Life

A Second Skin

My adventures wearing a mask of my own face.

A series of people in face masks with faces printed on them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Diann Duthie/The Real Me Mask, Christopher Miller/Twitter, Bunny Giuliani, Daniel Cozzolino, Giuliani, Giuliani, Giuliani, Giuliani, Duthie, NBC Studios.

I recently bought a new face. It cost $12.95, then another $3.99 for shipping. OK, so technically speaking, it wasn’t an actual face, but it was something almost as creepy: It was a face mask with a photo of my own face printed on it.

Blame filmmaker Christopher Miller. A few months ago, Miller posted a tweet that included a picture of his attempt to make a mask that covered the bottom half of his face with a simulacrum of itself, and I have not known peace since. This mask got, uh, under my skin. It made no sense—why!—and yet so much sense—yes! I wanted to look away, but I also wanted to look only at it. It was hilarious; it was grotesque; its hilarity and grotesquerie were in conversation with each other, inasmuch as you can be in conversation with/about a thing whose mouth literally doesn’t move. Since I first glimpsed Miller’s joke, variations on the Mask of Your Own Face, or the MOYOF—a mask of Kerry Washington’s mouth, or Liz Lemon mouth-masking in the 30 Rock reunion, or another guy trying it out on Twitter—have started to pop up, compounding my curiosity. I was Kevin Garnett in Uncut Gems, and the selfie mask was my opal. I had to know more. I had to understand why. And eventually—one cannot argue with fate—I had to make my own MOYOF. This is my journey.

A representative of Miller’s declined to speak to me about where he got his MOYOF made. (What if he actually said yes, but he was wearing the mask, so his rep didn’t see his lips move and missed it? Possible.) But an online search yielded many print on-demand websites and the mother lode, on the craft marketplace Etsy. I hastened to speak with these entrepreneurs about their entrée into the burgeoning MOYOF space.

Bunny Giuliani, who lives in Pittsburgh, told me that originally she objected to mask mandates but not for political reasons. It was more that it was just so depressing. “Whenever you’d walk into a store,” she said, “nobody even looked at each other; they just looked down. Everybody’s wearing a mask. It was just sad. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t bear to go to the grocery store.’ ”

That’s what got Giuliani thinking about a way to inject a little joy into compulsory mask-wearing. “I took pictures of some of my family and some of my friends and I started printing them on masks and wearing them out to the store. I’d wear my dad’s beard, stuff like that. It was a big hit.” Before the coronavirus, Giuliani’s Etsy shop specialized in personalized and custom-printed gifts, like monogrammed mouse pads and wine bags. When the virus hit, sales slowed, so a pivot to masks has helped out her bottom line. She’s sold thousands.

In addition to MOYOFs, Giuliani sells a lot of masks featuring generic noses and mouths. Except they’re not actually generic. They belong to her friends and family. “I have a friend who smokes and has a beard,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Let me take some pictures of you, because that would be a really good mask.’ People love that.” Another one of her masks, this one picturing her daughter’s boyfriend’s face, went viral on TikTok. The attention and success has resulted in her friends and family taking interest in her business like never before. “We’re all involved in getting the masks out and seeing whose face sells the best.” Giuliani thinks her top seller is a mask of her 26-year-old daughter’s face, because of her nice teeth. Giuliani is fine with that. “Paid for those braces,” she said.

Daniel Cozzolino’s shop also did a face mask about-face. Before all this, he mainly sold T-shirts, but after his father had the idea to make a MOYOF, he thought he might be able to pull that off. “The first mask didn’t come out too great. It was a little oversized,” Cozzolino, who is based in Long Island, said. “His nose and his mouth were ear to ear.” So he made his father’s face smaller, and then even smaller, until he got it right. “It’s perfect. He wears glasses as well, so the glasses cover the top of the mask. It looks like he’s not wearing anything. It’s kind of creepy.” Now Cozzolino, too, sells custom masks on Etsy alongside his other offerings.

Different sellers have different techniques for making the masks. Parijat Devarshy sells not only masks but neck gaiters, those stretchy tubes that you wear around your neck and then pull up over your nose and mouth. His Etsy shop asks MOYOF and NGOYOF shoppers to send the standard front-facing photo but also side and back views. “Then we take all those photographs into Photoshop and we combine them to create a cylindrical map of the human face,” Devarshy said, resulting in a product that, he said, looks good from any angle, not just the front.

Where Devarshy goes for max realism, others lean into the comedy. “I leave the white part up there,” Giuliani said of her masks’ edges and straps. “Some people don’t, but I do, because it is a mask. I’m not trying to hide that it’s a mask. That’s part of the fun of it.”

