Being comfortable in your own skin is difficult enough. But what if expressing yourself requires you to alter your identity? German photographer Corinna Kern spent several months in Germany capturing the lives of various “female maskers” – predominately heterosexual men who wear a latex mask and bodysuit resembling a woman to embrace their femininity.
Her first real encounter with a female masker occurred by coincidence while walking the streets of Germany. Curious, the photographer soon discovered female maskers have a thriving online community that remains taboo to the public. “It’s not very big,” Kern tells TIME. “So many people are quite far away from each other so it’s not really that you find people meeting up regularly.”
Female Maskers isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Kerry, an American female masker living in Seattle began a business dedicated to making realistic female masks in 1996. A 2014 British documentary called Secrets of the Living Dolls followed the lives of males who go through the motions of being a masker at the risk of being ostracized by society and their loved ones. While the documentary introduced the subculture to mainstream audiences, Kern mentions some she talked to were hesitant to participate in her project because the documentary portrayed them as “freaks,” something she kept in mind when photographing her subjects. “I think it’s a natural thing for me not to capture them in a freakish way,” she says. “It’s just something that goes along with my photography, my style of photography because I’m very open minded. As I go along I’m learning about their backgrounds and their motivations.”
One of her subjects, Chris, 49, has 10 aliases (six female and four male), three which Kern displays in her photographs. Some of his aliases include: Romy von Dornfelder, a blonde shown in the woods and at home; Cecilia McArthur, a brunette who poses in the grass and is also shown in workout attire; and Nicole van Diesten, who is covered from head to toe. Another veteran in the German female masking scene, Christian, whose alias is Chrissie Seams, loves to play up with her looks with dresses, accessories though her most distinguishing feature is her long, wavy black hair. While Christian enjoys being a female masker due to his latex fetish, Chris fondness for female masking goes beyond his love for lycra. “Wearing the mask, I don’t feel like a different person,” he tells Kern. “That only takes effect when I look at the photos that I take of these. I then see the fictional characters I create, reflecting a counterpart of myself, a desired partner or something that I lack but wish for.”
When it came to being out in public, the range of emotions were mixed. Christian, dressed as Chrissie Seams, enjoyed being out in public where most onlookers were curious and looked on in admiration. Others only felt comfortable dressing up at home, and even then, they remain trapped in their own skin. “It’s so much part of their identity sometimes,” Kern says. “It becomes so much a part of them they have an urge to tell it. But then at the same time, they don’t want to be rejected.”
Corinna Kern is a German photographer based in Israel.
Bianca Silva is a writer and contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter.