Mask Off – the Future?

Words: Owain Johnson

Images: Tarik Halil

So now that haunted marshmallow lookalike Boris has finally decided it might be reasonable for people to wear facemasks in shops and other potentially cramped spaces, it is safe to say we’ll be seeing a lot more donnys donning a mask.

It might still be a novel concept for a Western country to cover up if one is ill, or potentially ill, but in East Asia surgical masks are commonplace and have been for a while now. As early as the 1950s, inhabitants of Japan and China have been wearing facemasks for different cultural and medical reasons, such as: protection against rising air pollution, staying warm in the winter months and keeping one’s privacy when out and about. It’s an everyday thing in Japan to wear a mask if you’re feeling under the weather. It is seen as a courtesy or kindness to not spread your germs to others when socially interacting – wild I know, to think about others and not just yourself! Japan has a tradition rooted in intergenerational respect, especially respect for one’s elders, where having respect is seen as a positive attribute for someone to have. One wears a mask to ‘save face’ showing respect for others whilst not being able to be judged themselves 1. Behind a mask they can only be critiqued by their actions.

This standard action is seen as quite shocking to a Western audience. In a world of Insta and Facebook, our face is our moneymaker. It’s what gathers us our likes, our endorphins for the day. Before, one would only really see people donning facemasks in big cities and on university campuses, these people would usually be East Asian. Hence a facemask has an ‘Othering’ effect in a Western society. In a world of binary distinctions, if you are not the ‘normal’ you are the Other. Not only does it hide the face, an important signifier for both verbal and paralinguistic communication, but it also clearly points out who is the ‘outsider’. It all comes back to Edward Said and his work on Orientalism. Said was a postcolonial theorist who said that the Western perception of the East was a combination of two prejudices. The first, that their cultures are seen as mystical and exotic almost to a fetishized point. An example of this would be an intake in Yoga and Indian holistic healing practises that a few hipsters reading this will instantly recognise in themselves. The second, that their ‘exoticism’ equates to them being strange (because it’s not Western) and therefore lesser than. In both cases, the East is seen as the “Other”.

However, it also needs to be said that quite a few parts of East Asia didn’t wear facemasks regularly until fairly recently. When SARS occurred in the early noughties, Taiwan adopted wearing masks – overcoming the social stigma that if one was wearing a mask they were seen as deadly ill.

Now to the present day where Westerners are wearing facemasks on the down-low and on the daily. The reason? Another virus. It takes big events to produce lasting social change. One might think that the Orientalist view of the East is too strong for a Western audience to adopt donning a facemask as their new normal, yet, countries like Taiwan suggest that this could happen. Not only does this example stop a homogenous view of Asia - it’s not all the same y’know - but if Taiwan is relatively close to these East Asian countries and more familiar with these countries’ cultures and still rejected wearing facemasks, then why would it seem strange for a Western country to adopt such measures?

Yes, most (sorry MAGA hat boys) Westerners are wearing masks now, with many fashion brands making their own for a tasty slice of disaster capitalism, but we’ve seen some before. With the popularisation of Japanese streetwear brands in the West, quite a few hypebeasts wanted in on the facemask aesthetic – Supreme and Bape obliged willingly. I’m getting visions of ‘YeezyBusta’ just by typing that last sentence. However, when these were first released, they were seen as a bit of fun. Just a party piece to replicate your favourite Hong Kong or Tokyo fit pics. Perhaps another subtle piece of Orientalist thought, revelling in the oddity of having a facemask and not just one of those bland surgical ones – but omg! It says Off-White on it! How steezy! These such masks are now in high demand, so if you were one of those cool enough to cop one – pop it on StockX and make yourself a tidy 10x profit on it.

Do I think that people in the UK, after Corona (if it ever goes away), are going to don a facemask on the casual? No, we have too much gammon for that. But, we might see an influx of younger generations keeping the mask going. All I know is the longer we have to wear them, the more it will become the new normal, the less we see the facemask as the Other.

1 Saving Face,

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