The Effects of losing the face as a result of the face mask

In the last year, the world has been on its head due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic’s visual consequence is that most people in everyday life are stepping into social environments without a face. Of course, this loss of the face is not literal, but a consequence of wearing the mandatory face mask to not further spread the virus.

On March 21 of this year, the BBC published an article called Covid: Masks and social distancing ‘could last years.’ In this article, Dr. Mary Ramsay, the head of immunization at Public Health England, stated the following: “I think certainly for a few years, at least until other parts of the world are as well vaccinated as we are, and the numbers have come down everywhere, that is when we may be able to go very gradually back to a more normal situation.”

So the predictions are that it will take a few years before the face mask will no longer be mandatory. Thus, it is crucial to research how people change their way of thinking and behaving when wearing a face mask for a more extended period. Mainly because this change, either mentally or physically, will affect a global scale.

This article will dive into the face mask as a bodily restriction and its effects. Looking at why the face is so essential for human beings through qualitative research on literature about human behavior and the meaning of the face within social interaction. Even so, looking at psychological consequences of bodily restrictions through a case study of the corset. To eventually propose research into the effects of the face mask on socially ingrained habits and behaviors within the dutch society that might be developing during the pandemic.

Disagreement on the face mask

According to Dr. David Nabarro, the face mask will not be a temporary change in our daily social experience. He states the following: “It’s a revolution like when it was discovered that dirty water bore cholera in 1950 or like 25 years ago when we all learned about HIV/Aids and its relationship with sex. We changed and we adapted, we learned how to live with these new realities.” (Giodano, 2020)

Figure 1. Twitter post by @Majesteux1

However, the adaptation to these new realities seems quite far away. In my observation, many people tend to lose the mask as soon as possible. For example, shoppers are removing the face mask even before entirely leaving a store. And even social media accounts such as Twitter are full of people talking openly against the face mask, naming the mask a muzzle, for example, as seen in Figure 1.

To gauge people’s opinions of the face mask, I set up a survey. The survey got over a hundred responses which showed the following results:

  • 78,6% said that they would stop wearing the face mask once it is not mandatory anymore.
  • The face mask got rated 3,9 out of 7 for comfortability.
  • They felt most uncomfortable because of suffocation and less face-to-face contact.

Furthermore, to indicate why people find the facemask uncomfortable, I asked them to explain their answers. A response that came back in several ways was: “If it is necessary to wear a mask, I wear one. But I prefer not to wear a mask because I like to breathe freely and show my face the way it is meant to be — without a mask..”

Covering up emotional expression

Why is it that something as simple as a piece of cloth in front of our face creates such an impact on the way we perceive daily life? Before one could answer this question, it is essential to look into how one behaves within social interaction or, in other words, an individual’s appearance within social interaction. Erving Goffman refers to this as the presentation of self in everyday life. What Goffman writes about this is the following: “I assume that when an individual appears before others he will have many motives for trying to control the impression they receive of the situation.”

This controlling of the situation is what Goffman calls the performance. A performance that is given to co-participants or, in other words, the audience who is present at the social interaction. Once an individual plays the same performance repeatedly to the same audience, a social relationship is likely to arise. An essential part of this performance is the personal front. The personal front consists of appearance, which tells things such as social status or a social activity like work. Secondly, the front consists of manner, which functions to show the interaction’s role. For example, speech patterns, facial expressions, and bodily gestures (Goffman, 1959).

So what one can tell by this is that the face mask contributes to the appearance of the personal front while hiding the manner of the personal front. However, what exactly is it hiding?

As the name suggests, the face mask covers up a part of the face. This part of the body is most distinctive to our interactive side. It is the natural focus of attention while interacting. At the same time, it is becoming the focus of relationships formed between people who interact. (Yu, 2011)

Besides being the focus of the interaction, it is also the display of emotion. However, what is important to note is that the location of expression is proven to be different within particular countries.

The research named ‘Are the windows to the soul the same in the East and West?’ shows this difference. The research reveals that in cultures where emotional subduction is the norm, such as Japan, one sees that the focus is more firmly on the eyes when interpreting other’s emotions. In contrast to this, in cultures where overly emotional expression is the norm, Such as in the United States, one interprets emotions based on the mouth’s position. This because the mouth tends to be the most expressive part of the face (Yuki et al., 2006).

