenly revealed, people tend to have negative reactions and realize that they have been wrong in their assumptions all along.

This concept of the standard beauty ideals and the toxicity behind it isn’t new, but the introduction of masks has heightened it. I’ve even caught myself analyzing features of my own I never have before, in fear of them not fitting people’s conceptions of what I might look like without my mask. Is my nose too big? Why does my chin do that? All these new thoughts and insecurities swirling around my head, and suddenly I’ve also fallen into the trap of worrying that I won’t fit what others imagine me to look like.

On the other hand, though, masks do provide temporary relief from facial insecurities one might have. Have a pimple on your chin? Don’t like the way your nose looks from the side? All of that doesn’t matter when you have a mask on. But something that we need to realize is that this temporary relief from these insecurities is not actually aiding in combatting and resolving them. In a Washington Post article, a woman says how wearing a mask has relieved her from insecurities surrounding her deformed jaw. Yet, she acknowledges that it is because of her deeply-rooted insecurities that she has embraced wearing masks so much, and at the end of the day she still carries them with her. It’s not that she’s suddenly relieved of her doubts and insecurities when she puts on a mask, they’re just hidden behind a layer of cloth. 

Covering up an issue doesn’t resolve it, and can create a crutch we don’t realize we’ve been leaning on. But the simple fact is that we can’t control how others view us, let alone how they perceive what we might look like. So, wear that mask with pride—when you do take it off, don’t stress about what others might think. Because it was you under the mask all along, and you should never feel responsible for other people’s false conceptions of what you might look like.

Biology major who loves coffee, reading, and pretending like I know what I'm doing.