The Unfamiliar Intimacy of the Face Mask During COVID-19

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, the debate over face masks is still raging – time to take the opportunity and think about our intimate connections with inanimate objects.

This article was first published in August 2020 on the website of the Vitalities Lab. It has been slightly edited for republication on DG Conversations.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in devastating and unpredictable ways, the use of face masks (mandated and suggested) as a means to reduce the spread of the virus has gained attention in popular, media and political discourse, evoking (often heated) debates around how effective and necessary they are, and whether mask mandates infringe on civil liberties and rights.

Indeed, the face mask gives us a lot to think about. From a public health perspective, it is said to offer protection to others by limiting the distance and spread of droplets expelled through exhalation, speech, sneezing and coughing. Much has been written and debated about this, but, it has long been agreed upon that wearing a mask protects others, and evidence is mounting to suggest it protects the wearer as well.

Though the thrust of these debates largely focuses on whether masks do or do not ‘work’, there are also social, political and bodily dimensions of mask wearing (or not wearing) that merit attention. Over time, and in some situations, it may become an ordinary thing to wear a mask. Nevertheless the practice of wearing a mask requires some getting used to. It changes our bodily habits, takes on different meanings, and evokes physical and emotional responses from both those who choose (or are required to) wear a mask and those who choose not to.

The pushback against wearing masks is complicated. It can be connected to people feeling their individual freedoms are being infringed upon. The backlash against mandatory masks by so-called ‘anti-maskers’ has been severe. This phenomenon has a long history in other public health initiatives like the introduction of seatbelts and restrictions on substances, which over time have become normalised.

Mindful Breathing

Masks can also be experienced as physically uncomfortable, and not only for people with pre-existing conditions that may be impacted by the mask. Masks are worn very close to the body and given that they obscure part of the face, they alter our speech and expression and change the way we breathe. Ordinary social interaction, which often involves a lot of facial cues, must be renegotiated.

“Suddenly breath is equated with risk.”

Wearing a mask also draws our attention to bodies and breath in new ways. The experience of wearing a mask can be confronting as we are suddenly up close and personal with bodily functions and performances that we don’t usually feel or see or even notice. We suddenly feel our breath materialize as condensation on our skin, we can smell it as we speak, working to project our voice through layers of fabric. The practice of breathing itself becomes more explicitly noticed and felt. At the same time, as we wear masks to contain aerosols and droplets expelled by our breath, we are reminded of the capacities of breath to move through space in unpredictable ways, to reach and touch and potentially harm others, to spread an unseen virus. Suddenly breath is equated with risk and we become preoccupied with how far it can travel, how long it lingers, how might this change when we are indoors and outdoors? When walking or running?

Masks mitigate this risk to varying degrees, depending on their design, material make-up, and context and style of usage. In order to understand how to best protect ourselves from the virus, we may find ourselves reading scientific information more abundantly and carefully, taking care to understand the details about breath and the properties of certain fibres of fabric that offer the best protection. Yet we filter this information through our embodied and lived experiences.

Thinking about breath and face masks in this context highlights the messiness and leakiness of social exchanges in new ways. We are connected with one another more deeply and intricately than we often imagine, even those we don’t know and who we do not visibly touch. COVID-19 has underlined how our bodily actions and movements, even everyday ones, can directly impact others in ways we may not have previously imagined. Our breath is capable of touching (and impacting) others, even though it is unfelt and unseen, senses we usually rely on as indicators and proof of the ‘real’. By thinking about breath and face masks in these conditions, the collective aspects of our social lives are illuminated in new ways.

Entering our Inner Circle

Science and Technology scholar Jon Agar argues that there is an ‘inner ring’ of technologies that we hold close to our bodies, such as clothing, shoes and glasses. More recently, this inner ring has also come to include things like smartphones and wearable devices like Fitbits or smart watches. These objects become ‘domesticated’ over long periods of time and they become intimately connected with our bodies. We no longer constantly feel our clothing against our skin or our smartphone in our pocket, instead these sensations become part of our everyday sense of our bodies.

“Face masks and their (contested) emergence during the pandemic offer us an opportunity to think about our intimacy with objects.”

Face masks and their (contested) emergence during the pandemic offer us an opportunity to think about our intimacy with objects, given that their integration into our intimate ‘inner circle’ has been abrupt, and largely imposed. Masks suddenly ‘live’ alongside other objects like smartphones that have established themselves as essential over years rather than days.

As recommendations for mask use became stronger each day, some people started shopping online for aesthetically appealing masks, some stashed surgical masks in their cars, pockets, and purses, some engaged in new DIY projects, creating and sewing masks for themselves and others and distributed them for free to assist those unable to afford or access masks.

Over time they become more familiar and consequently perhaps more comfortable. Through trial and error we find masks that work for our lives; nose wire prevents glasses fogging up, patterned fabric makes us feel better about wearing them, some fabrics and elastics are softer than others, some are better suited to smaller or larger faces. Though their entrance into our lives was abrupt, the slower processes by which we come to know and become comfortable with the objects that are most intimately close with our bodies are beginning to emerge in our developing relationship with face masks.

[Title Image by Tai’s Captures via Unsplash

Marianne Clark

Marianne is a postdoctoral fellow in the Vitalities Lab, Centre for Social Research in Health and the Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW. Her research encompasses the intersections between digital and physical cultures as well as socio-cultural perspectives of gender and health.

Clare Southerton

Clare is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Vitalities Lab, Social Policy Research Centre and Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW Sydney. Her research focuses on the ways intimacy is formed with digital technologies and she has explored this in a number of empirical contexts including smartphone use, surveillance technologies, social media use, and the intersection between everyday technologies and sexuality.

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