Unforeseen implications: Removing our masks

Monday, October 12, 2020 - 11:08am

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Quote card design by Opinion

I’ve had many conversations regarding the impact COVID-19 has had on the world. To many of my New York family members, the pandemic has been likened to 9/11; the devastating, unjustified loss of lives and its eternally echoed consequences affect every citizen of the United States. The question that follows is, then, what will be our new normal? 

With the introduction of a vaccine and increased control over this unpredictable situation, what will go back to normal and what will be forever altered? While social distancing and anxiety-ridden sanitation will likely fade with time, mask-wearing will be far more challenging to abandon without many psychological effects — both predictable and unexpected. 

Even those who protest masks as a political statement have no choice but to comply upon entering grocery stores, restaurants and, sometimes, even while outdoors depending on where you live, though some states do lack any form of face-covering requirement. Someday, in some distant future when masks are no longer required for these daily life tasks, it will be extremely difficult to remove our face masks without some sort of repercussion. Some aspects I specifically foresee as obstacles arising in our lives as a result of removing our masks concern three key areas: safety, insecurity and cultural statements. 

In a word, 2020 has been and continues to be overwhelming. Psychology tells us that in stressful times we cling to things that bring us comfort and consistency. Both of these factors can be arguably supplied by the face masks we’ve been required or encouraged to wear for over half a year. Even for those who may not be naturally more conscious or predisposed to fear illness, the eventual removal of face masks may feel like stripping off a safety blanket that has been shielding us from not only COVID-19 but all of the germs to which we’ve been made hyperaware. 

While thinking about what to write for my next column, I was in Kroger getting groceries and my mask fell off. My mask slipped and I sprung into action, immediately grabbing it and getting it back on my face as fast as I could. As someone who has had COVID-19, I fear reinfection in a way that feels much closer to my life experiences than many who know this virus only through the media’s depiction or through infected relatives and friends. Masks, while still recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization, are evidently not a fool-proof solution; nonetheless, removing them will leave us exposed to a world we have been convinced to protect ourselves from. 

Further, covering half of your face — and for certain jobs, even more — has many psychological implications. According to Dr. Susan Whitbourne, the inability to see facial expressions provides challenges in interpreting and portraying emotions. This then plays into relationship development and communication, as a whole. On the flip side, I can attest fully to how much less effort I’ve personally put into my appearance on days I know I can just throw on my mask and head out the door. 

For people struggling with skin problems like acne or who are accustomed to putting on a full face of makeup to feel confident, masks have become the great equalizer between looking your personal best and worst. I’ve learned to give myself less time in the mornings or before I have to be somewhere; instead of doing my face makeup, I can opt for a swipe of mascara and a mask that matches my outfit. This leads to my next point: masks have become an iconic cultural item. 

While many countries, such as China, have been practicing mask wearing for quite some time, the United States has taken face mask mandates as an opportunity to make fashion, or sometimes even political, statements. Whether it is matching your mask to your clothing, advertising your school club or wearing one of my personal favorite masks that reads “vote,” it has become ingrained in our culture to assimilate what may have initially been met with aggravation to an accessory that likely will stick around for a while. Are face masks “in”? 

In the same vein as making a blatant political statement on your mask, it also remains unfortunately true that even just the act of wearing a mask has been associated with political ideologies. Everyone’s comfort level changes and develops at different paces and within different circumstances. Even when mask wearing is no longer required, it will be interesting and likely frustrating to watch the politically divisive populace grapple with the question of whether or not they should continue to wear their mask. 

I think I speak for most people when I express this combined feeling of acceptance and random waves of apprehension about the pandemic. Often, it is much easier to put on my mask and allow myself to fall into a normal pace of life as if there was never a time before my pre-leaving-the-house ritual was anything but “phone, wallet, keys, mask, hand sanitizer.” Perhaps, Adam Sandler should even record a new version of his song

When everything gets, for lack of a better word, better, masks have been predicted to be the “last things to go.” Watching this all unfold will be telling of the psychological residue left behind even as our face masks are collectively removed. 

Jess D’Agostino can be reached at jessdag@umich.edu


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