Let’s talk about face masks.
And by that I mean, what it actually feels like to wear one on a regular basis. This is new for many of us, and guess what? It’s gross. It’s wet. It’s hot. You find yourself touching your face now more than ever because the mask itches or you need to adjust it. If you have glasses, your lenses are fogging up. Breathing is a bit harder and a deep inhale means a deep exhale and wow does that become disgusting fast. The experience of wearing a mask — which we all need to do for all the right reasons — is miserable.
And all of this discomfort only will get worse — much worse — as we head into summer and sweat enters the mix. And I think many of us are trying to figure out how to deal with this new normal. Maybe part of that process is just acknowledging the yuck factor. “It felt like I had a malarial swamp strapped to my jaw,” is how someone described it on Twitter. Another wryly dubbed the experience “sweltering in place.” Still another simply called it “putrid.”
I reached out to Pride Masks co-founder Alan Spaeth. His company has been making fabric masks that resemble the Chicago flag and he validated some of my anxiety. “Let’s face it, wearing a mask isn’t the most comfortable thing,” he said.
“It’s not normal to have something covering our faces, making it hard to breathe and speak. They fog up our glasses and hide our expressions.”
I asked if he had any suggestions. Fit is important. And for some people, if they’re using cloth masks “a little bit of linen spray or washing the mask in your favorite detergent can also help, especially (one) with a calming scent like lavender.”
That’s worth a try. But the experience is psychologically uncomfortable in ways we aren’t talking about widely, either.
We’re already physically distancing ourselves from one another and masks can feel yet like another barrier to human connection, said Dr. Aderonke Bamgbose Pederson, a psychiatrist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Try picking up on sarcasm or vocal inflection when a person’s voice is muffled and you can’t see the lower half of the face.
“The way we present ourselves to the world is so much about our face,” Pederson said. “Obviously I’m not against wearing masks — I think everyone should wear masks — but wearing masks compromises this aspect of social engagement that’s so deep-seated in our existence in terms of connecting with each other. We don’t give it much thought and that’s probably why we’re also not talking about it as much.”
I told Pederson about my first venture out wearing a face covering. It was a few weeks ago and it was a disaster. I had no masks — ones ordered online hadn’t arrived yet — so I tied a cotton scarf around my face and went to the store. The scarf kept slipping or sticking weirdly to my skin. The fabric became moist from my breath and I felt like I couldn’t get enough air. I was sweating. My nose was runny and I couldn’t do anything about it. And then eventually the scarf just sort of collapsed down around my neck and I sighed: Fine, I give up.
I paid for my groceries, loaded them in the car and sat in the driver’s seat, exhausted and trying not to cry. I felt like a failure.
It’s such a minor inconvenience, this discomfort. The rational part of my brain knows that. But in the moment I felt overwhelmed.
Pederson had a theory about that: “I think a mask is supposed to create this sense of safety for people and reduce your anxiety level when you go out — because the idea is that we’re not all breathing on each other.
“But it also creates anxiety because it’s a constant reminder of the virus and your lack of safety. It’s paradoxical.”
In order to do something that’s uncomfortable, she said, “you have to convince yourself the need for it supersedes the discomfort: I need to wear a mask because it protects others. I need it because we have a virus that can kill people. Or make them extremely sick.
I need it because we have a virus that doesn’t have a vaccine yet. I need it because we have a virus that doesn’t have a treatment yet.
“So I think that moment you had in the store actually makes a lot of sense. It’s not easy to adapt to this new practice of wearing a mask and you were probably subconsciously reminding yourself of all of this, and that can make you feel defeated.”
Add in racist biases and things get even scarier.
Pederson adds, “You want to talk about anxiety going to the grocery store? It can be that much worse when you’re a black man and the image in society, just historically and in media, is that they are perceived as threatening. Not everyone can get access to masks. So how does that play out when society has created this image of what it looks like if a black man puts on a bandana to cover his face?”
Just last week Illinois state Rep. Kam Buckner tweeted about his firsthand experience with this, writing that the governor’s executive order requiring face masks is the “right thing to do to protect Illinoisians in the face of this deadly virus.”
But he then detailed how a trip to the store reminded him of the “gratuitous and unwanted attention given to those of us of a certain demographic while engaging in normal social acts.” His Twitter thread lays out the circumstances: He was dressed in weekend casual clothing — a hoodie, sweatpants and gym shoes, along with gloves and a face mask. As he exited the store, a uniformed officer approached and asked to see his receipt.
“After 30 seconds or so, I found it and gave it to him. He barely glanced at it and then asked for my ID. I complied. He walked to his car and was in it for a couple of minutes and returned both the ID and my receipt. When I asked why he approached me in the first place, his response was: ‘People are using the coronavirus to do bad things. I couldn’t see your face, man. You looked like you were up to something.’
“Which begs the question, what does someone who is up to something look like? As scores of masked people walked in and out without encumbrance,
I was reminded of the reality that I have been programmed to show as much of my face as possible and use certain cues to disarm anyone who might have a learned inclination to be suspicious of my very presence.”
By comparison, the physical unpleasantness of wearing a mask is superficial and ultimately something we’ll get to used to anyway, Pederson said.
“I think probably the most important thing for people to remember is that this is a new activity and any new activity we do we have to practice. When you wear a mask and it doesn’t go well one day, it doesn’t mean that you should feel like, ‘I’m not going to figure this out.’ It’s about practicing: How to wear it; how to put it on; trying to only touch the loops that go around your ears or your head and cleaning your hands before and after putting it on. The more comfortable we get with the activity of it, the less anxiety-provoking it will be as it becomes part of our routine.”
By the way, Pederson offered a solution to fogged lenses: If you’re using a mask that doesn’t have a thin piece of metal that you can press down to ensure the mask conforms to the ridge and sides of your nose, you can use a strip of medical tape (the kind you might use to tape a couple of toes together) to create a similar kind of seal.
Before we ended our call, Pederson and I talked briefly about movies and the way directors rely on an actor’s face to convey so much subtext. This is how audiences often connect with characters — or in the case of The Dark Knight Rises and Bane, the opposite because his face and voice are so obscured by that respirator-looking mask.
“I love that image, though,” said Pederson. “I really do. Because it summarizes the anxiety and the threat to social connection. You can’t connect with that kind of character, right?
She had one more thought: “I was thinking about Castaway. Tom Hanks made a face on that ball so he could connect with it.
Can you imagine if a mask was on top of that? That’s how I think people feel right now: Isolated, and then when you do leave your home the people you come in contact with are wearing a mask.”
So much for that old saw about the eyes being the window to the soul, I said. Pederson thought for a moment.
“I think the eyes can only be a window into the soul because the rest of the face is there.”
Nina Metz covers TV and film for the Chicago Tribune.