What’s in a Mask?

In early March 2020, groups of professional tailors and hobbyists formed to make high quality facsimiles of surgical masks to remedy a shortfall in personal protective equipment (PPE) among health workers. Masks were made from specially chosen materials, according to carefully selected patterns, and delivered directly to hospitals. By early April, in the wake of the CDC recommending “cloth face coverings” for the public at large, cultural energies were diverted to a dizzying variety of crafted as well as ad-hoc facial barriers in hopes of limiting SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Masks may, by admission of many doctors and health organizations, work better as signs of civic responsibility than as barriers to infection.

Different demonstrations of craft practice coincided with these shifts: first came a small set of do-it-yourselfers and dressmakers, closely imitating medical mask form and function, then craftiness exemplified in making ingenious, serviceable replicas using paper towels and coffee filters. Next, in a dramatic shift away from the surgical mask template, came masks fashioned “on the fly” using scarves, bandannas, or repurposed objects as diverse as swimming caps, pan scourers, sanitary pads, men’s briefs, and even disposable diapers. The do-it-yourselfers then came back with a profusion of stitched mask facsimiles now intended for public consumption, some donated, some for sale, extolling high quality materials and construction, with even some whimsy in choice of fabric design. Commercial producers then entered the frame, advertising their masks on a variety of social media platforms including Instagram and Facebook.

In giving license to masking, the Center for Disease Control stressed the mask as a “thing” and putting on a mask as an “act.” Another two weeks passed before information began circling about masking as process—donning and doffing, cleaning, maintenance, and finally, disposal. A growing photographic catalog of mask “fails” (exposure of the nose, of the mouth, or even exposure of both) drew attention to the difficulty of mask-wearing (masks are, in part by design, uncomfortable), and the “non-obviousness” of how to wear one. In singling out a moment of practice, however, did these images document a mere moment’s lapse in a longer sequence of commendable compliance?

This realization points to an aspect of process that has escaped close scrutiny, that is whether duration of wear (suggested by the model of rapid turnover and disposability in the health care setting) makes as much difference to effectiveness as mask form or fabric. Given human vulnerability to the kinds of bodily acts that spread viruses, mistakes of wear and handling that even habitual mask wearers occasionally make, the best solution may be to change masks more often than most currently believe is necessary.

Masks may, by admission of many doctors and health organizations, work better as signs of civic responsibility than as barriers to infection. No matter the intensity of discourse about mask performance as a function of material, fit, and construction, it must be understood alongside mask performance as a sign of deference to social order. In the recent explosion of mask forms, existing social mask or face-covering conventions like the hijab or niqab have been conspicuous by their absence; a stark illustration of the limits on mainstream American moral reservations about not just whether to mask or not, but the appropriate way to do it. Also, as wearing masks has, at least temporarily, received a stamp of cultural approval, minority populations and people of color worry, with justification, of how their own mask-wearing will be received. Meanwhile, the play with masks of protestors against stay-at-home orders suggests several contradictory imperatives, including not wearing one to dismiss the enormity of the pandemic, wearing one to conceal one’s identity from establishment surveillance, and wearing one because the risk of contagion may, in fact, be real.

In these fraught circumstances, it is hard to imagine the audiences of mask performance responding sympathetically to “mis-wearings.” Yet for those who desire to mask properly, supportive audiences are urgently needed to alert wearers to mistakes—the fiddling with bare fingers, incorrect positioning, and so on—since we are surely bad monitors of these things ourselves. Failing this, a fast turnover in masks is the only alternative. Thus the crisis of a shortage of PPE in the healthcare domain began. Now essential workers in other industries are being compelled to wear the same mask day in and day out. A safer workplace requires them not just to become adept mask-wearers, but to have many more masks than they do presently.

Clare M. Wilkinson is associate professor of anthropology at Washington State University, the author of Fashioning Bollywood and the co-editor of Critical Craft: Technology, Capitalism and Globalization. Her primary research interests are dress, performance and craft practice; she is currently working on the construction of “real” worlds in movie set design in India.

Cite as: Wilkinson, Clare M. 2020. “What’s in a Mask?” Anthropology News website, May 8, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1401

Comments

Terrific note describing some of the symbolic elements of mask wearing. This extends to so much else of the behaviors associated with good citizenship during the pandemic, whether they involve specifically identified acts such as distancing or behaviors such as opening doors without using hands or opening and closing sliding screens with feet, elbows or knuckles (protecting finger-tips). Since no manual exists for preventive behaviors, myriad discrete behaviors fall under personalized repetitive behaviors that, since we don’t actually know how effective they are, probably fall under what might be called theories of symbolic contagion. The same ambiguity exists for “quarantine group” or whatever we call the people we don’t need to physically distance from. The whole topic of “social” distancing is fodder for our field. It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate how people live in an unexamined world, not just for the pandemic, but for racism, classism and politics as well.

Thanks Carl, I agree completely. I like what you say about an “unexamined world” which upends a tendency in our field — still — to have meaning “fill” up cultural space in a seamless and consistent way. Sure, masks as markers of dramatic political and ideological difference in recent weeks (and continuing into, though also complicated by the anti-racist protests going on now) yield to more straightforward interpretation because the purposes and affiliations surrounding them are clear. To some extent I think we’ll be able to say this also for rules surrounding how offices and businesses are to be reopened (re masks, social distancing and so on). But that leaves a lot of routine daily practice in which there is still vast scope for improvisation based on… what exactly? Great point.

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