Is it masking too much?

Nine days after Illinois Governor Pritzker issued a shelter-in-place order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I sat down and made myself a couple of face masks using materials on hand.  No elastic but plenty of thread and yards of a colorful Dutch wax print cotton fabric I bought at a West African shop a few years ago.  Instead of a pleated rectangle with elastic ear loops—such as the mask suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—I decided to make a double-layer shaped mask with ties in matching fabric.  I don’t mind admitting I wanted the mask to be chic as well as functional.  The ties and mask shape allow me to get a snug fit while covering my mouth, nose, and lower half of the face.  Metal wire for the bridge of the nose would make the mask even more efficient. 

Wearing a face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19


I’ve since made a number of these masks for friends, family, and essential workers interacting with the public without protection.  Those infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic or show no symptoms in the first few days, which makes it easy for the virus to spread.  When otherwise healthy-seeming people wear a face mask they’re protecting others, which is better for everyone in the long run.

I ventured out for groceries yesterday in my densely populated neighborhood and was surprised to see how few people were wearing some kind of a face cover—scarf, disposable mask, or homemade mask.  I would estimate about a third of people were using a mask of some kind.  Among those unmasked, some may not be aware or realize the value of masking.  It’s also possible people don’t have the means or confidence to make their own masks.  Yet another possibility for not masking is the cultural hurdle it presents.  Men of color, for example, are apt to be profiled as potential criminals seeking to conceal their identities.  Such incidents have already occurred and been documented.

Another cultural barrier that may dissuade people from masking is the unfamiliarity of the dress practice.  With very few exceptions, everyone gives some consideration to their appearance even if they “don’t care” about clothes.  Most people expend some effort in personal grooming—hair, teeth, skin—in addition to putting on clothes.  These are all aspects of dress.  Suddenly wearing a mask can be jarring for a person’s self-conception.  What does it mean to go about in the world with a fully visible face one day and then concealing half of it the next?  For some people, conceding to wear a mask can make the seriousness of COVID-19 too real.  For others, wearing a mask looks uncool.  Coolness requires a certain air of ease and insouciance that a mask might seem to lack.  Wearing a mask suggests concern and could be interpreted as the preventive measure of an uptight germaphobe (even though non-medical grade masks seem to do more to protect others than they do to protect the wearer).

One researcher who studies HIV and other viruses, Dr. David O’Connor, suggests face masks should be worn consistently and correctly to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  According to Dr. O’Connor we need to normalize wearing face masks and make it “cool and essential.” 

I love the idea of chic and functional face masks to prevent spreading the virus.  I admit the first time I went out in public wearing my face mask I felt muzzled.  The cotton is breathable and no one has told me they can’t hear me so the muzzling sensation was more of a psychological hang-up.  I decided to wear black eyeliner the next time so I could play up the expressiveness of my eyes and create a sense of mystery. 

People are resourceful and usually find ways to communicate, connect, and adjust to their circumstances.  For the sake of public health, I hope we can be flexible enough to accommodate the present circumstances and normalize wearing face masks, at least for the foreseeable future.      


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