Sheet masks, the kind that you wear for 20 minutes, while pretending you don’t notice the thin veil of slime sliding southward off your chin, are huge right now. Well, they’ve been trending for a few years, thanks in large part to celebrities on Instagram, so you might say they’re peaking.
Indeed, celebrities, (and influencers), thanks to the mask selfie (its own sub-category) are responsible for the widespread proliferation of the product. But their existence as a cult beauty buy has its origins in Asia, specifically, South Korea, the home of snail facials, and Japan, the place that popularised fish pedicures.
While these beauty practices might appear a little wild to some conservative Westerners, they’re a testament to the innovative ideas around beauty in these countries. So when brands, like SK II with a huge footprint in the Asia market, began to garner popularity in the United States roughly 10 years ago, those masks came right along with them. SK II’s packet of 6 sheet masks retails for $161 – still considered the gold standard of the genre.
Hailed as the easiest way to get the maximum amount of nutrients and moisture into your skin, masks, (ranging in price from $5.50 for Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost to $180 for La Mer’s luxurious ‘Miracle Broth’) can also brighten, tighten and reduce puffiness, among a plethora of other claims. One thing remains undebatable: they turn an ordinary woman into a terrifying horror movie, and have been known to frighten small children, (my own included).
They are as much about a beauty ritual as performance, and the performance is layered. For famous women in particular, the sheet mask is the perfect metaphor of farcical online engagement.
“See, followers? Here I am, just a goofy lady in a weird mask! I, too, need all the help I can get to look glamorous for the red carpet!”
Ah, but unlike the rest of us schmucks, who purchase an ill-fitting face tissue, slick with serum in order to chomp at the idea of aspirational luxury, you famous ladies actually live it. You really do go to the spas, you really can afford the laser treatments, the enhancements, in order to maintain your glow. Mask Selfies are this decade’s “I just drink lots of water.”
It’s as if they’re pulling back the curtain to reveal … another curtain. This also explains the current trend of ‘bathroom cabinet’ instagrams and celeb’s skincare routines, performed on Vogue.com. It conveys intimacy and relatability, while concealing the real cost of great skin. As Amanda Mull pointed out in The Atlantic earlier this year “You can … wear as much sunscreen as you want, but the most effective skin-care trick is being rich.”
We’ve convinced ourselves that despite the money and time we spend on fixing the unfixable, we’re not victims of an unforgiving patriarchal capitalist system which dictates that we’ll never be good enough.
In a culture where heavy makeup is now considered as much as tool as a toy, and rolled out by a famous woman every other week via Instagram, it’s almost ironic that the mask, a product which does nothing but sit, should become just as popular as lip kits and cheek contours.
A generation ago, a mask, which then encompassed anything from cold cream to mud, was something undertaken behind closed doors, along with hair rollers. It was the Spanx of skincare; an almost shameful routine.
In the near future, if the ladies of South Korea are anything to go by, (and they are) we will soon be following up to 10 steps to get the skin we crave –and that’s before the first lick of foundation hits our cheeks.
Perhaps we’ll abandon it altogether.
But the cosmetic industry has shown itself savvy enough to appropriate the feminist backlash of the last 20 years, and they’re so good at it, we’ve convinced ourselves that despite the money and time we spend on fixing the unfixable, (like pores, for example, or uneven skin tone, characteristics of normal skin that have now been pathologised) we’re not victims of an unforgiving patriarchal capitalist system which dictates that we’ll never be good enough.
This is ‘self-care’. A strengthening of our spiritual core.
Are we buying into the beauty myth with such gusto we’ve forgotten what Naomi Wolf warned us about: that we might become so distracted by ‘looking better’ we abandon our pursuit of anything else? Well, who cares, when we can lean back under the cool film of the sheet mask – a ‘do not disturb’ sign on our face.
But consider this: whether we close our eyes or not, use them alone, or with bridesmaids, for five minutes or 30, for selfies or for self-care; if we want the mask to work properly we must always close our mouths.
Natalie Reilly is a freelance writer. You can follow Natalie on Twitter @thatnatreilly.