Behind the Masks

Melissa and Rory doing self-care masks

Lots of talk these days about masks and not in a good way….Masks seem to have become a symbol of failed leadership. This is another one of those deals where, if we aren’t paying attention, the moment could change our associations with something that is more than a technical solution to a public health problem.

Masks have had deep significance in many cultures all over the world for thousands of years. Masks change us. They hide us. They give us permission to tell the truth. They can express our inner spirit and our community values.

Buddhist masks from Mongolia

So I want to share a few positive associations with masks.

First, here is a really good introduction to masks. It’s 4 minutes and it’s made for 4th graders so I know you can get through it. Also, I know you will relate to the first shot, which is at :19.


Perhaps the most well-known masking event in the United States is Mardi Gras, which is most associated with New Orleans, although it is celebrated in many places in the world. If you are Catholic, it’s your last chance to get your yayas out before you live a life of austerity during Lent. The masks let you be whatever you want and celebrate with whomever you want without your mother finding out.

Stock photo

Oh wait, maybe Halloween is even more American. It’s hard to find a photo of kids in Halloween masks that is less than 40 years old. I think we finally realized that putting masks on kids and sending them off in the dark to wolf down a lot of candy may create a risk of asphyxiation or tripping or choking. I do love this old photo.

Also very American — Michael Jackson performed a song called “Behind the Mask” in Bucharest in 1992. I would have been in Bucharest this week….:(

Ok but are you sitting down? There is a reality TV show called “The Masked Singer.” Who knew? Here is a video of the unmasking for every person who was disqualified in Season 2, just to give you an idea of how this show works. I am telling you, doing this kind of writing is such an education.


Here is Sergei Polunin dancing to the score of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,.” This particular piece is called “Masks,” because it tells the story of the Capulet ball in Shakespeare’s play.

Leonardo di Caprio as Romeo in the 1996 movie of Romeo and Juliet. Photo

Recall that in Shakespeare’s story, Romeo showed up at a ball held by Juliet’s family at the urging of his good friend Mercutio. Because Romeo’s family was the enemy of Juliet’s family, Romeo attended the ball in a mask. From there, a lot of bad things happened, beginning with Mercutio’s death. But the important point is that the play has a lot of important points.


Mexico is a gold mine for mask lovers. Mexico has hundreds of indigenous groups and many of them have used masks in celebrations and rituals for thousands of years. When the Spaniards arrived, they used masks to co-opt native populations by getting them to depict Christian themes and stories. In modern Mexico, we can see the influence of the ancient masks and also those inspired by Christian conquerors.

Wall of masks at San Miguel de Allende’s Mask Museum

San Miguel de Allende parade


American schools miss out on a lot but they seem to understand that kids naturally connect with masks. My niece, Meredith, who is 40, made this mask in third grade. And if you asked me who in my family made this mask, I would guess Meredith.

Photo Laura Malcolm

My nephew, Scott, 35, always wanted to be Superman. Now his 4 year-old, Hiro, is taking that on.


Masks do not need to be physical. I was an administrative law judge for 18 years. At my first hearing, I was reading something while I was seated behind the bench. In some corner of my mind, I could hear someone saying “Your honor” several times. And then I realized someone was speaking to me. It took me a lot of hearings to overcome the feeling that I was a fraud, not a real judge. And it’s taken me many years since then to realize that being a “real judge” requires a mask that I am still trying to remove.(“You can take the judge out of the hearing room but you can’t take the hearing room out of the judge”)

My travels have taught me a little about the masks we wear to make ourselves feel good or legitimize the roles we play. People who don’t know me don’t care about those masks or what I used to be. They just care about what I am, right there in the moment. What a relief.

There are lots of other kinds of masks, some for good, some for not so good. I think we will all be happy when we can think of masks as a whole lot of things that are used for a whole lot of reasons.

Until then, dog videos help a lot.


Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.
—- Oscar Wilde


You gotta put your own mask on first if you want to help someone else. You know, like in the airplane.
—- Nanci Clifton

Mexican mask at Vic’s house

Probably a Mexican mask at Laura and Steve’s house….



  1. This one is going to be hard to top Kim. You keep finding such interesting perspectives to highlight during the very strange and trying times. I just love them.

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