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  • Madeline Topf

rate my face

I participated in a study last week. It was called the “Healthy Minds” study. They read me the release form. They told me there was a surprise during the study. They said there was going to be a Stress test.

Then, I was hooked up to wires. A band was tightened around my waist. I was asked to take off my button-down shirt so all I had on was a crop top, which was pulled up to accommodate one of the wire nodes. I felt exposed. I was weighed, measured, put through a series of questionnaires in an enclosed room. I was told that the enclosed room was constructed of one way mirrors. I could be seen, but I could not see. What is the surprise what is the surprise I thought.

When I completed the questionnaires I heard a voice speak to me through the wall. I jumped, because I had forgotten. I was being watched.

“You may now begin the next portion of the Study. You will be rating the faces that appear on the screen from 1 to 4. 1 being very unpleasant and 4 being very pleasant. Do not think too much. Is this the surprise? Click the first number that comes to mind.”

Motherfuckers won’t catch me racist or classist or sexist or anything I swear to god I thought.

The first face appeared on the screen. 3. I clicked.

The next face. 3. The next, 3. I sped through the faces. 3, 3, 3, 3, 3. What does it mean to rate a human face without “thinking about it too much.” Are they trying to reach down into my lizard brain? Where I’m just the prejudices I have been steeped in, which somehow made their way there and will make their way there no matter who takes the test, somehow, because we’ll all collapse into an average. I could envision it, or hear it, rather, on the next flashy podcast episode on human behavior:

“People rated faces as less pleasant when.”

Not I! I decided that day. People are people. They deserve to be rated as pleasant- but let’s not get carried away. That’s what I’ll give at first sight. 3.

After the Face Rating, I was ushered into a larger room with wooden flooring. At the center stood a tall microphone. A camera was pointed at the microphone, and behind the camera was a long table. I was told to stand in front of the microphone. The camera was adjusted at me. I was told they were recording me for later.

This was the Stress test.

What is the surprise what is the surprise I thought. Am I going to have to prove I’m not a psychopath or save someones life or speak up when someone says something racist or not press the shock button or

After getting some initial “baseline” measurements of me standing near the microphone, they asked me to rate on a piece of paper how stressed out I was. The paper had a horizontal line on it pointing from “Not stressed” to “Very stressed.” I notched the line at “Not stressed.” I was lying.

Then, they told me I had to prepare a five minute speech as if I were running for public office. “Like anything, like Senator or whatever” they said. I had five minutes to write my ideas. While I was writing, two people in white lab coats came into the room and sat down. They stared at me.

They didn’t stop staring at me, even when I was asked to give my speech. I fumbled. “Well, um, I’ll be running for city council in Madison,” I started. The two white coats stared at me. They were young. I could know them. I was embarrassing myself in front of them. I was embarrassing myself in front of them.

I mumbled, half-heartedly, about trash in my neighborhood, how I have a dog (don’t know why they would need to know that), about the rent being too expensive and landlords not keeping the properties very nice (a real problem!). I trailed off.

I had 2.5 more minutes but didn’t want to be there anymore. I felt ashamed. Could I leave? No, they’ll need the data! You’ll mess everything up! What if I saw these people again? I could never redeem myself. But it’s just a silly test! But I don’t want to run for city council! I’d do a terrible job!

I stood there, laughing silently. The two white coats said nothing, kept staring.

“What is your biggest weakness?” One asked, pretending to turn off the camera. I knew then it was not recording at all. I was an idiot-a fool! The microphone was plugged into nothing!

I could hear it, again, the study results on the radio. These fools! They were stressed for nothing!

I was brought back into the one-way mirror room and told to sit down so they could collect more data. Again, I had to run through the human face rating test.


They unhooked me. It had been 3 and a half hours. I wanted to curl into a hole. My brain hurt. I felt used. Are grown adults with jobs doing this? Are rich people doing this?

They gave me my compensation.


What’s the surprise?

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