The Unexpected Pleasures of Wearing a Mask

Who knew covering up could be so liberating?

Susan Orlean

--

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

I have always been horrified by cultures and religions that require women to cover themselves. The first time I saw women in abayas I was in Morocco, and the sight of them covered head to toe terrified me. It wasn’t only the inpenetrability of their appearance but the idea that they had been commanded to wrap themselves, and they would be unwrapped only by men who controlled them. But on a more immediate level, I was disoriented by their facelessness. I could see no flicker of recognition, no welcoming smile, no glimpse of individuality. It unnerved me to walk among these dark figures hidden in the folds of their clothes.

Wearing masks to protect yourself and others from COVID is obviously a different matter. It’s not a gendered gesture: Everyone should wear a mask. It’s not a matter of moral censure or control. It’s science. So in many ways it doesn’t bear much resemblance to covering that’s part of a religious or cultural requirement.

But it does have some of the same effects. Wearing a mask shields you from public view. It erases a large percentage of how we recognize each other: No more nose, no more mouth, no more expressions except for the crinkling around the eyes that might (or might not) indicate that you’re smiling. And I’m shocked to…

--

--

Susan Orlean

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)