If we believe all human beings have a fatal flaw, in the Ancient Greek sense, mine is this: I am a total sucker for influencer advertising. Which is probably why, when I’m feeling stressed, I do a thing that I’ve seen other people (on Instagram) do: I’ll create a tableau of relaxation. I’ll light up an overpriced scented candle, get under a hygge blanket, and put on a sheet mask. Does it actually make me feel more relaxed? No. Do I kind of hate the sensation of coating my face in a layer of cold, drippy sticky goo with indeterminate healing properties? Yes. Do I nonetheless have the urge, each and every time, to snap a photo of myself and share it with all my friends, to convey just how freaking pampered and Zen I am? Absolutely.
In fact, actually feeling relaxed comes second to knowing that I look relaxed to the outside eye, which then makes me feel a little better — although not in the way it was originally supposed to. It’s the ultimate wellness placebo.
Sheet masks seduced me at some point last year; around the time Chrissy Teigen started posting about them, I found myself investing in an array of ‘rejuvenating,’ ‘replenishing,’ ‘brightening,’ ‘tightening,’ ‘detoxifying,’ ‘pore-cleansing,’ and all-round guaranteed-to-make-your-life-better sheet masks. For the uninitiated, these papery film masks come coated in various serums that promise to provide a super-charged path to better skin (they were big in Asia before their recent American popularity). The selfie potential is often billed as part of their appeal, and is clearly part of the reason they have proliferated so fast. As Allure wrote in a post about the sheet-mask craze: “Go ahead and slap one on, relax for 20 minutes, and don’t forget to snap a selfie.”
Which isn’t to say that sheet masks aren’t a great and effective beauty tool (I know nothing about the finer points of skin care, but our beauty editor Kathleen Hou swears by them). Yet I can’t help feeling that there’s also something weirdly performative about our current sheet-mask epidemic, in which posting a photo of a yourself looking like a Goop-ified Freddy Krueger somehow comes to signify ‘I look after myself’ — an elaborate put-on, in which the appearance of self-care becomes more valuable than the act of self-care itself. I know, because I’m guilty of it. As someone who washes my face with a bar of hand soap and more often than not forgets to take my mascara off before bed, I’m hardly someone who should be boasting about their vigilant beauty regimen. Yet putting on a sheet mask feels somehow like I’m on a high-speed shuttle to instant wellness, much like eating (and photographing) an açaí bowl instantly makes me feel healthy (even if it’s the only vaguely nutritious thing I have eaten all week).
When it comes to presenting an image of living well, sheet masks are the perfect prop. They are convenient and often inexpensive (you can get them at Target now). They seem vaguely medicinal — imbued with some secret magical sauce that most of us don’t really understand. And most importantly, they are visually striking, i.e. Instagrammable. As you may have noticed, people’s photos of themselves in sheet masks are often accompanied by wry, faux-self-deprecating captions (“Scaring children,” writes Teigen under one, while Diane Kruger riffs “this is the stuff nightmares are made of”). You necessarily look kind of goofy in a sheet mask, but you don’t actually look scary or ugly, because your features are safely obscured. (Also: because you look the same as everyone else.)
Posting a photograph of yourself looking like a serum-drenched swamp creature enables you to share a ‘relatable’ goofy selfie without actually revealing any blemishes or imperfections or doing anything authentically weird. People I know who would never dream of sharing an unflattering photo will post photos of themselves in sheet masks. As further proof of how ritualized this has become, there’s now a face-mask Snapchat filter, complete with little cucumbers for your eyes. I don’t know much about living a mindful life, I’m pretty sure whipping out your phone and snap-chatting photos of your face is counterproductive when it comes to achieving a state of Zen.
And so, in a world of constant updates, the once-private act of slathering your face in weird-looking goo has also become aspirational content. A sheet-mask selfie is the perfect act of safe exhibitionism: it pretends to be a raw, revealing peek behind the curtain — showing how the beauty sausage gets made — while actually being as calculated and generic as anything else people choose to post online.
Still, I can’t deny that my skin looks better.