What Women Want: To Keep Wearing Masks to Thwart the Male Gaze

For many people, a preference for continued mask-wearing isn't about science or safety, but simply a desire to remain unseen

A closeup photo of a woman's eyes over her face mask
Please don't perceive this woman.
Ani Kolleshi/Unsplash

You know what they say, girls just wanna cover up their faces to avoid the burden of unsolicited male attention.

That’s what plenty of women told the Guardian, anyway, about their desire to continue rocking a face mask outside even if science has declared it no longer medically necessary. The most recent manifestation of the ongoing mask vs. no mask debate hosts two main camps: on one side, there are those who would like to continue wearing masks outdoors out of an abundance of caution and as a sign of respect for their fellow man, while on the other are those who argue that if medical experts say we need mask no longer, then unmask we must out of respect for science.

For many people who fall somewhere in the vast grey area between those two camps, however, a preference for continued mask wearing has nothing to do with science, politics or really the virus at all. Many who spoke to the Guardian expressed a desire to hold onto their masks because they found a facial covering protected them from more than viral assailants. For women, especially, a mask has become a handy device when it comes to deflecting unwanted attention — which men, in particular, have a reputation for doling out. As one woman told the Guardian, “It’s almost like taking away the male gaze. There’s freedom in taking that power back.”

Of course, a mere face covering isn’t going to deter the more dedicated cat-callers and unwanted attention-givers among us. After all, the lips may be the vagina of the face or whatever, but suffice to say cat-callers still have plenty of other material to work with even if the mouth and chin remain out of sight.

That said, the face mask does offer a sort of veil of anonymity, or at least the illusion of it. “Maybe it’s because I’m a New Yorker or maybe it’s because I always feel like I have to present my best self to the world, but it has been such a relief to feel anonymous,” one 46-year-old woman told the Guardian. “It’s like having a force field around me that says ‘don’t see me.’”

Meanwhile, it’s not just women who wish to remain unseen, or at least swaddled by the illusion of relative invisibility. Men, too, have expressed a desire to remain behind the comforting veil of a face mask. While women generally have the monopoly on getting told to smile by strangers, one 75-year-old man told the Guardian that his “naturally grim countenance” has left him on the receiving end of that demand often enough to never want to take his mask off again. “In the United States there is an obligation to appear happy, and I get told to smile and ‘be happy’ a lot, which is very annoying,” he said. “The mask frees me from this.”

Meanwhile, still others simply no longer wish to be perceived at all. One woman told the outlet she “10,000%” plans on continuing to wear a face mask “for the foreseeable future.” As she put it, “I’m sick of being perceived.”

As someone who doesn’t particularly care about science or other people, my own thoughts on the future of mask-wearing are informed almost entirely by selfish motivations. At some point, I would probably like to dispense with the mask simply because wearing one screws up my makeup and also I am tired of washing them. That said, as someone who also generally does not wish to be perceived, I’ll admit there’s really nothing like the anonymity a pair of dark sunglasses and a face mask can provide.

That said, you don’t need a pandemic to cover up your face and go about life like a mysterious recluse who doesn’t want to be perceived. Once face coverings fall out of fashion, maybe you could try wearing half an opera mask and haunting a Paris opera house instead, or maybe you could walk around with a cape drawn up over your mouth like a vampire, or maybe you can try simply never leaving your home again and becoming an eerie spinster whose dark secrets are only discovered by the townspeople after her death. Remember, you’re an adult; you can do whatever you want.

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