Often we ask others: if you had a superpower, what might you choose? It’s gone generally unnoticed that this year we have been mandated to partake in one popular choice: invisibility. Face coverings, worn over our mouths and noses, force us to become particularly skilled at reading eyebrows and forehead wrinkles. We have the ability to hide in plain sight, covering half of our faces and all of our obvious expressions.
Entering my first year at Colgate, the recollection of my pandemic years is still very fresh in my memory. I remember the March weekend when in-person classes were paused, walking hesitantly through my public school’s empty hallway so as not to make my precautions so evident: mouth-breathing under my blue mask and spinning the nozzle of a sanitizer bottle in my pocket. As I left the building with my binders and notebooks, noticeably alone, I was met by my history teacher — nearly unrecognizable with his large nose and boisterous smile concealed beneath his thin blue face covering. Passing each other in silence, it was at once understood that not just our classes, but the larger global climate would not be the same for a while. It was in his eyes.
We cannot disregard the state of tragedy since those months in the spring of 2020 and how it has continued to develop in a staggering amount of sickness and fatality. How nervous we were then to change our lifestyles to protect our livelihood — nerves that persist in the anxious hum of uncertainty that continues to surround COVID-19 and its variants. Social distancing, quarantining and masking may have been words generally foreign to the pre-COVID-19 public. Now, they often make us furrow our brows in angst and anxiety. As we progressively exit a state of panic, which words will we forget, and which may remain?
Now is a time when the phrase and act of “masking” could very well become conventional. The first time I reached for a disposable blue face covering, unsure of how to orient the sheet over my mouth and nose, I expected to resent the practice. Many people, including myself, anticipated this “new normal” to be temporary. But now we return to work, to school and to Colgate, and masking remains a requirement in certain areas. And I like it. As masks become more commonplace, I’ve grown to appreciate the veil of invisibility they provide.
How often have you been unable to recognize someone you knew pre-COVID-19 while they were wearing a mask, or someone you knew post-COVID-19 without one? This phenomenon characterizes the veil of physical anonymity face coverings allow us to slip in and out of. Mask up, and that blemish on your chin becomes a secret between you and yourself. Our lipsticks begin to dry up in their tubes, permanently positioned on shelves collecting dust. The imperfections in your smile or crooks in your nose, however beautifully unique they appear, take a break from the public eye. The distinctive ridges and discolorations in your smile are able to hide as they’re confined under cloth. It consoles our instincts for physical insecurities and crises of confidence.
Masks have not only affected the way we are able to physically view others; they have changed the way we are able to emotionally perceive them. Face coverings have become a means of emotional cruise control, where the wearer is able to sit back, relax and express themselves without fear of how such displays are perceived. We’ve all been there. Whether we showcase an off-putting “resting face” (termed an “RBF” in our modern vernacular) or a reaction too genuine to conceal, our momentary facial expressions can lead us to trouble before we even speak. Masking also protects us socially this way. How else, other than beneath your cloak of invisibility, can you mouth secret responsive words, sneer in disgust and frown in reaction without giving a clue to anyone else? Though it’s not as easy to flash a big smile under a mask, surely there’s genuine positive value in knowing that masks have provided us with a tool to hide some of our more negative emotions. More than any of the lifestyle changes brought forward by the COVID-19 pandemic, masks have for many — and for myself — bolstered a confidence once unachievable in a world uncovered by polypropylene.
Though it has been a far from easy transition into their long-term use, we should consider how masking in public spaces equips us with a sort of “superpower”: a notional ability to suit invisibility. In my opinion, masking could stay. If it has in fact become socially acceptable to wear a physical mask, we should take advantage of this unique opportunity in order to learn how to rid ourselves of our figurative ones. By masking, we’ve paradoxically unmasked a lot about ourselves and others; it’s made us better listeners and has helped us read non-verbal cues. It has enabled us to build personal confidence and understand how we are perceived beyond our facial insecurities — those we can currently cloak in cloth and plastic invisibility. In a world covered by fabric, I’m grateful for the inconspicuous public. Are you?