This lack of focus for emotional expression because of the face mask was shared with several survey correspondents. They felt like it was harder to communicate. “It covers my facial expressions so people can not see me react. And it is also more difficult to recognize people.” Another correspondent wrote: “At work and in general, when I wear a mask, I cannot see anyone else’s facial expressions that well, and I cannot show mine.”

When reflecting on this, one could say in a country such as the Netherlands. The face mask is hiding the exact focus point of emotional expression. Because of this, the face figuratively ceases to speak.

Stigmatization of face covering

Before diving into the effects of physical restriction, it is important to note one more thing, the stigmatization of face-covering within the Netherlands. By now, it has become clear that the face is our display of emotion. Once lost, this display may suggest something surreptitious and scandalous, but from where does this stigma arise?

What one can see in western media is that covering the face is often presented as shorthand for mistrust or even a threat across modern culture. For example, numerous villains wear masks, such as Darth Vader. It is also present in the representations of thieves with a balaclava.

Still, it does not stay with media representation. The mistrust is also present in daily life. Since August 2019, there has been a partial ban on face-covering clothing. This ban focusses on the burqa and niqab. Since this date, it is prohibited to wear such pieces of clothing in public buildings such as schools and hospitals and also within public transport. Disapproval of the face veil has a long history within Europe. The Niqab has become a symbol of cultural threat and the silencing of Muslim women (Bullock, 2002).

The book Rethinking Muslim women and the veil by Katherine Bullock clarifies that the reaction to the face veil is deeply rooted in Islamophobia and racism. Even so, it is essential to note that some of the dissonances towards the face mask might also arise from this deeply rooted stigma created around those face covers.

Although there is much more to discover here, the focus of this paper will now continue to the psychological effects when restricting the body.

Physical restrictions and their effects

The phenomenon of silencing the body through physical restriction is not new. Richard Sennett already talks about this in his book Fall of public man. A book that traces the changing nature of urban society from the eighteenth century to the current zeitgeist. While talking about how societies changed the way of dressing through time, he points out the following: “When the body is twisted out of any natural shape, it will cease to speak.” In this quote, he refers to the obstruction of the woman’s body through the iron bones of a corset. Restricting the movement of the body and thus restricting the body’s expression (Sennet, 1977). The example of the corset will now be used to explore further what effect bodily restrictions could have.

So as mentioned before, the iron bones of the corset restrict bodily movement. Thus restricting the expression and gestures the body could make. Apart from restricting those bodily’s expressions, there is something else happening; this is what Helene E. Roberts talks about in her text The exquisite slave.

Roberts starts this text with the quote, “clothes make the man.” She refers to this as “no empty cliché.” Further in the text, it becomes clear that clothes functioned as a signal to the world within the Victorian age. It reminded the wearer which role to play and its responsibilities, constraints, and limitations linked to this role (Roberts, 1977). To exemplify this, she says the following:

“Men were active (their clothes allowed them movement), woman inactive (their clothes inhibited movement); men were strong (their clothes emphasized broad chests and shoulders) women delicate (their clothing accentuated tiny waists, sloping shoulders, and a softly rounded silhouette); men were aggressive (their clothing had sharp definite lines and a clearly defined silhouette), women were submissive (their silhouette was indefinite, their clothing constricting).”

This notion of softness, dignity, and compliance became the proper role of women. In this time, alternatives to marriage were harsh, and a good husband was scarce. Even if the women disagreed, most of them were afraid of moving out of that appropriate role (Roberts, 1977).

What becomes clear is that wearing a corset had become a part of the habitus at that time. The habitus is a sociological theory first brought up by Pierre Bourdieu. It shows the underlying structure of social life that becomes ingrained into how people physically move in the world. Hence, the habitus shapes present social actions of an individual (Bourdieu et al., 2019).

In this case, the habitus of women was a willingness to conform to the submissive-masochistic pattern. Women were socially pressured to wear clothes that created restrictions, which resulted in accepting submissiveness and pain as a woman’s lot. Consequently, making this perspective on their role in daily life a part of their habitus.

