The other day I was in an outdoor yoga class on a bright sunny day. Even though we were spaced 20 feet apart, it felt like community. The teacher talked about removing unnecessary blocks from our lives and how to move forward with grace in hard times. They were referring to the new mask mandates for vaccinated people: that they no longer have to mask up outdoors. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think the whole class was collectively inspired. But when I looked behind me, I saw a masked figure contorting themselves on their mat and thought, “perhaps that person is not ready to remove unnecessary blocks from their life.” Was it that this person was feeling anxious about re-entering society or was it simply performative masking?
Look, I’ve done it, too. I have slipped on my mask while walking my dogs so that no one in my neighborhood thinks I’m a COVID-denying Republican or something. But performative masking doesn’t just feel like 3rd rate theater, I also worry that it’s a bit regressive. How are we ever going to shift into some new normal if we can’t let go of pandemic-era practices? As it turns out, how quickly people respond to the changing mask mandates is both personal and social, but it doesn’t tell you whether you’re a responsible person or not.
“Communities that experienced — and still experience — a lot of disinformation about the virus and those that are struggling with getting vaccines to their communities will find it tougher to adjust,” says Jodie Robison, a Nashville-based psychotherapist. Those folks may want to stay masked, and they may want you to, also. It’s natural for community-minded people to want to show their social commitment through obvious gestures — like masking. So, what seems like a silly performative act may actually be a sign of confusion, of legitimate fear about the virus, or it could be a desire to signal care to others.
People who lost loved ones to COVID-19 may be even more resistant to changing norms, Robison says. This makes sense. It’s going to take time for us all to adjust to post-pandemic life and the latest C.D.C. recommendations, and the experts I spoke with told me the key to navigating this period of transition is having compassion for the fact that we are all going to adjust on different timetables. That means being patient with folks who are resistant to take off their masks and not judging them — or ourselves — for our desire to keep each other safe, even if it seems purely symbolic.
What we need to remember — especially my judgemental self — is that wearing a mask —whether its necessary or not — doesn’t actually hurt anyone. I may find it disorienting, but what it actually indicates is care. In some way, those who are still wearing masks in situations where it's unnecessary may just be more tapped in to the fear that many are still experiencing.
“Now that we are well over a year into the worst public health catastrophe in modern history, we have learned to associate maskless faces with the threat of spreading COVID-19,” says Pria Alpern, a New York City-based psychologist who specializes in working with individuals who’ve experienced trauma. The way that we now respond to maskless faces, Alpern explains, isn’t just emotional or intellectual — it’s physiological.
What happens when people are triggered by maskless faces is actually pretty intense. “When we see a person without a mask on, the brain has learned to register this visual stimuli as a threat, mobilizing the stress response system in the nervous system. The amygdala, which is the brain’s smoke detector, sends out a distress signal, triggering the sympathetic nervous system into the fight, flight, or freeze response,” explains Alpern. In other words, some peoples’ bodies will respond to maskless faces the way they would respond to a life threatening danger.
This is natural, Alpern says, because we’ve spent the last year acclimating to the reality that unmasked faces are dangerous and while we can shift our thinking, shifting our physical responses will take some time. “One year ago not masking up was a significant threat to ourselves and others,” Alpern says. “The brain needs to unlink the association between maskless faces and danger. This will require consciously differentiating the past from the present in terms of where we are in the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The reality is that not everyone reads as much COVID-19 news as I do, and some folks have an extremely valid mistrust of the medical industrial complex. “It’s possible that people who trust science will feel more confident going maskless than others who are skeptical or not as trusting of science,” says Alpern. So, while I am sure that masking outdoors and distanced is 100 percent ridiculous — and that I have the data to back up my opinion — not everyone has come to that conclusion.
People who mask performatively, then, aren’t science hating assholes, they’re just trying to make other people feel comfortable. “We need to be patient and recognize that everyone is going to have different levels of comfort and anxiety around the process of unmasking post-vaccination,” says Alpern. It’s okay to wear a mask if it helps other folks feel safe around you because we are going through a period of rebuilding social trust.
That doesn’t mean that going maskless — outside and distanced — makes you a jerk. Performative masking signals safety, but there are alternatives. You can use your words. If you don’t want to mask performatively and you don’t want to feel like an asshole for not masking, you may need to have some uncomfortable conversations. Many people will need reassurance that the people they are sharing space with are, in fact, vaccinated, Alpern says.
Those conversations could, says Alpern, lead to greater connection between us. “I think that the process of masking and unmasking is emblematic of the enormity of the trauma we’ve experienced together over the past year,” she says. “I think there is a potential to deepen our connections with others as we continue to move through this collective experience without masks on.” Now that we are baring our faces to one another once again, it may make it easier to bare our hearts, but only if we move forward with the willingness to talk through our fears, mutual care, and patience.