Since masks became fashion—a necessity sounds less scary if you call it fashion—I’ve amassed a handful. Among them are animal prints, bright fruit-covered fabrics, and florals. Seeing them hanging on my coat rack and on my car’s gear shift is far less intimidating because they’re friendly. Fun.
There’s been a lot of writing about the whys and hows of mask-wearing in American culture. We haven’t had to do this before, and there’s resistance. It’s not too dissimilar to when smoking in restaurants ended or seat belts became mandatory in vehicles.
For me, mask wearing has brought up something entirely different: It’s given me confidence in my physical body while making me highly conscious—at times judgmental—of the bodies of others.
I have facial hair.
I’m not talking about a stubbly piece here or there, the kind there are memes about (“a best friend is one who’ll pluck that chin hair from your face if you’re in a coma”).
My chin hair comes in like a five o’clock shadow each and every day. It’s dark, so after I finally conquered my face full of acne at the ripe age of 30-something, the hair became even more noticeable.
Every Christmas I ask for another set of pricey tweezers. I need backups because I go through them.
Plucking is almost a meditative ritual for me. Each morning, I grab a hand mirror and angle my chin beneath the overhead lights, grabbing what’s noticeable and pulling it from my skin. I limit myself to 15 minutes a day so I don’t lose hours of my life to it.
I have a chronic, invisible illness called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). It’s less an illness, per se, and more a diagnosis given to ten percent of those with internal reproductive systems who don’t meet criteria for any other number of syndromes and do have a number of commonalities. Hirsutism is the fancy word for my experience of excess hair.
I’ve got other common physical attributes linked to PCOS—but none of them has ever bothered me the same way the chin hair has. I have spent days utterly frustrated with a body I can’t bend to my will. A body that wants me to have this hair.
My morning routine includes a specific makeup regimen, which began in middle school: foundation, followed by concealer applied around the entirety of my chin to cover the hair. Powder on top to set it all.
I never left home without doing any of these things—until now.
Wearing a mask in public has changed my need and comfort for control. No one can see my chin or its shaggy carpet of black hairs. Plucking and makeup were an illusion of control before, something I did to feel more comfortable in my feminine-identifying body. A mask hides all of that neatly—allowing me to be messier and looser with how I look.
My attention has shifted to other people and the choices they’re making about their bodies.
A white man in a MAGA T-shirt? His mask-free body impedes upon mine and others unlike his. It’s dangerous—a potential carrier of disease. He moves his body in opposition of floor signage, traveling up the down grocery store aisles and down the up aisles.
Other bodies in the store step out of his path. Employees don’t step in with their bodies, don’t ask him to leave, to put on a mask. He could get confrontational. Could pull out the gun he can legally carry on his body for protection.
People of color in my community of all ages mask up—but it doesn’t hide the terror they wear on their bodies. Fear for their lives—both because their bodies are already viewed as less valuable socially and because they simply desire what we all do right now: to stay safe.
I can’t make awkward smiles at these families as we excuse ourselves passing our carts down aisles, so I make conversation. “You’d recommend these tortillas?” I ask the Latino man in a blue medical-style mask with a stack of them from the near-empty shelves.
He nods vigorously. I imagine the smile I can’t see, toss a package of the tortillas in my cart.
Employees at my local coffee shop risk their lives in the name of needing money to sustain themselves, serving me with gloves and face masks as if it’s business as usual. Their bodies are on the line day in, day out, into the unknowable future. Is my desire to use my privilege to support the small business worth potentially exposing them to COVID-19? Am I unintentionally causing their body harm in attempts to help them?
While my body confidence has grown, being able to easily cover my insecurities has forced me to confront my privileges even more— acknowledging the ways in which the world has dealt more challenges to those whose skin is different from mine, whose economic situation means they’re on their feet and serving others, and my own complicity in furthering these systemic oppressions.
My own desire to be a nice white lady who, despite her own illnesses and limitations, is able to find something secure in a time when others who never had security to begin with find the world around them even more dangerous.
The mask on my face shields my physical insecurities—while shining a light on my advantages.
It’s protective of others—worn to keep my neighbors safe from me—and a reminder that neighborliness goes far deeper than COVID-19. Being a good neighbor is also about a disease called privilege and the ways in which my body needs to step back, needs to listen, and needs to make room for the already-hurting bodies to find healing as safely as possible.
It’s not physical masks Americans are pushing back against.
It’s all the mask represents: the power able-bodied white people wield and the gross inequalities that render some bodies worth more to the world than others.