The same sort of restriction is currently happening with the face. The face mask has obstructed crucial visual cues that people have used for millennia to communicate. Removing these visual cues creates a distance between the people who wear a face mask within social interactions. What is there to be discovered is how mass masking is affecting the way people think and behave.

Published effects of the face mask

There is not much knowledge on the effect of the face mask up till now. However, a study done by Media and Communication Science of the University of Erfurt, Germany, already showed some effects. Wearing a mask gets rewarded, while not wearing a mask tends to be punished. In this case, the punishment is, of course, not as extreme as in the time of the corset. For example, the study showed that participants who frequently wore masks perceived greater warmth towards others who wore masks than those who did not (Misiak et al., 2020). Nonetheless, just like the corset, not wearing a face mask has other consequences. Not wearing a mask in a public space, for instance, can lead to a fine or even removal out of the space.

Some other observations are a bit more extreme. One of the articles in the Crisis and Critique report of 2020 talks about Political leaders who refused to wear a mask or make it mandatory. To those leaders, the face mask was interpreted as a signifier of weakness. A reaction from this political standpoint was that supporters of these political leaders went as far as to assault those who insisted the supporters on wearing a mask (McGowens, 2020).

It has been made clear that the lack of communicative signifiers creates a mental distance. After all, these examples show that choosing (not) to wear a face mask also adds another form of distance between people. This specific distance is experienced physically. For example, by being removed from a store when someone does not wear a face mask or being assaulted because one is wearing a face mask. An important indicator for the distance created is that it happens because of a difference in perspective on the face mask and its use. As mentioned before, an aspect of this difference is already applied through the stigmatization of face covering. Nonetheless, the difference in opinion gets bigger through political leaders or other people with significant social influence who share those opinions. Thus a difference arises in the habitus of people within the same society.

However, there is still more to discover here. McGowens suggests that there is more going on than just creating a distance between people.

Another thing he mentions is the visual creation of universality through mass masking. The encounter of unity has actually become an everyday occurrence precisely because of the mask. As a result of the continuous presence of the face mask, which makes a universal connection visible. This visual connection is comparable to the way high school uniforms work.

On the other hand, this visible unity also shows that our shared humanity or common essence is nothing more than this mask. Our universality has become a collective absence. As McGowen wrote in the crisis and critique report, “The mask thus represents a fundamental challenge to the capitalist order and its insistence on the isolation of the subject on which the system depends.” Whenever someone puts on a mask and encounters another person wearing a mask, they experience a confrontation with their will to do whatever they want. The mask, in this sense, serves as a reminder that they need to look out for the other instead of just themselves.

This phenomenon is in contrast to the everyday experience before COVID-19. Then the primary experience of universality was denied (McGowan, 2020). This refusal of unity resulted in an individualistic society, focusing on personal gain rather than community and care. This individualistic perspective then manifested itself in the habitus, which could be a reason for the extreme distancing between people with different opinions. A distance that is also patent in the effects of the face mask.

So what becomes clear is that the face mask has two different effects on the habitus of people in the Netherlands, or people in Western societies for that matter. On the one hand, it creates a more significant physical and mental distance between the people in society, especially when their opinions on the mask do not make a bargain. An influence of this physical distance, as mentioned before, already starts at the stigma around facial covering. Oppositely the face mask also creates a visual indicator for unity. Once mandatory, a person cannot deny that they are at a certain level connected to the person next to them in the supermarket. Concluding this brings me to the following question: Which of these two phenomena will become predominant within the Dutch society? Furthermore, what will be the mental consequence of this?

Conclusion

It is clear that the face is an essential part of human interaction and emotional expression. In western countries, this emotional expression focuses itself on the mouth. Thus the mound mask covers this exact point.

Furthermore, the effects of physical restrictions on psychological wellbeing became apparent. Once restricting the body in any matter, creating effects on the mental state of the person being physically restricted.

Finally, it became clear that the face mask is constituting distance between the people in western societies. The distance is made mental as well as physical. While the mental distance is because of the obstruction in communication, a difference in opinion on mask-wearing creates a physical distance. Simultaneously, the continuous visual appearance of the mask in daily life also creates a signifier for unity.

Regarding the possible psychological effects of the face mask, it is essential to invest more time in quantitative and qualitative research. This research will help understand the effects of mask-wearing in society and create a solid basis on mask regulations for the future.

Bibliography

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