Masks are changing the way we look at each other, and ourselves

Melina Basnight, who makes makeup tutorials for her YouTube channel Makeup Menaree, shows off a bold eyeshadow look to go with her face mask. MUST CREDIT: Melina Basnight

Melina Basnight looks into the camera and applies two shades of eyeshadow: a periwinkle blue, and a bright, bold ochre. It’s like any other tutorial on her YouTube channel, Makeup Menaree, except that it’s based on a new premise: that all points south of the eyes will be eclipsed by a mask.

“I do have some other contours that are a hot damn mess all over my mask, but this seems to stay in place pretty well,” she says, and slides the loops of a plain black face mask – the little black dress of pandemic protection – behind her ears. “You can see the contour and blush, and everything is in an area where the mask does not sit.”

Her brow pencil is working overtime. Lipstick is an afterthought.

The coronavirus has changed the face of the country, literally. Most Americans now wear masks when they’re out and about. In many areas, workers and shoppers and public-transportation passengers are not allowed not to wear one. The bemasking of America has changed the landscape of human expression at a time when people are looking to one another anxiously for signs of fellowship, hope and danger.

Basnight understands this better than most. When she’s not making makeup videos, she works as a discharge assistant at a hospital in Temple, Texas – a job that, pre-coronavirus, did not require her to wear a mask. Now she must wear one all day long.

“It is really difficult when you’re at work, trying to interact with patients, because they can’t see your face,” says Basnight. And because the patients too are wearing masks, she can’t read their expressions, either. “You don’t know if they’re smiling in there. You don’t know if they’re scowling at you. And I felt myself sort of being a little more expressive with my eyes if I wanted somebody to know that I was smiling at them.”

Three months into a global pandemic, and on top of everything else we’re dealing with, we have to get used to a whole new face. Same nose, eyes, lips and brows – but with this giant cloth thing covering half of it. The lockdowns are ending in some states, and social distancing may not last forever. But masks, it seems, will be with us indefinitely: fogging our glasses, smudging our lipstick, changing how we see one another and allow ourselves to be seen.

– – –

When considering the information that masks now conceal, it’s helpful to know that we’re actually pretty bad at reading faces. We think people who have feminine features are more trustworthy, for example, or that people with lower eyebrows are more dominant. Computers are better than people at distinguishing whether someone is smiling in frustration versus delight, or faking pain versus experiencing it.

When people wear a mask, “You’re left really only with the eyes. And that can make it difficult for people to make these snap judgments that they like to make, even if they’re wrong,” says Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychology professor at Brandeis University who studies facial perception. “We feel more comfortable when we feel that we’re able to assess what someone is like.”

In the mask era, those haphazard assessments continue – as do the prejudices they can reveal. Two black men recently said they were kicked out of a Walmart for wearing protective masks, highlighting the challenges facing Americans who, because of racial profiling, might be perceived as threatening with a mask on – a terrible irony, because a mask is supposed to make the wearer less of a danger to others.

Entrepreneurs have emerged to meet the demand for masks that communicate whatcovered mouths and muffled voices cannot. At Mask For It, one of the online mask companies that have sprung up like weeds in the last month, the top-sellingdesign is a simple smile. There are friendly masks with big, toothy grins, or red lipstick puckers. There are less-friendly masks with snarls and zombie mouths. There are masks that simply say “Go Away.”

The face is a blank canvas, and not just for tongue-in-cheek expressions superimposed on our actual tongues and cheeks. Custom Ink is working with companies that are making masks part of the corporate uniform.

“In the fall, you could see it evolving to the point where law firms want like, super high-end masks embroidered with their logos for their attorneys to wear,” said Marc Katz, Custom Ink and Mask For It CEO. Or when – if? – big conferences come back, branded masks could be a popular swag-bag giveaway. People at conferences will need masks, and besides, “It’s a keepsake,” said Katz.

Faces would become billboards, with logos front and center – way easier to interpret than the expressions underneath.

– – –

But forget about other people for a minute. How well will we recognize ourselves?

Taylor Welden’s mask has competition. He is a champion on the competitive beard circuit, and boasts a long, red mane of facial hair.

“When I’m wearing a mask, I have a really big mustache, so it kind of like, pushes down in front of my mouth,” says Welden.

Where the mask makes contact with Welden’s hair, “You get this kind of beard divot thing going on,” he explains. He has resorted to using his girlfriend’s hair straightener to fix it. Some of his fellow beard aficionados who work as first responders have shaved. “We joke: ‘Another one has fallen,’ ” he says.

