comScore How I Learned to Love the Face Mask

I Love Wearing a Face Mask Because It Messes With Beauty Standards

Mona Lisa in a face mask

The U.S. saw a politically polarized national debate over mask-wearing explode at the pandemic’s start, and it continues more than a year later. While much of the rest of the world wondered why many Americans refused to don a simple covering that can reduce rates of coronavirus spread by up to 85%, anti-mask protests, battles over mask requirements, a march of opinion-page pieces, divisive news segments, and harassment of workers who request that customers wear masks rage on. The FAA just reported a dramatic spike in “unruly, dangerous” airplane passenger behavior that is often centered around the refusal to put on—or keep on—a mask.

The mask debate has intensified anew, with some arguing that we no longer need to wear masks outside. This is only going to increase as the weather grows warmer, more people are fully vaccinated, and restrictions are relaxed. But I have seen little discussion about the social benefits some of us experienced while wearing a mask, especially for people who may have been dedicating a lot of pre-pandemic time and money to wearing makeup. Not everyone loves the idea of masks eventually going away for good. (Some doctors are also suggesting we keep them in the long term during cold and flu seasons, considering how rates of those illnesses plummeted during the pandemic.)

Even though I’m far from a “makeup person,” I used to spend 15-30 minutes on cosmetic products before going outside. These products are often eye-wateringly expensive. And this was me doing a bare minimum in terms of the outsize beauty standards that are more pervasive than ever in our Instagrammed lives. My friends and coworkers who are skilled in makeup application often take far longer, with that process repeated every day, day in, day out. Then you have to scrub it all off your skin at night, which can also take a while.

(Every country and culture has its own aesthetic standards that it prizes, so I’ll be discussing my own limited American perspective here. Almost across the international board, however, these expectations are placed heavily on women.)

If we were to tally the extra effort that people who wear makeup take towards the nebulous concept of looking “put together,” that’s an immense amount of time lost. While many men and gender-nonconforming folks wear makeup, most of the research in this area has been done about women’s experiences—but the findings can be broadly applied.

One 2018 survey found that the average woman in New York spent 21 minutes a day putting on makeup (and that doesn’t factor taking it off again, or skincare routines). That’s roughly 7,556 minutes a year, or 125.9 hours, or 5.3 days. We lose more than the equivalent of an entire workweek every year to makeup application.

The same survey calculated that many women spend $300,000 on makeup in their lifetime. $300,000. And the list of items is exhausting:

The study also found that women use an average of 16 products in the a.m., which as we now know can really add up. This routine includes face wash, toner, serum, eye cream, moisturizer, primer, concealer, foundation, bronzer, blusher, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, eyebrow product, highlighter and lipstick.

For the better part of a year into the pandemic, the only time that I wore makeup was for the occasional professional Zoom call. That’s because I get to wear a mask outside that covers more than half of my face. Instead of burning time in front of the bathroom mirror applying four products, I can grab my mask and go outside without delay. No stranger on the street or shop-owner has told me to smile or offered commentary about my appearance in more than a year, either. It’s wonderfully liberating.

As a caveat, I’ll note that there are many people who find the creativity and artistry of makeup-wearing and application empowering, so I hardly expect my experience or feelings here to be universal. But I do think the shift in general beauty and social standards that masks created is worth exploring.

During the long, uncertain months of 2020, no one was doing much looking at anyone else in my neighborhood. We spent time turned inward, concerned about keeping our distance from others and wary of the virus, and “normal” interactions were off. It’s hard to overstate the kind of bone-deep relief that this can relay if you’re a socially anxious and/or self-conscious person.

This wasn’t always the case: in the early days of COVID-19, before New York City became a full-on hotspot and masks were everywhere, I felt terribly conspicuous in my mask. I can understand why, when you first put one on, some people were uncomfortable and needed time to adjust. But the anti-maskers who shouted about the health “dangers” of mask-wearing were, I think, protesting a bit too much.

