When the government announced that shoppers in England would be required to wear face masks from today (24 July), it was met with a mixed reaction at best. While most people understand the reasons for the decision, few, if any, actually relish the prospect. After all, face masks can be awkward, uncomfortable and hot. They pull on your ears, muffle your speech and steam up your glasses.
To be fair, when I first donned my own face mask, I was grumbling with the best of them. As someone who is prone to the occasional bout of anxiety, I feared it would affect my ability to breathe (it doesn’t) or make myself understood (it won’t). Also, I’m not sure I’ll ever lose the reflex of going to put on some lipstick before remembering that this really isn’t a good idea any more.
But then, in Morrisons the other day, something strange happened. As I strolled down the fruit and veg aisle, pondering my newfound anonymity, I felt a sudden sense of liberation rather than restriction. Wandering around the freezer section, if no one could actually see me, who was to judge if I bought not just one but two bumper bags of the special-offer fries? Or visited the vegan area three times because I couldn’t decide which brand of burgers to buy. Heck, the world was my oyster in the wine aisle.
Don’t get me wrong, these are not things that keep me up at night – but it was kind of nice to be able to buy a bottle of Merlot on a Monday evening and not worry what anyone else was thinking. Hidden behind a mask, everyone is equal in the supermarket – regardless of their purchasing choices.
As I thought about it some more, I began to realise that my new sense of freedom was also connected in some ways to being a woman. Having always been self-conscious about my looks, I like the fact I can now go about my business without being judged on my appearance by others – male or female. A bit like wearing a school uniform, I suppose, suddenly we are all starting from the same place. Wearing a face mask is, as it turns out, a great leveller.
Certainly, as a woman, there can be few things more annoying than one of those chipper blokes who says, “Give us a smile, love” or, worse, “Cheer up, it might never happen.” I have a naturally serious face, all right? So at least there’s no more of that nonsense to worry about.
It’s interesting to note that, according to new research, women are more likely than men to wear a mask – even though men are apparently twice as likely to die from the virus. Where is the sense in that? I can’t help wondering if the blame lies with some of our eminent male leaders who desisted until the last moment. In any event, the refusal to wear a face mask puts us all at risk.
The debate also raises some difficult questions around cultural identity. For example, in France, we now have the paradoxical situation where the burqa has been banned but face masks will be compulsory. How must that feel for those women? I suppose, on the plus side, it has at least reduced the stigma around covering up.
Back in England, with a few notable exceptions, we’ll all be wearing face coverings in the shops from today, like it or not. The alternative will mean facing a fine of up to £100. I, for one, will be welcoming the new rules. Not only is it our only hope of ensuring everyone stays safe, both staff and customers alike, but I’m sort of getting to like my new mask (reusable of course so as not to contribute to the next problem from the pandemic: plastic pollution).
Best of all though, male or female, there’s one other unexpected advantage to all this. Now, at least, we can whisper sweary words under our breath at all the people who annoy us without them being any the wiser.
Caroline Harrap is a freelance journalist, based between the UK and Paris, and a co-founder of the Society of Freelance Journalists.
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