Make Masks Accessories, Not Annoyances

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Why all the fuss about masks? Why won’t people just wear them?

“Masking has become controversial. It shouldn’t be,” former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on “Face the Nation.” To health experts, masks seem like a simple, apolitical precaution. In medical jargon, they’re personal protective equipment, or PPE, like surgeons’ gowns, gloves and face screens. Nobody thinks a doctor, nurse or emergency medical technician is a coward for gearing up.

On the streets of everyday life, however, masks are something more. They aren’t like safety glasses, life preserver vests, or seatbelts — special protection for a limited task in a specialized environment.

Masks are clothing. They cover your body and change how you appear to the world.

Once you understand masks as clothing, the controversy becomes entirely predictable. Clothes don’t just protect us from the elements. They aren’t purely functional. They provide pleasure and convey meaning. They tell the world, “I like that” and “I’m like that.” They help us stand out as individuals and fit in with our tribe.

Choosing your own clothes is a sign of autonomy and power. From toddlers to teens, kids fight their parents over what they wear. Iranian women brave the morality police by skirting veil requirements. School dress codes generate controversy after controversy.

From trouser-wearing feminists in the 1970s to calico prohibition in the 17th century, fashion history is full of people defying clothing regulation to assert their identities or indulge their tastes. The history of sumptuary laws, which banned luxury clothing or limited it to certain classes, is largely the story of people finding ways around the restrictions.

In short, people hate being told what they must or cannot wear. That’s as true for masks as it is for other garments. Mandates were bound to spark resistance. Ramping up enforcement will only intensify the pushback, and local police are wise not to make it a priority. Stopping mask scofflaws is just the sort of petty law enforcement that can lead to racially fraught harassment and abuse. When Joe Biden says he’d make mask wearing compulsory, he isn’t thinking about what that means on the street.

The good news is that people don’t wear clothes because it’s illegal not to (even though it is). They wear clothes to meet social expectations, express who they are, and add beauty, comfort and style to their everyday lives. To encourage mask-wearing, we need to tap into those instincts.

Up to now, the primary weapon aside from legal requirements (and fear of Covid-19) has been shame. But, as epidemiologist Julia Marcus writes in the Atlantic, “trying to shame people into wearing condoms didn’t work — and it won’t work for masks either.” Lecturing people about their clothing choices just makes them mad. Instead, Los Angeles Times writer Adam Tschorn suggests humorous public service ads featuring “Darth Vader, Bane from ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and a cadre of Lucha Libre wrestlers playing it tough while urging guys to put on their own masks.”

Anthony Fauci had the right idea when he wore a Washington Nationals mask at a congressional hearing last week. He demonstrated that masks don’t have to be boring. They can express our passions. Instead of annoyances, they can be accessories.

Some people are already treating them that way. Black Lives Matter protesters have used “I Can’t Breathe” masks to amplify their message. On the victory stand at Talladega Superspeedway on Monday, Nascar driver Ryan Blaney wore a design featuring race car images, and at an earlier race he displayed Star Wars imagery, including a prominent Darth Vader mask. Custom masks are popular among his fellow drivers. Some display team or sponsor logos, others patriotic imagery.

Blaney’s masks probably came from Etsy. The online marketplace sold more than $133 million in masks, or more than 12 million, in April — a number that has surely risen since then. Shops there offer styles ranging from colorful prints to Christian symbols to every sports team imaginable. 

You can buy Trump 2020 masks, Make America Great Again designs, and masks that will make your lower face look like the president’s. (Joe Biden and Barack and Michelle Obama masks are also available.) You can buy masks expressing your hatred of masks, media and government in words that won’t get past my editors.

The most important role models aren’t athletes or public officials. They’re the people we see everyday, especially the retail workers, delivery drivers, grocery clerks and other workers wearing masks to do their jobs. Unlike health care workers, they wear the same kinds of washable masks recommended for the rest of us: several layers of cloth, ideally with a filter in between, that can be washed after each wearing. (I use a UV sanitizer between washings, although there are questions about how well they work on cloth.)

Most of these frontline workers already wear uniforms, reducing their freedom to dress. To boost worker morale while encouraging the rest of us to embrace masks, public-spirited employers could help them personalize their masks. Depending on company size, that might mean buying a selection in bulk or handing out Etsy gift cards. Not every mask design is appropriate for the workplace, of course, but giving workers mask wardrobes would provide a much-needed note of individuality and cheer.

As someone who was wearing a mask back in March, when they were taboo signs of selfishness, I’m entirely sympathetic to efforts to encourage their use. But those efforts will succeed only if they acknowledge that people cherish the freedom to choose what to wear and that masks are clothes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes. Her next book, “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World,” will be published in November.

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