November 09, 2020

The Meaning of Masks in Everyday Life

Todd Schoepflin author photoBy Todd Schoepflin

A recent article about masks in Australia caught my attention. It’s written by a group of scholars who are working on a book about masks in the COVID-19 era. As they note in the article, wearing masks is compulsory in Victoria, a state in southeast Australia. As indicated by the Victoria state government, “all Victorians must wear a fitted face mask when they leave home, no matter where they live” (there are several exceptions to the requirement). 

There’s an important point of comparison with the United States in the article:

In Australia, we haven’t seen the intense political debates and activism around face masks that have emerged in the United States. Compared with the US, Australians tend not to see preventive health as a political issue. In fact, there is evidence of a growing acceptance face masks are becoming part of our everyday lives.

There’s a link to an article about anti-mask sentiment in America. As an example of this anti-mask sentiment, the author describes an incident in which  a security guard at a Family Dollar in Michigan was shot and killed in May after telling a customer that masks were required to enter the store (more information about what happened is available in this article). They article also links to a Pew Research Center report with survey data indicating Democrats wear masks in stores more often than Republicans.

In addition to political party affiliation, several news outlets have noted that gender is also as a factor in whether Americans are likely to wear a mask. USA Today reported that women are more likely than men to wear masks. On multiple occasions, The New York Times has included coverage of masks and masculinity. One of those pieces discusses mask wearing as being perceived as unmasculine, and links it to other unsafe health practices by men, noting that men are less likely than women to wear seat belts, get flu shots, and seek medical care.

The Times article also points out that Donald Trump has ridiculed Joe Biden for his mask wearing, just as he has sought to emasculate his political rivals in other ways (such as when he refered to Michael Bloomberg as “mini Mike”). The article includes an insight from Theresa Vescio that a correlation exists between the endorsement of traditional masculine ideals and identifying as a Republican. Furthermore, it makes the important point that it’s not only men who subscribe to these ideas about masculinity, exemplified by Tomi Lahren (with 1.7 million followers on Twitter) mocking Biden by saying he “might as well carry a purse with that mask.”

A different article from The New York Times features an interview with Anand Giridharadas and focuses on toxic masculinity. Giridharadas says that an aversion to mask wearing and social distancing is a reflection of male insecurity, fear of being seen as vulnerable, and is a “fraudulent performance of strength.”

An interview in Mother Jones includes analysis about masculinity and mask wearing from Christina Wolbrecht. She comments that, unfortunately, some men see wearing a masks as a sign of weakness. She argues that this as a form of toxic masculinity: “Real men don’t eat salads, real men don’t watch their blood pressure, real men don’t do all these things that we probably want to do if we’re trying to maintain our health.” I agree with her point, and will take this opportunity to advocate for a healthy masculinity, as I did last year in a post  about Gillette’s “The Best Men Can Be” commercial.

It saddens and concerns me that resistance to mask wearing puts people’s health in jeopardy, and endangers workers. Angry customers are a source of burnout for America’s service workers, creating a work environment that is “exhausting, mentally, emotionally and physically.” This semester, students have told me they’ve encountered rude customers at their service jobs, with those customers aggressively complaining about wearing masks.

Back in March, Eric Klinenberg wrote about the importance of social solidarity:

It’s an open question whether Americans have enough social solidarity to stave off the worst possibilities of the coronavirus pandemic. There’s ample reason to be skeptical. We’re politically divided, socially fragmented, skeptical of one another’s basic facts and news sources.

Unfortunately, such skepticism is warranted. “We’re all in this together” was a message promoted early in the pandemic. I’m afraid this isn’t true in the United States, given how fractured we are based on our political views, beliefs about gender, and disproportionate impact of inequalities.

To return to the article about masks in Australia, the researchers pose a question: Are face masks here to stay? While people are still getting used to wearing masks in some countries, they note that mask wearing was already a part of everyday life in some places before COVID-19.  For instance, many people in parts of  Asia have long worn masks to protect themselves from air pollution. They conclude: “Our research suggests the widening meanings, purposes and diversity of face masks could support a normalisation of masking in Australia, even once the critical phase of the pandemic has passed.” It sounds like a healthy adjustment to a challenging situation, one that Americans have struggled to make. I worry that Americans will grow more hostile to mask wearing as the pandemic continues into 2021.

What are your experiences and observations about mask wearing? What do masks symbolize to you? An act of caring? A public health practice? A departure from the everyday life you used to know? Do you find that men and women approach and react to mask wearing in different ways? Do you think more Americans will come to accept masks as a normal part of everyday life? How might men be encouraged to wear masks and to not deem it unmasculine?

Comments

Anecdotally, I do see more women wearing masks when I am out. Also, I never believed in the "we are in this together" since communities of colors are more vulnerable to covid-19 as well as blue collar workers. Also, when people were buying the supplies in stores, many healthcare workers were not able to get them. I have a degree in public health and I think wearing a mask should become more normalized. People not wearing masks could be seen similarly to people who are smoking, i.e. more socially stigmatized.

Masks are of course a clever way to stay safe. Without the implementation of masks wearing, a lot of people, including essential workers will be infected. It is important that the government in Victoria continues to reinforce the use of masks for Melburnians to reduce the the number of infection.

Covid has taught us a lot of lesson:

1. That we should be aware of personal hygiene

2.That we should not take life for granted

3.We must obey the rules surrounding Covid-19 in order to stay safe. These rules are quite simple: Just to wear a mask in crowded places.

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