Why Do We Feel We Have to Hide Behind a Mask? (Part 1)

As I sorted through childhood pictures, I saw a little girl. She looked like me, dark eyes, curly hair and brown skin. But she was different. She had a quiet confidence about her. Although she was young, she knew who she was. She wasn’t scared to be herself. A box had not yet been assigned to her. There was no need for a mask. She was free to be herself.

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However, as childhood images morphed into adolescence, a new face emerged. One that looked happy. But when I paused long enough to remember, I saw that wasn’t a happy teenager at all. She was a wearing a maskā€¦one she would continue wearing for decades to come.

How I Found My Mask

I was in fourth grade when I first realized that if I wanted to be accepted I would need to be a different version of myself. That year, I began attending a private Christian school. For the first time in my life, I realized through comments, teasing and questions that if I continued being “Torrie” – the quiet, confident girl God had created – I stood little chance of acceptance, community or opportunity. So I did what I had to do. I found a mask.

Rather than being quiet and confident, I became a quiet observer. I quickly learned what I needed to do fit in. It honestly wasn’t hard. I simply had to deny the girl God had created and become the one other’s accepted. When you’re a child, teen, young adult belonging to a community and feeling accepted is a powerful thing. It continues to be throughout adulthood.

Perfecting My Mask

My mask worked. I made any and all necessary sacrifices in order to look and be like everyone else. By the summer between 5th and 6th grade, I had learned to sacrifice one of my favorite summer activities, swimming. I couldn’t afford to be in the sun all summer, and allow my skin to get darker. I made that mistake the summer before and paid for it. “You’re so dark!” one classmate acknowledge on the first day of fifth grade. “Yeah, you’re black now,” another chimed in, as though my race or ethnicity was something that could change over a three month break.

I didn’t know how to respond so I didn’t say anything. Instead, I took notes and made necessary adjustments to my mask. I stopped going outside in the summer. When I did, I wore long pants and long sleeves. Not to protect my skin for sun damage, but to protect my soul.

With every tweak, my mask got better and better. I straightened my hair, not because I liked it that way, but because I had grown to hate my curls. Also, I continued to stay inside, trading swimming and bike rides for video games and tv shows. And it worked. I had a group of friends and my classmates stopped making comments about the way I looked. However, internally, my quiet confidence disappeared, allowing space for self-hatred to take root and grow.

Masks Work…For Awhile

By the time I graduated and moved on to college, I’d worn my mask for so long, it had become a part of me. During this season, I could have made a break, shattered the mask and allowed new people the opportunity to get to know me. But by then, I no longer knew myself. The little girl from those childhood photos had been lost long ago.

To be honest, I didn’t even miss her anymore. In fact, I had grown to be embarrassed and ashamed of her. I kept her buried in a box I never dreamed would be unearthed.

The little girl from those childhood photos had been lost long ago. To be honest, I didn’t even miss her anymore. In fact, I’d grown to be embarrassed & ashamed of her. I kept her buried in a box, never dreaming it would be unearthed.

My mask never came off. I graduated from college, dated, got married, had children and lived my life, always aware of my mask. I couldn’t let it slip, not for a moment. My husband was the only one who would get a glimpse from time to time. He saw the lengths I went through to keep up my charade. Often, he encouraged me to just be myself, to wear my hair curly and join him and the kids for a fun activity outside. Even when I did, my mask had to stay in place, which usually meant I would be so self conscious, I wouldn’t allow myself the privilege of enjoying our time together. Yet another sacrifice I was willing to make to avoid the pain of rejection again.

I Felt My Mask Slipping

For years, I continued living my life with little regard for my mask. Its maintenance had become so routine I didn’t even notice it anymore. I learned to manage the sacrifices, anxiety, self-hatred and exhaustion.

My biggest fear became what if they see me? I couldn’t let anyone – my family, friends, coworkers – see me without my mask. I spent hours and hundreds of dollars making sure my hair was as straight and my skin stayed as light as possible. Anxiety became my constant companion.

I remember the day I felt my mask slip. As we drove to lunch, a friend and I were talking about our hair. For the first time in years, I admitted my hair was curly. She had no idea. “But you’ll never see it that way,” I told her. “I never leave the house like that.”

Looking back, I can almost see God smile as He looked down and said, “Oh, really daughter. It’s time to reintroduce you and the world to the women I created.”

It didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up one day and decide it was time to take my mask off. But it wasn’t long after that lunch, that I began to feel God nudging me to wear my hair curly. “I gave you this hair. It’s how I created you. Will you wear it curly for me?” Oh friend, hear me when I say, it took everything in my being to walk out of the house with curly hair. I hadn’t worn it like that in decades and didn’t know how to style it. I felt like a hot mess!

One Step At A Time

God is so good. He created me and understands the best way to get through to me is over time. He’s so incredibly patient! It continually makes me grateful that He is God and I am not!

For 18 months, I did my best to be obedient to God’s request. I studied YouTube videos, tried new styling methods, endured some of the same comments from childhood and wrestled internally to stay the course. Day by day, the struggle became easier as I learned to not only style them but to embrace my curls.

Finally, God knew I was ready for Him to nudge me again and let the rest of my mask fall.

To Be Continued…


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