"We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” – Andre Berthiaume
In a few days, we’ll finally say goodbye to 2020.
Celebrating each new year is only symbolic, but in my lifetime, I’ve never craved the symbolism of leaving behind the recent past in the way I do now. For me, the rhythms of 2020 have rarely felt good. It’s been an irritating, exhausting and painful year for many of us.
Topping many lists of major irritations: the mask.
If 2020 had a school uniform, it would be the mask. It’s a simple yet controversial bit of fabric that we’ve worn to keep each other a bit safer and to signal we take the pandemic seriously. Regardless of where you fall on the mask vs. no mask argument, there’s no denying it’s been one of the most talked-about bits of political fashion in modern history.
There. I did it. I called the mask a piece of fashion. When we consider the opportunities presented to share our identities through mask-wearing, there are clearly those individuals who wear theirs like they’re walking the runway during Fashion Week.
And, to them, I say, “Work it.”
Like the bodies of the faces they adorn, masks come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big. Some are small. Some blend in, while others stand out on purpose. Some choose the simple cloth with ear straps, which push our earlobes out to make us all look like Alfred E. Neuman. Some choose the full-on plastic face shields. Others choose the upgrade to super safe N95s.
As a family, we have procured quite the collection of YSU-themed masks. If we’re going to mask up, then each Earnheardt face will be a billboard for Youngstown State. The problem is, our collection features the same design. As a large family, we’re used to sharing, but wearing each other’s masks and directly breathing one another’s mouth-scents is a bridge too far.
The simple solution to this would have been to mark each mask with a sharpie, but we’re too new to masking to anticipate the outrage of being the kid who accidentally ends up with the mask of a gross-breathed, ketchup-faced, saliva-spewing sibling.
Adam has assumed mask cleaning duties. Although the CDC has some recommendations on mask-washing, Adam is admittedly not that responsible.
The CDC says we should wash our cloth masks when they get dirty, or at least daily. Our method includes a sterile soak in the sink every couple of days. The recommended drying method is to use warm air. Apparently hot dryers shrink the masks and there’s nothing worse than watching Adam try to strap on a three-sizes-too-small mask on his large, bald head.
To avoid shrinkage, we prefer air drying. This method falls within CDC recommendations. They also advocate for direct sunlight, but when that’s not possible, we hang them or lay them flat to dry completely.
Have a disposable face mask? Better yet, like the Earnheardts, do you have a car full of disposable masks? The CDC recommends we actually “dispose” of the disposable masks after each use, but clearly, we’re not that fancy. Although, nothing makes Ozzie’s day more than finding a “free” mask someone has dropped in a parking lot. Don’t worry. We mostly catch him before he puts them on.
It’s dangerous, yes. It’s gross, absolutely. We’ve told him several times now, “the 5-second rule you use for candy does not apply to masks we find on the ground.”
But, it’s not just the masking protocols we need to attend to, it’s also the “soft” effects mask-wearing has had on us.
For some, it’s a chance to signal their fandom (like us), while others prefer the generic and understated, but powerful powdered blue fabric. A few opt for more elaborate and expensive masks with voice-activated LED lips. Or, if you interact with the lip-reading community, you might prefer a clear mask.
There’s no doubt that masking sends a message, but it also complicates our interpersonal interactions. It changes our nonverbal behaviors and elevates our need to speak up and enunciate.
For example, if you are an outgoing and friendly person, you may choose to smile at people as you make eye contact on the street. In a world where we can’t exchange smiles, we’ve come up with corollary strategies to signal to each other. Personally, I go for the head bob, although I admit it feels awkward.
While I miss sharing my smile, I’m sure others are happy that the pressure to make facial expressions at others is lessened. Our daughter Kate (who has naturally expressive nonverbals) loves that the facemask allows her to make whatever face she wants without judgment. We worry that when we return to maskless interactions, she’ll forget she’s not wearing one and continue to offer the same incredulous, perturbed expressions she’s perfected while in hiding.
Another challenge of the mask is recognizing people. I’ve been teaching on campus all Fall semester and there now exists a group of several dozen students who I know only by their eyes.
One day in class, I had to remove my mask for a moment to switch it for another (the one I was wearing kept slipping off my nose). When I pulled the mask off, several students made comments about how I looked different than they thought I would.
In addition to learning new faces by only the top half of their heads, I’ve struggled with recognizing people I’ve known for years. If someone is wearing a mask, sunglasses and a hat, it can pose some interesting social problems (e.g., "Why didn’t Mary Beth say 'Hi' to me? Oh yeah, I’m wearing a mask, a hat, and sunglasses.").
Now that the weather has turned colder, mask-wearing has become more enjoyable.
“I noticed how when the temperature dips, everyone seems happy to be wearing a mask,” Adam observed. This led him to declare that all indoor establishments should set thermostats to a chilly 50 degrees to increase mask-wearing compliance. To be fair, Adam has been trying to get us to set our home thermostat to 50 degrees for years, so this may be part of his global agenda as a naturally too-hot human.
The best part of masking is that we’re about to leave it behind. Or, at least, I hope so.
There are several vaccines currently being deployed right now and there are more on the way. This means we’ll need a new uniform for 2021.
After all this, I think we deserve our own roaring 20s. So, with that in mind, I vote for bringing back flapper dresses, wing-tipped shoes and fedoras. Dressing to the nines doesn’t usually interest me, but after a year in sweatpants, I’m ready for a new uniform, without the mask.
Here’s to 2021. May it be the start of something wonderful for each of us.
— Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.