Masks as agents of change

By | May 30, 2024

An excerpt from Mask by Sharrona Pearl

Masks enable. They provide literal and metaphorical cover for that which we wish to ignore, obscure, hide from ourselves. In this way they enable and even create our own hypocrisies in a variety of contexts: for football players, whose masks simultaneously protect and endanger; for women’s faces and bodies, the control by others of which is itself the real problem; for everyone who has to whistle Vivaldi to appear safe to others for their own safety. Just because we have gas masks does not mean we wish to be exposed to chemical warfare. It does not mean we wish to be exposed at all. Masks are a kind of armor, often welcome, sometimes necessary, always concealing, always revealing something about both the wearer and those who stand witness to the mask being worn. They are complicated entities, both physical and metaphorical, made of metal and cloth and wood and paper, made easily, never disposable. They are the barrier between us and the world and all its dangers, and sometimes they are that which allows the danger to persist. We talk about unmasking as exposure and a way to discover the truth about others, but sometimes that only happens when the mask is on. Sometimes we are most ourselves when we are bare faced, but sometimes our covered faces show who we are to the world, and to ourselves.

It’s a two-way street. We can go back. We can take off our masks. We can expose (and thus, sometimes, conceal) ourselves again. But, as we’ve seen, the mask is itself an agent of change, both by excavating that which we often hide, and by manifesting new ways of being in the world. We can see what lies beneath the mask, literally, with clear masks that expose the lips, making it (somewhat) easier for people with cognitive processing challenges, deaf people, and people who are hard-of-hearing to communicate, and metaphorically, by asking people to look beyond what it is we see and show on our faces. That’s really scary, for all kind of reasons. Unmasking subverts our (often biased) narratives of trust, calls upon us to understand each other in new ways, and creates relationships and intimacy. It asks people to see beyond the face. It invites a new way of looking and a new way of being. It considers what it might be like to reveal not by concealing but by, in fact, revealing; to be ourselves to ourselves and to the world. And to make a world that is safe for us and those around us to do so. V’nahafoch hu. Let’s switch it up. Instead of providing cover for the most powerful, let us protect the most vulnerable among us. Instead of using a rhetoric of trust to hide our biases, let’s interrogate from whom we demand exposure and why. Let’s imagine a world in which that is possible. And let’s begin to make it so.


Sharrona Pearl is Associate Professor of Bioethics and History in the Health Care Administration Department at Drexel University, USA. She is the author of Do I Know You? From Face Blindness to Super Recognition (2023), Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other (2017), and About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2010). Her writing has appeared in Public Books, Lilith Magazine, The Revealer, and The Washington Post, among others.

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