Heather Schwedel in a quilted printed face mask with her face on it.
Nose and mouth not to scale. Heather Schwedel

Going for the laugh makes sense; levity is what buyers are often looking for. Everyone sold a lot of MOYOFs for Father’s Day, for example. One group of employees from a dentist’s office, Giuliani said, “bought the bottom half of the dentist’s face and they all wore it whenever they were cleaning teeth, to just be funny.” Humor is also often the goal when people opt for masks of celebrities instead of themselves—Cozzolino is fond of his Post Malone mask, which showcases the rapper’s numerous face tattoos. Cozzolino said he purposely picked a photo where Posty’s mouth was open: “If I have an opportunity to have grills, then I’m going to take it,” he said.

Giuliani said that sometimes the reasons customers give for wanting the masks surprise her. She said one customer “wanted them for next weekend, for her and her husband, because they were going to a wedding and she didn’t want to stand out. So I was like, ‘OK.’ I mean, I think they’ll stand out.”

But I understood that misbegotten couple, because the masks were also asserting an inexorable pull on me. They were uncanny and terrible, and I wanted one, bad. When it was finally time to acquire my own MOYOF, all the sites made it easy to order: I took some selfies, chose the ones I thought had the best lighting and resolution, and dragged them into a series of templates. Two of the sites I tried out never came through, I’m guessing due to pandemic-related shipping bottlenecks. The set of masks I received from one print-on-demand site featured, in addition to a quilted texture that was not optional, comically oversized noses and mouths. (I still have a few of these, if anyone, uh … never mind.)

A neck gaiter I ordered from a different print on-demand site was creepily accurate, though. I could tell how accurate it was because I instantly regretted slapping a pretty below-average selfie on it. I hadn’t worn makeup. I had tried for a neutral expression, but I looked kind of sad or mad. You could see a shadow next to my nose, as well as, faintly, the shadow of my hand holding up the phone to take the selfie.

Nonetheless, this second skin compelled me. My skin crawled, but I still wanted to put on this other skin. Why? I asked some scientists specializing in facial recognition research what made these masks so fascinating.

“Just the phrase ‘I’m going to wear my own face as a mask,’ that’s nightmare-inducing,” said Ben Balas, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University who has studied facial perception. “If I take off my scientist hat for a minute.” I mean, fair enough.

Peter Hancock, a psychology professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland who studies the perception of faces, said that the masks are particularly disconcerting to us because humans are “very sensitive to things being wrong in the face.” Of someone wearing a MOYOF, “It looks a bit like when you’ve seen someone who’s had too much Botox,” he said.

Pawan Sinha, a professor of visual and computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed to a few principles he said might help explain the horrors and delights of the MOYOF. One of these is the composite face effect: “When we look at a person wearing [this type of] mask,” Sinha said, “even though we cognitively can see the top half is real, the bottom half is just an image, we somehow are compelled, from our natural processing strategies, to view this whole thing as a full face.” There’s also the still face effect at work: “It’s something that we have deeply ingrained in our visual system and our cognition that we want and expect another face to be dynamic.” So when the mask’s expression doesn’t change, that unmovingness is part of what makes it so creepy.

During my interviews with many of these researchers, I usually chose about the halfway point to reveal that I already had created a MOYOF. When possible, I tried it on for the person I was speaking with. For some reason, none of them were as enamored with the concept as I was. Erez Freud of York University’s Centre for Vision Research in Toronto said he didn’t think MOYOFs would catch on: “As a tool to enhance our face perception in the era of COVID-19, I’m not sure that this is the right tool.” Can you believe he said that to my face, and my other face?

Heather Schwedel in a printed neck gator.
The winning MOYOF. Heather Schwedel

It was one thing to wear my MOYOF on a Skype call. But what I’d been dreaming of for weeks was wearing it out in the world. Now was the time. I slid the neck gaiter on, pulled my face up over my face, took a deep breath through both my mouths, and walked out into my neighborhood. Immediately I could feel my real face, under my fake face, turning red. I’m sure I’m like a lot of people in that I don’t have an uncomplicated relationship with my face, which is to say, sometimes I hate my stupid face. As an introvert, I had been enjoying hiding under a mask. Had I copied my face to spite my face? Under normal circumstances you don’t have a choice what your face looks like, but with a MOYOF, wasn’t I kind of declaring, as if in a political ad, “Heather Schwedel approves this face”? And I don’t want anyone to think that! Or think not that!

These were the kinds of things running through my head as I walked around wearing my Heather Schwedel neck gator, expecting everyone in my sightline to stare or gasp. But no one really did. One guy yelled at me to wear shoes, but I was wearing shoes, so he probably wasn’t someone to take advice from. After one of my first times trying the thing out at the grocery store and getting no reaction, I pulled out a compact to check myself out and saw that I’d been wearing it upside down. This made zero difference. Eventually, a few people said things like, “Nice mask!” or pointed me out to the person they were sitting with and laughed. I couldn’t smile or laugh back; I could only look kind of sad or mad at them as I said thanks.

For the most part, no one cared. No one ever cares! It was both devastating and freeing. Even so, I will be putting the mask away now. Its powers are too strong for everyday wear. Sometimes your face needs to get out of your face.