Reviews | America, Unmasked – The New York Times

Our masks are finally falling. As warrants across the county are lifted or rescinded, we can walk out of the house with our noses and chins fully exposed, bare-faced to the wind. How strange that something so basic has become a marvel.

But, while few of us liked the mask when it was thrust upon us, it’s worth considering what we lose as it wears off. We lose the ability to hide a smirk and cover braces. We lose the ability to race incognito and avoid eye contact without being a jerk. And we lose our new ways of reading others depending on whether and how they wear their headgear.

Let’s face it: our masks, designed in part to conceal, have often revealed as much as they concealed.

I mean, how else are we going to rank other people politically in less than five seconds? For a good two years, those who wore masks clearly fell somewhere to the left or in the middle of the ideological spectrum; those who weren’t Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Even when everyone wore a mask, the way those masks were worn offered clues to people’s political stance. You had the woman in first class with the phrase “This mask is as useless as Biden” sporting a defiant look. The guy with the permanent Republican diaper and the one who was “helping” lowered his mask every time he spoke. The pushy shopper who expressed fake surprise when told his dangling mask wasn’t actually in place. The many men who let their noses stick out in the pandemic equivalent of human spread.

Guys, we can see you.

Speaking of men, beards have remained an ambiguous social signifier during the pandemic, but the mask has provided clues as to whether the bearded man in question was a MAGA trucker from Rapid City or a puzzle maker from Williamsburg. The former often let his ZZ Top roam freely underneath, the mask looking more like a decorative scarf than a chin-stretching protective device.

Then there was the question of color and style. While politicians and businessmen chose serious black security, others were more expressive. You learned about the cashier at your local Trader Joe’s from her rhinestone-studded number. People who wouldn’t be caught dead in message t-shirts weren’t shy about shouting their dedication to vegan living or their devotion to Jesus on a piece of cloth across their mouths. You could say what you believe to be true (“Love triumphs over all”) or scold someone else (“Stay home”) without parting your lips.

International mask spreads let you know where you were on the planet. While Americans went fashion crazy with fabric, in much of Europe disposable paper face masks were the norm. Wearing a cloth mask in France, chic as it was, sounded an American bat signal more clearly than putting on shorts in the winter.

It was exciting, on occasion, to feel like some sort of masked crusader or outlaw. As frustrating as it was to not be able to discern whether someone else was smiling, pretending to smile, or definitely not smiling at all, it was often helpful to hide one’s own facial expression. “Just you trying to figure out how I feel,” you might think looking at the person pretending not to know where the remote supermarket line started. It’s gone now.

People were generally able to talk to each other, listen to each other and understand each other. If screaming while enunciating through two layers of fabric was tiring, masks were an easy fix when you didn’t want to hear. We could helplessly gesticulate in his ear and walk away, the grandpa who was fed up and “forgot” his hearing aid on the bedside table.

We’re still a bit confused, kind of a hemming confusion on the remaining masks. Some people still put them on, and it’s harder than ever to tell if it’s a practical response to ongoing superspreading events, abject paranoia, or something else. Wearing a mask in the spring of 2022 may reveal something private, such as an immunocompromised condition or an unvaccinated 5-year-old grandson who your co-workers don’t know is currently in your care.

Whether to continue wearing a mask also reveals a schism on the left: You can choose not to wear it because you consider yourself a sane liberal following accepted science or to continue wearing it because you consider yourself a sensible liberal who has reason to doubt accepted science.

The passage of masks is likely to be the most complicated for young people. Consider teens and mask fishing – embracing masks as a way to cover up perceived shortcomings with one’s appearance. Some people thought they looked much better with masks on. It’s a look they’re sorry to see go.

Children who spent a significant portion of their childhood being constantly reminded by parents and teachers to put on a mask, like toddlers nagged to wear their glasses, may have absorbed the message too well. Many do not feel safe without them. I know parents as desperate to see their children give up the mask as they were to get them to give up the binky.

For people of all ages, masks have in some ways become the covering for our inner Linus. They offered a way to read others without feeling read ourselves. We were able to more creatively choose the face we presented to the outside world, without piercing a nose or having our face chosen for us by the gods of genetics. It can be difficult to completely drop this before the next variation.

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