Mask Not Optional

by Anna Shannon

Previously published in Existere Journal of Arts & Literature, Volume 40 Issue 1

As I walk through a dirty parking lot, before I reach the large, parting doors, I wrap one end of elastic around my right ear, and the other end around my left. My face is disguised by cotton stamped with orange and white print, selected by the designers at Ikea. They said, the men on the news, to wear masks. Home-made is fine. And so I made masks for my husband and I out of cotton pillowcases. I wrote a book on how to make them. Wearing a mask doesn’t feel strange anymore. Now I only feel like I’m about to say, “Stick ‘em up!” before I go in a liquor store. The other stores are fine; I’m just a customer there. Something about a liquor store makes me feel dangerous.

I wear it. I take it off. I launder it. Sometimes, when I wear it, my lips and skin around my mouth feel sweaty. Sometimes I can’t make it to my car before I tear it off and breathe. I follow the rules of mask-wearing. I’m a woman. I’ve had a lifetime of wearing what I’ve been told to. 

Maybe this is why the mask-dissenters are mostly men and their supportive ‘ride or die’ wives. These men have only encountered rules about clothing to maintain basic hygiene: no shirt, no shoes, no service. Sometimes men have to wear certain clothes for work: uniforms like coveralls, white coats, and suits. But the rest of the time, men know they have the freedom to walk around pretty much anywhere without a shirt on. They are half-naked and unashamed.

Faced with all this freedom, I can understand why it’d be hard for men to wear a mask, to be told they have to wear a mask. They don’t have years of wearing bras, slips, cover-ups, and headscarves. Do my free-hanging breasts make you uncomfortable? Sorry, what was I thinking? Let me lock those down. Are my bra straps showing? Oops. Please don’t think I’m a slut. I’m not, really. Does the outline of my thighs, hinted at by the sun shining through my dress give you dirty thoughts? My apologies. I’m only eight years old, but I’ve already been told to wear a slip. My legs are obscene. And even though my breasts are so large that I have cleavage in anything except a turtleneck, I’m sorry that a hint of cleavage at work made you distracted and worried I might think you’re ogling me. But don’t worry. I know you’re ogling me. You can’t help it. Headscarves — we know about these. They’re not exclusive to middle-eastern cultures. They’ve been part of women’s wear around the world for millennia. Read your Bible. 

I don’t wear a headscarf, but I have spent most of my life wearing makeup. It’s vital that when I leave the house, that I’ve ‘done my face’ to fit in, to not offend anyone. Are my black eyeliner wing flicks at the correct angle? Does my ‘natural look’ tell you that I’m a professional who can be relied on to be ‘put together’?

Why do I acquiesce to these demands? Isn’t it just easier? Fine, I’ll wear a bra if you stop whispering about me. Fine, I’ll conform to your office dress code of which 90% is based on references to clothing that women wear: ‘No spaghetti straps.’ I didn’t realize men wore spaghetti straps. No? Oh, ok. I look for references to men’s clothes in the dress code, but they’re not there. I suppose the only code (no shirt, no shoes, no service) is a given in an office. Before I forget, I’ll tell you what I was told my first day on the job: wear a cardigan. You can’t go sleeveless. You can’t bare your arms. Are arms too sexy? Or ugly in their jiggly imperfection? What if I promise to shave my armpits for my whole life?

While I’m at it, I’ll make sure the rest of my body is inoffensive too. I’m sorry I’m a bit overweight, but let me wear something baggy so you don’t have to see it, especially not the hint of a non-flat tummy. If I wear leggings as pants, I promise to cover my butt so you don’t have to see that I have one. Big, round butts are sexually charged, so we can’t have you exposed to those, especially not now when they’re so popular. They might remind you of strippers or hip hop artists. 

At this point, it’s a miracle I’ve managed to find something decent, professional, fashionable, and appropriate to wear at all. I’ve covered myself from my sensible shoes, black socks, black slacks, button up shirt (with the gaps in between buttons carefully safety-pinned shut), camisole (in case you can see the outline of my bra under my shirt), cardigan (because I’m always cold in an office designed for a man’s metabolism), earrings (because women are expected to wear jewellery, to want to wear it), makeup to hide my real face, and hair that is appropriate for my age, but dyed or ‘touched up’ to make sure I don’t look my age. 

I’ve hidden myself under all these expectations. I only own ‘work clothes’ and ‘lounge clothes.’ I don’t know what I’d wear if I could wear anything I want. Where would I even go in those clothes? On a date? Better look sexy, but not too sexy. Out for brunch? Better wear something my friends can compliment me on, like a new scarf, but don’t go overboard. Be accessible.

So why not just wear a face mask too? Doesn’t seem like a big deal. I’m already draped in inconvenience. My bra straps chafe my skin, the underwire digs into my chest. When I am finally free at the end of the day and take it off, it leaves pink indents around my torso. My shoes make my feet hurt. Instead of getting more sleep, I’ve spent time getting ready.

I believe the government wants us to wear masks for hygiene reasons, like the ‘no shirt, no shoes’ rules. Seems like a reasonable stretch, like asking someone to use a Kleenex or sneeze in their elbow. The mask is just a Kleenex you wear all the time because your sneezes (or equivalent) could make people sick and die. 

For the people who say the mask is a symbol, and a form of government control, I say maybe there’s a bit of truth to that. Maybe it gives us a sense of control in the face of so many unknowns. Wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer is easier to handle than the looming prospect of a possibly painful death that could come from anywhere. But if this is government attempting to control us, it’s no worse than how society has controlled half of us since anyone can remember. Just put the damn mask on. Half of us wear masks all the time, and can’t remember a time when we didn’t.