So you’re going to need a mask. The trouble is that wearing one isn’t easy or pleasant. It can feel claustrophobic, anonymising, steamy. The British government waited so long to mandate mask-wearing that many people remain sceptical of their efficacy, as well as annoyed that they have to wear one at all.
To flip the social norm from not wearing masks to wearing them, the government will need strong enforcement of the new law. And the support of some well-positioned maskfluencers.
A maskfluencer, or mask influencer, can be anyone who makes mask-wearing look appealing enough to nudge members of the public toward covering up. The Queen and Sir David Attenborough have been floated as ideal maskfluencers – public figures beyond reproach whose promotion of mask-wearing could sway the attitudes of a nation. Just think of what Attenborough did for plastic.
Who else would get the most people to mask up? Celebrities, says Tory Burch. The American fashion designer launched a social-media campaign encouraging her high-profile friends to post masked selfies. So far, Jennifer Aniston, Kerry Washington and Julianne Moore are among the dozens that have answered Burch’s call to #WearADamnMask.
In the fashion world, insiders like Instagram’s Eva Chen are waving the flag for mask-wearing. Almost daily, Chen shares photos of herself getting ready to leave her New York flat dressed in a stylish mix of streetwear, luxury accessories – and masks like the bright-patterned, bow-adorned designs from New York brand Collina Strada. They cost $100 (because what better way to make mask-wearing aspirational than to make it out-of-reach expensive?).
And Sarah Jessica Parker is running her own one-woman mask-and-marketing campaign. She’s tied a silk scarf around her hair (Amber Heard-style) for photo ops and stockroom management at her new SJP Collection flagship store in New York City.
Ok, so maybe that’s more marketing than maskfluencing. Parker and her scarf-masks have attracted attention, much of it in the form of online jeering rather than cheering. The problem with celebrities is that they can alienate as big a constituency as they bring on side. If you’ve ever chafed at a celebrity urging you to vote this way or donate to that charity, then no number of masked selfies will do the trick.
And mask-wearing has become a political issue rather than a purely public-health one. Especially in the US, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi matches her many patterned masks to her suits, and where President Donald Trump scoffs at masks as a sign of weakness – even as his wife and daughter wear them. Ivanka Trump has become an especially diligent mask-wearer. If maskfluencing were a science, then her adherence should bring mask-shunning members of Trump’s base around to the idea of covering their faces; instead, they’re laughing at her. Whether the laughter dies down now that Trump has worn his first mask remains to be seen.
What Ivanka is doing is normalising mask-wearing, not necessarily bringing the mask-averse on-side. A truly compelling maskfluencer would be one who could turn around recalcitrant anti-maskers with his or her sheer legendariness. Which is why a government adviser’s suggestion that The Queen and Sir David should be encouraged to pose in masks to promote mask-wearing is so spot-on. “I’m surprised how little use has been made of role models,” said Professor Robert West of the government’s SPI-B behavioural science advisory group.
The Duke of Cambridge and Countess of Wessex have both worn masks for public engagements. European royals including Queen Mathilde of Belgium, King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands have all gone about their duties with face coverings. There’s precedent, but none of this midlevel royal maskfluencing could approach the scale of a statement from the top.
Social psychologists say it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit, so most of us are still in the early days of acclimatising ourselves to masks (masklimatising, if you will). Having the right people wear masks in public could be just the thing to nudge people to pop one on. Convince enough of us, and the very British abhorrence of making oneself conspicuous will do the rest.
Because Britons have been much less likely to wear masks than people in other countries – only a third of Brits have worn face coverings regularly, compared with as many as three-quarters of the citizens of Italy, France and the United States, where governments mandated mask-wearing some time ago.
If the maskfluencers prove effective, then picking up a mask on the way out the door will become as standard as grabbing for keys, phones and wallets, as automatic as clicking into a seatbelt. So please, Your Majesty (and the Duchess of Cambridge, and David Beckham too), wear a mask. Your country needs you to.
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