Toxic Mask-ulinity: Why So Many Men Don’t Wear Face Masks

"The idea that the mask is inconvenient comes from how men have been socialized to believe that the world conforms to their ideas and needs."

by RM Vaughan
Originally Published: 
A man burning his face mask with a lighter that has a male sign
Chloe Giroux for Fatherly

Good dads, like good men, take care of themselves. They eat well, stay in shape, are fiscally responsible, and go out of their way to make families feel secure and loved, healthy, and happy. It’s an accepted virtue — take care of yourself and you can better protect others. And yet, men are less likely to wear masks. In one recent survey of 2,500 people there was wide agreement among the male subjects that “wearing a face covering is shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness, and a stigma…” Face masks save lives and yet, men are resistant. What gives?

It would seem many men pack a lot of meaning into the act of mask-wearing. “The male role is traditionally that of protector, but wearing a mask is an admission of vulnerability,” says Charles Furlotte, Assistant Professor at St. Thomas University’s School of Social Work. “Men feel they must perform masculinity, which includes showing no weakness or emotion.”

COVID-19 has laid the weakness of all people in the open. As such, mask-wearing also comes down to the question of whose safety matters. “Men have a variety of reasons that they think trump the need to wear a mask, from the selfish to the protective — such as the fear of signaling distress to one’s partner, friends, or children,” says Furlotte. “But if your reason is personal comfort, remember that your comfort does not trump collective responsibility nor safety.”

If the safety of others isn’t a winning argument, personal safety sure should. Men are, after all, among the more vulnerable groups to severe coronavirus symptoms. “Men are three times less likely to wear a mask, but have a higher COVID-19 death rate,” says Dr. Davarian L. Baldwin, an author, social theorist, and Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, CT.

Even in the face of damning facts, a sense of invulnerability persists. “The idea that the mask is inconvenient,” says Baldwin, who’s also a father of three and a mask-wearer, “comes from how men have been socialized to believe that the world conforms to their ideas and needs, not the other way around.” The mask is a sign of our collective vulnerability, meaning it is also “a symbol of worry and concern,” he says. “But men are socialized to not worry, to believe they can meet any challenge, and to make the world around them meet their will.”

President Trump is the most high-profile man carrying this ideal. He flouts mask-wearing loudly and often, breaking rules because he can. He has even made something of a game of it, drawing attention to his ability to live by his own rules. “I wore one in this back area,” he said during a tour of a mask-making facility, “but I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” The result of one of the most powerful men in the world denying the important of mask-wearing is wide-ranging: “President Trump has turned mask-wearing into something uncool and shameful for many men,” says Baldwin, “and that’s fed into the idea, as one gentleman put it, that wearing a mask is a form of self-muzzling.”

Of course, cultural conditions and identity also play a role in men’s decision-making too. Baldwin points to how the history of veils is one of imposed modesty on women’s bodies. “Masks are veils, and that’s an already gendered piece of clothing,” he says. “Populist politics also feed the idea that defiance of societal expectations is inherently male — that it’s emasculating to wear a mask-veil.”

So, what is to be done? If certain men won’t wear masks unless threatened with fines, or after a long, self-aware (and likely fictitious) discourse on gender, power, and symbolism, how do we move past all these hangups and get the squares of cloth on their faces?

Perhaps men need to embrace a new form of heroism — one that’s now on full display every day on the news. The bravery from healthcare workers and first responders, all of whom wear masks, is the kind our children should look up to. These heroes are not invulnerable. They’re warriors who fight the virus, sure, but they acknowledge they must protect themselves first in order to help others.

Can we alter our ideas about masks to see the innate, simple heroism of wearing one? Baldwin offers a solution, a way to “re-frame the question”: Ask men what happens if they get sick or make someone else sick?

The answer is stark and inarguable. “You are doing damage,” Baldwin says, “to everything you think you are protecting.”

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