“Missing from the ‘masks outside’ discourse is the fact that some of us enjoy having our faces covered because we do not want to be perceived,” the feminist writer Moira Donegan commented in a tweet (since auto-deleted), when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first changed its recommendations for masking outdoors on April 27.
Donegan was far from alone. You’ll find a similar sentiment on whichever social media platform you spend the most time on. It seems that there is a contingent of left-leaning women who might continue to cover the lower halves of their faces, not for health reasons, but to avoid being fully seen — or, worse, misidentified as a member of the opposing political team. As someone who studies and writes about the hypocrisies of contemporary feminism, I’ve been curious to see masking proposed as a kind of feminist modesty veil: feminist because it’s not imposed by the patriarchy, but instead chosen by women in defiance of the male gaze.
The necessary restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic — the bar closings, the hair and nail salon closings, the gym closings, the disappearance of live music and performing arts, the empty stands at sporting events — gave some women a welcome reprieve from the grooming, fitness and dieting rituals we have spent our post-pubescent lives alternatively performing, criticizing and resisting.
Now the prospect of a summer spent socializing is bringing to the surface every anxiety we’ve ever felt about our bodies, including our skin and hair. Along with our vaccination cards, are we expected to show proof we didn’t let ourselves “go” in quarantine? As someone currently hydrating, toning, glycolic acid-peeling, and collagen-infusing her corporeal form for a wedding (okay, my wedding) this summer, the idea of a soft, invisible tarp that’s also “okay for crying!!!” certainly tempts me. (Second look for the reception?)
For women, the benefits of facial obfuscation are multifarious. What better way to hide your maskne? Some women have reported experiencing less street harassment while masked, and that fewer strangers have told them to smile. Continuing to wear a mask signals that you’re a woman who cares about others. Masking can be a form of protest and defiance against state surveillance, an ideologically fertile plot of shared territory between left-wing and libertarian feminists. Will continuing to wear a mask outdoors become a “privacy setting” for a woman’s face? Is it possible to opt out of being perceived in public?
It seems that women cannot escape surveillance, thanks to the Internet, which provides another venue in which our physical appearance is evaluated and critiqued — always room for improvement! — alongside our opinions and lifestyle choices.
Online, the wellness influencers who never stopped living their best lives in front of an audience appeared as shiny as ever. The bar they set for the rest of us remained unattainably high. In my 2020 novel “Self Care,” which satirizes the wellness industry, I wrote about social media as Panopticon, “the prison of personal branding that put women in their own private cells (their social media profiles), under constant surveillance to remain beautiful (but real), strong (but vulnerable), unique (but authentic), vocal about their beliefs (but only the ones that everyone else agrees are worth believing in). We [are] both the prisoners and the guards.” The pandemic, which shuttered so many of the spaces where we gather for offline community, forced us to spend even more time in that digital prison.
I’ve been extremely online since I was a teenager, but I’ve never been on camera as much as I have in the past year. As the Little Mermaid might say, “I want to be where the filters are”: I prefer Zoom, where I can “touch up” my appearance in settings, and not on Google Meet, where my skin looks unjustly rash-covered. Is it psychologically healthy to spend this much time looking at, and thinking about, our own faces? There have been anecdotal reports of a “Zoom boom” in plastic surgery among the class of workers whose work-from-home lifestyle allows them hours a day to scrutinize their own faces on video conference calls.
Voluntary masking may seem like a way to opt out from society’s unfair expectations of women’s appearances and congeniality. And yet, for some people, masks made them hyper-visible, as evidenced by the rise of “maskual harassment” experienced by women who work as restaurant servers. In the United States, 70 percent of restaurant servers are women. Some diners pressure female servers to remove their masks and reveal their (smiling) faces, if they want a good tip. “Feminine faces, as well as bodies, are trained to the expression of deference,” writes feminist philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky. I used to wait tables for $2.17 an hour plus tips in Albuquerque, New Mexico; I know very well that deference is a necessary soft skill for succeeding as a tipped worker.
Making oneself less visible — and also muffling one’s voice — should not be the price of admission to the public sphere. When we mask to deflect unwelcome attention, we capitulate to a culture that would prefer women take up less space and shut up.
One image of the pandemic that will stay with me forever is a photograph of an unmasked woman standing in front of a Baskin Robbins during a lockdown protest in April 2020, holding a sign that reads “Give me liberty or give me death.” The photo was universally mocked and memeified in my neighborhood of the Internet: This was an archetypal “Karen,” a White woman who wants to speak to the manager of the lockdown. She was protesting a restriction of her freedoms, just like liberal women do when they march with “My body, my choice” signs — the obvious difference being that the pandemic lockdowns were not only about the right to choose what to do with one’s own body but the responsibilities and trade-offs that come with being a member of a society. Still, even while I disagreed with the target of this woman’s protest, I recognized her anger.
I wonder if feminists’ true desire is not actually public privacy, but something more akin to freedom: freedom from impossible beauty standards, freedom from judgment, freedom from the expectation that as women we exist to please. But continuing to mask up — to hide our faces from the world — will not bring us any closer to those freedoms.
Instead, if you are fully vaccinated but still feel self-conscious about returning to a mask-free existence, it might be helpful to remember the advice your parents gave you before your first school dance: No one is looking at you. Everyone is too busy thinking about themselves.