My four year old daughter said this to me this week: “Mum, why do you look so bad before you put on your makeup?”
She also told me that when I didn’t have my clothes on I am ‘wobbly’. My clothes, however, make me ‘straight’. It’s enough to make me want to never go out of the house – and especially not in her company. Who needs a little four year old truth bomb going off at inappropriate times?
The fact is, my skin is forty years old and my stomach, which was never firm, even in its heyday, has been home to four children, and likes to hang out a little over my jeans, just to let me know it’s still here.
It has been an interesting week.
And it got more interesting when someone asked me to write a piece about about ‘wearing masks’ in public.
My makeup – and my clothes – suddenly felt like masks. Like I was hiding my true, wobbly, wrinkly self behind fakery. In reality, though, and let’s be honest, who wants to see my tummy fat, whether literal or symbolic? I am waaay more presentable with my lipstick and mascara on. Plus I feel better when I wear it.
I was getting confused.
What does it mean to ‘wear a mask’ in public? Essentially, to present yourself as something that you’re not. It’s about pretending you’re perfect and fooling others into thinking you’ve got it all together.
Wearing a mask in public is basically denying that you have any vulnerabilities, insecurities or failings; any deep secrets, terrible guilt or intense shame.
We wear masks in public so that people won’t find us out, so that they won’t reject us, so that they won’t be able to destroy us with what they know about us.
We wear our masks out of fear and a deep lack of self-worth.
Masks can come in a multitude of colours, shapes and sizes. We can dress up to be better than the best, or we can dress down and loud to be intimidating. We can put on elegance or cool or knowledge to let people know that we’ve got ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is, or we can hit out, low and dirty, to keep everyone away.
No one gets in. No one comes close. No one ever gets to find out who we are.
Because we’re scared.
There are different ways of relating to people. I’ve written before on the differences between relating to people in the public space, the social space, the personal space and the intimate space.
You’ll act differently if you’re meeting the Queen than if you’re going out with a friend for coffee. You’ll probably buy a new dress and have your makeup and hair done and squeeze into those heels that sit in the top of the closet for special occasions. You’ll stand in line patiently, and then you’ll smile and nod and say terribly appropriate, polite things to the Queen when she eventually gets to talk to you.
Are you putting on a mask? Yes, of course you are. But it’s an appropriate one.
If you turned up in your jeans and ponytail to meet the Queen, and expected to sit and chat to her at length about your child’s teething issues, and how you felt about the last episode of Survivor, and how you’re really just, like over the whole not getting any sleep with a baby in the house thing, you might not be putting on a mask, but you’d be thrown off the line by the Queen’s minders before she even got halfway along the line.
It might be ‘you’, but it’s an inappropriate ‘you’ for the setting.
It’s easy enough for us to look earnest and nod and say, “Oh, yes, masks are terrible, and we should All be Absolutely Honest with each other All Of The Time,” as though our lives should resemble some kind of extended girlie sleepover with deep amounts of sharing at a moment’s notice. But that’s only really half the story. It’s naïve to think that ‘taking off your mask’ is as simple as acting like you would with your best friend all the time. We need to be appropriate for the occasions we find ourselves in.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘taking off your mask’ is just about acting casual in a non-casual situation.
So what does it mean to take off our masks? Accepting the people that we are, and accepting the people around us as they are as well.
It is me saying to myself, “Yes, I have tummy fat. Yes, I protect myself from hurt because I’ve never forgiven that person at school. Yes, I have a comfort eating issue. Yes, I try to control other people’s emotions. And sometimes I don’t feel loved.”
It is you saying to yourself, “I’m impatient, I feel like I’m drowning when I’m parenting my children and I can’t see any hope for my marriage.”It’s taking the opportunities we have to get to know people on a deeper level, and, in the appropriate situation, it’s sharing those things with the right people. It’s not sharing all of those things with everyone you meet, but it is being smart enough to recognise an appropriate time to share what’s on your heart.
Taking off our masks can be scary. For people with deep, overflowing hurts, it can be huge. It’s good, though. It’s good because when we don’t pretend and hide, we can have real relationships, we can experience love, we can seek and give forgiveness.
If you want to create a community where people take off their masks, you can start by listening, believing, accepting and relating. Be the person who says, “I understand.I’ve been there. I’ve got figurative stretch marks too.” Be a safe person for others.
If you want to take your mask off and it’s really, really hard, do it little by little. Finding a good counsellor might be a helpful way to start. Otherwise, talking to yourself about who you really are is a good first step. Then you can find some safe people and put down a small foundation of trust with them. Build it higher and take bigger risks. You might be surprised at how accepting people are.
And of course, begin to understand that God actually loves you. When we ‘get’ that love, when we really understand it, and internalise it, the fear has no hiding places left. Perfect love gets rid of fear. And where there is no fear, there’s no need for masks.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Cecily Paterson writes uplifting, warm hearted fiction for young teenage girls. Read more of Cecily's work on her blog here