Cultural Mask-Appropriation

We’ve entered a whole new weird world. A world without precedent. A world without template. Masks are the new black and barefaced is soooo last year darling.

It’s true that there are cultures where mask-wearing beyond a hospital setting is more typical and doesn’t draw a second glance. However, in Europe and many other locations it’s not the norm; or at least, it wasn’t.

So we find ourselves in a whole new place of experiences and discovery…in circumstances that our previous years have not prepared us for culturally. We have no precedent. We don’t know what’s appropriate, and I, for one, have found myself in situations over the past months where I find myself pondering: is that OK?

The first experience that set me off thinking about this was on a train in the spring. I found myself on an S-Bahn sitting diagonally opposite from a chap wearing a mask. He picked up his can of beer to take a sip and brought it to his lips, only to forget that he had a mask on and had to slip the mask down to take a swig. The movement all done in a sort of “I just tripped over my own feet…act natural, nothing to see here,“ embarrassed kind of way. I admit, I smirked under my mask and then pondered: was I being cruel, should I relay this amusing incident, is mask humour appropriate yet? At least he was wearing a mask and one that was also over his nose (of which more later). Maybe my sympathies were tempered by the judgmental part of me watching beer drinking from a can at five thirty in the afternoon.

Then there’s the first time I saw a mask that I wanted to compliment. I’m the sort of person who will compliment a perfect stranger on their gorgeous dress and how it suits them, their fabulous shoes, or a beautiful coat. Whenever possible I try to act on the compliment that’s in my head because, well, what a wonderful and free way to brighten someone’s day. It’s never gone wrong yet and the other person has such a spring in their step afterwards that they positively radiate good vibes: joy amplified. But is it yet appropriate to compliment someone’s mask? I think I‘m holding back for two reasons. First, I don’t want to have to shout my socially distanced compliment at them, but on the other hand I don’t want to get close enough to deliver the compliment but have them feel uncomfortable. Can one really deliver a sincere, audible, compliment from about 1.5m away? Secondly, I think part of me feels that if it becomes OK to compliment a stranger’s mask that it starts to normalise mask wearing, which in the short term is OK, but I’m not sure I want to always leave the house wearing a mask for the rest of my life.

Mask fail

I was looking forward to some mask upsides, though. I feel the cold terribly, and as we sweated under our masks through the summer I was looking forward to being cosy under my mask in the winter. I’m into scarf-and-gloves territory when the thermometer dips below 15°C, but finally, this winter, I won’t be alone at the bus stop with only my eyes peeking out. Oh, joy! – thought I, Everyone will have their face wrapped! However, I’m not enjoying my winter mask wearing quite as much as I thought I would because… snug though I am at the bus stop, as soon as I get into the warm bus my nose starts the winter drip!! What to do?? Fish for a tissue, remove my mask, endure the stares, blow my nose, suffer the wide-eyed looks of terror/horror, sanitise my hands, replace the mask, bag the tissue, re-sanitise my hands… Goodness, I’m trying to do my altruistic best, but what a performance! So far I’ve opted for the efficient, if inelegant, sniff. Then there’s trying to get the loops of the mask over your ears while wearing gloves and your hat is keeping your ears warm… No, winter mask wearing is not turning out to be the fun I thought it would be. That said, to those of you who are having to navigate the whole mask thing while wearing glasses, you have my sympathies. Sadly, I haven’t yet heard of any reliable solution I can pass on.

Then there are the rare occasions (for me) when I bother with makeup. Date night, with a spare 10 seconds to pep up my mood: a quick bit of lippy, job done. And then I remember moments later that, “Ahhh, pants – I’ve got to put a mask on!“

What a bore

Anyone else suffering with yawns under their masks? A minute or two after donning mine the yawning starts. Of course, one doesn’t get a satisfying yawn: you suck in the mask (or have to hold it away from your face – but you’re not supposed to touch it), or your chin pulls it off your nose, or it rides over your chin and you don’t want it in your mouth. So right after the first rubbish yawn I immediately feel the urge to yawn again, which isn’t a quality yawn, so I feel the urge to yawn again, and so it goes until I get off the bus.

And what is it with this whole‚ I’m-wearing-a-mask-but-not-over-my-nose thing? If you don’t believe in the whole thing, then don’t wear a mask, and have the appropriate discussions with the train guard, members of the public, your mates, whatever. But either wear it or don’t wear it. Do the same people go out with umbrellas and then only hold them over half of their bodies, I wonder? Or maybe they just drape their seatbelts over their shoulders? No problem – they can click in their seatbelt just before the accident.

Mask win

Those days when you pop your mask on and think, “Damn… my laundry smells goooood!“

I feel like a teenager again. Masks are anti-aging it seems. I haven’t had a spotty chin since I was 14, but now I do again. It took me a while to work out what was going on. I wondered if it might be a sign of starting the menopause. But my friend has informed me I’m suffering from the same condition as everyone else in 2020: mask-ney.

I’m extra appreciative that someone has already invented self-adhesive stamps.

Ballet in a mask, now that’s a challenge. Never mind hot yoga, this is Bikram ballet. Every class feels like it’s 36°C, and after 20 minutes I’m puffing like Thomas the Tank Engine with the red cheeks to match. Still, the class has decided to consider it our version of altitude training: just think how super fit we’ll be when we no longer have to dance in masks. It’s also raised our sympathies for those on stage and dancing in masks. I never really appreciated before just how tough the role of a mouse in the Nutcracker must be.

As 2020 draws to a close, we see that there are three (at the time of writing) promising vaccines in the pipeline. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we can consign regular mask wearing to our cultural bin. Next will we be figuring out what to do with our collection of masks? Texaid, patchwork bras, hammocks for teddy bears? Eco friendly upcycling ideas are welcome. And what will we take from this? Hopefully a new appreciation for those who will still be wearing masks. All those health professionals who wear them routinely to protect us, while having their job made a little bit tougher by working and talking with a mask. Perhaps an even deeper appreciation of hugs and compliments.  Let’s brighten each other’s days and not hesitate over a compliment, be it for a hair-do or a mask: they are priceless. And with such a crazy, complicated year of variables, including whether masks help or not, maybe we just need to conclude that wearing one doesn’t really hurt us, so let’s err on the side of caution and keep up the altruism – because that’s always appropriate.

Article and photos by Michelle Kiener

Michelle is a gourmet chef, freelance writer and managing editor. A UK expat, she lives in Baden with her Swiss husband and their two boys in their “fixer-upper” house. She enjoys skiing, triathlons, gardening, dancing and crafts. Then she became a mum and is proud to fit in a daily run for the bus, a weekly ballet class, and keeping the grass short enough to let people in and out of the house.

One thought on “Cultural Mask-Appropriation

  • January 6, 2021 at 2:12 pm

    Love the article. I can relate to the fresh laundry smell of the masks and sometimes think that in post C-19 times, that smell will bring it all back. And I’ve also put on lipstick only to realise the futility of that when the mask goes on, so have tried to lift my eyeliner game!


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