Wearing a face after a year of masks
Recently, I came across the concept of self-portraiture. As someone who developed a habit of taking pictures of herself despite constant guilt — for being vain, obsessing over appearance, being shallow — I found this concept validating. Rather than fueling insecurity, self-portraiture is about developing a relationship with one's image within a place of strength. It is a valid, powerful form of expression. However, it takes on another dimension of complexity when these photos enter social media.
“Can you lower your mask?”
Dazed and sweaty, I’d finally made it to the airport security checkpoint after getting lost in the long-term parking lot. I had two masks on. It was the summer of 2021. With COVID cases spiking, I wasn’t taking chances before visiting unvaccinated family members.
Except, now this security guard was asking me to remove my mask. Holding my passport, he looked at me expectantly, waiting to verify that the masked human before him was the girl with long black hair, smiling from the page in his hands.
Grudgingly, I lowered my masks. I innerly writhed as he looked at me at 16, then me at 23. The latter had shaved her head and put on dozens of pounds since her passport photo was taken.
He returned my passport, then waved me onward — not before I rolled my eyes in futile protest, which I instantly regretted. The policy wasn’t his. He was doing his job, probably a bit tattered from the vitriol of people like myself.
Beneath my caution, his request had touched a nerve, one of my deepest insecurities — my face, how it has changed over the years, and the dread of unmasking after over a year of hiding.
When I was 16, I had yet to realize my hair would thin rapidly. I had yet to gain all the weight of escalating stress as the years of college drew near, took their toll on me, then faded into the past.
In a society predicated upon whiteness, my face is unapologetically Filipino. In my case, this translates to brown skin, brown eyes that vanish into slits when I smile, and pale wisps of eyebrows; a broad, fleshy nose that (I swear) becomes fleshier every year, melting across my face when my wide lips spread; voluminous cheeks that protrude when I speak, and a dark mole over my left jaw.
As a young woman saturated in Eurocentric ideals of physical beauty, I have learned to loathe these features. From the constant dread of being seen, masking offered an escape. Masking is a way to hide in plain sight — to accept, implicitly, that a face like mine doesn't deserve to be seen.
Beyond tangible function, masking circumvents what has been a source of dread since my childhood. I suspect I'm not alone in this — not the only person for whom being seen has warped into a site of recurring anxiety and shame; not the only person who has longed for an escape, and found it — grasped hold of it, clung fiercely — in the mandate to wear a mask.
As a child, I tumbled headfirst into the unspoken mentality that to be female was to grasp for validation. At 8 years old, I learned to be ashamed of my body. At 13, shame swelled into a towering, living beast.
It lives in me still.
If wearing a mask is hiding in plain sight, then curating a virtual self-image is rewriting the terms of sight.
In 2020, vaguely aware that social media algorithms increase the circulation of profile pictures, I decided to promote my Patreon by changing my Facebook profile picture.
So I placed my phone at a flattering angle, took some head shots, and uploaded one as my profile picture.
If my 13-year-old self could see the amount of likes and comments it received, she'd flush with pleasure. She would think what she thinks about every woman who is thin, white, and confident: “That woman, she is seen. She is valued. Life is objectively better in her body.”
If 13-year-old me could see 23-year-old me being seen, all of her insecurities would vanish. At least, for a time.
"I live in my body, not on a screen," I remind myself. But how tempting, to live on a screen. How safe. Unlike your body, on a screen your image never changes.
But if screens are safe, the sight of yourself on a screen can have a visceral effect.
A "flattering" photo has the power to convince me that I am worthy of taking up space, beautiful. Whereas an "unflattering" photo has the power to pierce through years of rebuilding self-confidence, to demolish any sense of worth. To define how others see me — to confirm that I do not, in fact, deserve to take up space.
To post on social media is to place an image on the screens of others.
It says, "This is of value. Look."
Despite a culture that normalizes posting pictures of oneself on social media, I've avoided doing so for two main reasons: one, a fear of being perceived as vain and self-centered. Two, a concept of authenticity that rejects "unrealistically flattering" photos of myself — “unrealistic,” simply because photos cannot hold space for how bodies appear in multi-dimensional reality.
When others post pictures of themselves, I allow them the self-expression for which I guilt myself. But deep down, don't we all post for the same reason — to remind everyone, most of all ourselves, that we are still here? That despite the onslaught of crises upon our collective consciousness, we are still worthy of being seen, even celebrated?
This is the lure of social media: the capacity to construct another self, virtual rather than embodied, and to launch this self into a sleepless, borderless existence.
Then, upon its release, we bask in the social capital it generates. For what is social media if not an economy of attention, of projecting our gaze and generating validation from the gaze of others?
Photos capture a person's humanity. The beauty of their living, the energy pervading their being. Suspended in time, photos preserve truths about ourselves that we lose sight of amid the perpetual motion of everyday life.
In a world where to live is to be seen by others in real time, for marginalized bodies, self-portraiture offers liberation — however fleeting, a refuge in which the only eyes perceiving our bodies are our own.
But self-portraiture is a bubble within a harsher reality.
One way or another, I have to stomach the reality that "unflattering" photos of me will continue to be taken, because sometimes my body shatters every box of what constitutes a "beautiful" body. I have to learn that this is okay, and in no way detracts from my worth.
One way or another, I have to stomach the reality that we are each given one body. Physical beauty, however compelling, only temporarily satisfies the hunger carved inside for validation.
Self-expression is powerful, sometimes life-changing. But the essential work is to become safe places for ourselves, for our own bodies, as they constantly change in size, shape, texture — evolving as homes for who we become inside them.
One evening in September, as I am leaving a friend's place, I thank her for having trusted me to help her try on dresses that day. I tell her that I have experienced deep, damaging shame in wearing new clothes in front of others, only to realize the clothes accentuate the ways my body is not a model's — they make my body feel unsafe, undesirable. She tells me she has been there, she knows what I mean.
For a second, we look at each other in silence. We are suspended in time, two women looking at each other through the shadows of our deepest shame.
This world has taught us to resent our dark-skinned bodies, not sculpted along the curves and edges prescribed to bodies that already transgress whiteness. Not everyone can understand how dehumanizing this struggle can feel. How isolating.
Maybe this is why I cherish this memory. My friend and I look through the silence, the shadow of our deepest shame, and see each other.