Over time, wearing a mask has come to feel like a sort of empowering forcefield. The ease of slipping on that cloth or KF94 barrier, not having to smile reflexively when men on the street tell me to smile (because they no longer do), or worrying that some glaring “flaw” is on display, has led me to enjoy the anonymity and simplicity of mask-wearing. On the flipside, masks can be distinct and colorful, eye-catching and ingenious, if that’s more your speed.

If fashion is your thing, cloth masks provide another chance to prominently put your style on display. The sheer variety and type of masks available for sale these days are vast, and countless industrious people and companies are designing and making their own. Supply, which quickly rose to meet unprecedented demand, means that you shouldn’t have to wear an ill-fitting mask. If what you have to work with is still uncomfortable, it’s time to swap up.

Because so many of us have now experienced life under a mask, I find myself wondering if a post-COVID-19 America will see a decrease in makeup-wearing when and if masks become no longer necessary. There’s been a lot of talk that some folks are resistant to returning to other “restrictions” on the body like underwire bras and rigid pants, suits, and skirts after working from home led to the decline of business casual. How many others, like me, were glad to be relieved of beauty standards via a mask, and how many realized how much time and money they were gaining back?

And enjoying a mask isn’t restricted to those who have concerns about makeup or street harassment, of course. And it’s certainly not just specific to women. Masks can counter ageism, facial hair grooming expectations, and much more.

How many others enjoyed getting to feel relatively invisible?

Based upon my limited social contact since vaccination, however, I don’t think we’ll be throwing over makeup just yet. I suspect that we’ll return to the same old makeup standards or even an increase in usage. Some people are understandably keen to “dress up” again for public consumption or to change up their own lockdown routines. And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. As I mentioned, I know folks who feel as empowered by their makeup artistry as I feel slipping on a mask.

All other elements aside, even if you’re vaccinated, it’s still a courtesy to wear a mask in most situations where other people are around—and a good move for your own health. As MSNBC’s Joy Reid recently pointed out in regards to the Tucker Carlson crowd, irresponsible people are going maskless in places where they can endanger others. Vaccination reduces your chance of catching COVID and the severity if you do, but it’s not a 100% preventative or cure for the virus. Milder cases of COVID can still be debilitating and have lasting ramifications, and there are adults and even children still struggling with “long covid” symptoms.

Beyond political infighting, what masks have laid bare is just how many behaviors we took as “the norm” here that didn’t have to be this way. If I’m unashamed to go out in a mask without makeup, I shouldn’t feel any shame from myself or others if I do the same sans mask. If men can pass me masked up on the street without telling me to smile or opining on my appearance, they could have been doing this the whole time. I shouldn’t have needed a mask to come to this conclusion.

The largely unchallenged assumption—that everyone from the guy behind the counter to coworkers to friends can comment on the state of your face—has been challenged by the necessity of having to cover said face so as to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. And as a cool bonus, it turns out that face masks disrupt dystopian facial recognition software. You can resist this terrifying privacy incursion with a $2 piece of paper. Incredible.

Why don’t I just eschew all beauty standards, no matter what happens going forward, if I like the feeling so much? Well, that would be great, but society at large still factors in. I can’t ignore the reality that professional women and many gender-nonconforming people are still judged by their appearance. Two-thirds of companies polled say that they would hesitate to hire a woman who arrived makeup-free to an interview. Our very livelihood can still hinge on this social “norm.”

Women who wear makeup also earn more money and are considered to have higher “promotion potential.” Your style of makeup is even used by other women as a judgment metric on personality. And on and on and on. This is so pervasive that while masks have changed things for some of us, they haven’t stopped the messaging that makeup remains essential … and now some folks have to spend even more time figuring out how to keep it on underneath your mask, or focus on emphasizing the eyes instead.

Face masks and makeup

When tips and tricks for making makeup stick don’t work, there are those who even turned to more lasting fixes like tattooing on their lipstick. Much as I might like to flick the switch on makeup entirely, until there is a major and lasting pushback on social and beauty standards, that just isn’t feasible.

But wearing a mask has shown me how the other half lives—those who never have to think hard about the state of their face-art when they go outside. It is a freeing, exhilarating way of being, but it also makes me angry that it took a global pandemic to let me experience a reprieve from expectations that are otherwise unrelenting.

(image: Pexels)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.