There’s no getting around the tension between mask and beard. Welden is a unique case, and that may put him at an advantage, because his championship beard simply cannot be contained: “In a sense, I get to keep my identity more than most people” when wearing a mask, he says. “I mean, there’s probably a solid foot beneath the mask.” Those who rely on subtler features to stand out in public might be at a loss.

“If they’re wearing sunglasses and a hat,” says Welden, “they are totally anonymous.”

For those who wear eyeglasses, a loss of identity might be less of a concern than comfort.

“The way glasses fit onto the face is incredibly nuanced, and wearing masks will make that even more complex,” said Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-CEO of the glasses brand Warby Parker, via email. “We’ll probably start to see more interest in frames that sit higher on the nose bridge to accommodate mask placement, or frames with nose pads that allow for a more adjustable fit.” The brand is considering producing anti-fogging spray, to solve a common complaint of masked-up glasses wearers.

Masks dominate; everything else becomes an accessory, including the visible parts of the face. Makeup brands will probably gravitate toward bolder eye looks, such as the one Basnight favors. But looking good in the Mask Era doesn’t just mean emphasizing the uncovered features; it also means covering for the blemishes masks leave behind.

“We’re seeing a lot of demand for skin care,” says Nick Stenson, senior vice president of salon services and trend at Ulta Beauty, the makeup store. Mask wear has created a new skin ailment – “maskne,” acne where the mask makes contact with the face – and consumers are using their time at home to tend to their complexions.

After all, the masks do come off eventually. And so lipstick endures, if only for the benefit of family members, Zoom colleagues and Instagram followers.

“People still want to look good,” said Stenson, “and they still want to feel like there’s a sense of normal in their life.”

– – –

The basic design of medical masks hasn’t changed much in more than a century.Photos from the pandemic of 1918-1920 show people wearing a similar design to the ones that such brands as Old Navy, J. Crew, and Citizens of Humanity are selling now: Rounded or pleated fabric, with ties behind the head or loops behind the ears. As we look to a masked future, it seems poised for rapid evolution.

“As a historian of medicine, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this – this move to have everyone wearing masks, creating masks and really having a chance to really sort of play with that,” says Alexandra Lord, chair of the division of medicine and science at the National Museum of American History,who is collecting face masks for future scholarship.

Both high-end and mass-market brands are treating the mask as a new category of accessory, and rethinking the materials and shape of facial protection. First they were clinical, then folksy and homemade. Now they’re slick, professional and geared toward every possible interest. There are more than 600 designs from the retailer LookHuman, informed by trend-tracking software: meme masks, Dungeons and Dragons masks, “Tiger King” masks. Elsewhere, you’ll find wedding masks, clear masks, and, paradoxically, MAGA masks. There are masks that would be too risque for the office, if the office were open.

Vasilios Christofilakos, assistant professor of accessories design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, thinks a molded shape will surpass the flat, cloth mask – N95, but make it fashion. “They’re going to be like women’s brassieres,” says Christofilakos.

The surgical face mask – the three-ply, aqua-colored ones found in hospitals – may become less acceptable as streetwear. In some medical offices, they might even be replaced with more lively designs.

“Hospitals are going to stick with the no-frills ones,” predicts Peter Stefanides, an orthopedic surgeon in New York. “In private practice, the dermatologists, the plastic surgeons, they may want to get a more fashionable one.”

Soon enough, the masks will go high-tech: Kristian Hammond, an engineering professor at Northwestern University who specializes in artificial intelligence, believes mask design will incorporate technology to inform contact tracing, or to notify people with a gentle beep when someone gets too close. And facial recognition technology will adapt, perhaps allowing you use your iPhone’s face unlock feature while wearing a mask. One Israeli inventor has already developed a mechanical mask with a mouth that opens and closes, allowing people to wear a mask while eating in restaurants. It makes the wearer look like a dystopian Muppet.

The Mask Era has inspired creativity, but is shaped by deprivation. It has united people in the feeling of being muzzled; we have rallied to make that experience slightly less depressing. But it has introduced at least one experience that everyone looks forward to: the feeling of stepping into your sanctuary after a shift at work or a trip to the grocery store and freeing yourself, at long last, from the mask.

“That feeling of ripping off your bra, or taking off your heels – it’s the same type of feeling,” says Basnight, the hospital worker who does makeup tutorials on YouTube. “It’s just a relief to have it off of your face.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here