Tanushri Sundaram, 17, thinks everyone at her school is a bit of a “mask fisher.”
“When you have a mask on, you only get to see the forehead, the eyes, and when you’re only seeing that, you just kind of have an image in your head of what someone’s supposed to look like,” she said. “So when you take that mask off, it’s like a new person you’re looking at. It’s always going to be something you don’t expect.”
Throughout the pandemic, face masks had become reliable shields for Tanushri and her classmates in New York City. In addition to protecting against the spread of Covid-19, they had obscured all kinds of transformations teenagers may feel inclined to hide: braces, pimples, acne scars, the first growths of facial hair.
Now that the city has ended its mask mandate for public schools, students are dealing with old anxieties about appearance and the pressure to fit in. And as they get a closer look at each other’s faces, they’re finding out who among them has been mask fishing — in other words, using facial coverings to cover up what they really look like.
The term is a play on “catfishing,” the slang for misrepresenting one’s identity online. For a generation that has grown up with smartphones and Instagram, it’s an apt reference.
“Some of these people really haven’t seen my face outside of social media and things like that,” Damia Whyte, 17, said. “What I post on social media is a little bit different than what I look like on a day-to-day basis.”
“Me on social media, I feel like I’m a little bit more done up,” she added.
“The only people I really know that I’ve seen without their mask on are people I see outside of school and people I see either when they’re eating,” said Jasper, 15, whose father requested that he be identified by only his first name. “So the majority of the people in my classes that I don’t see outside of school or stuff like that, I don’t know what they look like without their mask.”
“I never really thought about it up until people would bring it up when I would take off my mask to take a sip of water,” said Nuzhat Ahmed, 16. “They’d be like, ‘Oh, this is not what I imagine you to look like.’ And then it would come to me like, ‘Oh, am I mask fishing?’”
The slang term, one of many that emerged during the pandemic to describe new social dynamics, took off on TikTok last year. Of the nearly 40 New York City public school students interviewed for this article, several expressed doubt that it was more than an internet gag.
“Some of my peers believe a lot of people are trying to mask fish and hide their face with their mask, but I don’t think that’s really a very common thing,” Marc Duggan, 18, said. “I feel like the vast majority of people wear masks because they feel they’re supposed to or because they want to take precautions from Covid.”
“Some people just have gotten so use to it that I guess they don’t want to show their face,” Russell Silverman, 18, said. “And some people still think Covid is a big problem in the school and they’re just taking the necessary precautions.”
Clementine Elorriaga, 17, said that neither she nor her friends are worried about mask fishing; their priority is Covid safety. She herself has become known around school for embracing the mask as a fashion accessory.
“I color-coordinate my outfits with my masks,” Clementine said. “So with the K95, I have the blue one, I have dark light blue, dark blue, a pink, a red and then I also have the black.”
“I’m trying to find a nice green one because I like wearing green outfits,” she added, “but I haven’t found the mask that feels reliable that’s green.”
Darlina Noi, 15, also thinks fears of mask fishing may be overblown. “I don’t feel like it’s been a big concern of mine personally, but I do feel like the environment of my school is accepting,” she said.
Still, some students said they had come to see themselves differently.
“Three years ago, it would have been like, ‘I have so much acne lately, I do not know what to do,’” Cailin Paul, 15, said. “But guess what? It was middle school. Everyone had acne. Everyone was dealing with the same thing. It was everyone’s insecurity. But now it’s become a more personal thing, and it feels like, ‘Oh, this person doesn’t have it because I haven’t seen their face. So it’s only me that has it.’”
Tanushri had also become more self-conscious while the mask mandate was in effect.
“I’m still pretty anxious about taking my mask off completely,” she said. “If people see the newer version of me where I don’t like look the same way as I did, there’s a lot of stress that I’ll be perceived as less pretty as I may have once been.”
“The only thing for me would probably be chapped lips,” Ebenezer Hagan, 14, said. “Because before, with the mask, I didn’t really need to do that because nobody was really looking at my lips and I didn’t really see the need. But now I make sure to try and make them look moist and not crusty.”
Moisturizing regimens aside, the idea of revealing his face to his classmates did not seem to bother him much.
“I do care a little bit, but it’s not one of my main concerns,” Ebenezer said. “People obviously have opinions regardless of what you do, so you can see my face however you want.”