Why Some Men Avoid Wearing A Face Mask
Illustration by Ms Jeannie Phan
A recent headline in the New York Post reported: “Men less likely to wear face masks because they’re ‘not cool’ and a ‘sign of weakness’”. At the time, New York City, where I live and work, was at the height of lockdown and cases of Covid-19 were going up each day.
Just before I read this headline, another health story broke revealing that men are at greater risk of succumbing to the disease than women, making any man’s refusal to wear a mask all the more alarming. Yet, according to the article, a further reason that men were ignoring the urgent instructions to wear face masks was to avoid looking “unmanly”. This was a revelation to me. For these men, their desire to be viewed as a “real man” outweighed concerns for their health and the health of others.
On reflection perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
Traditionally, boys are given a very narrow set of acceptable behaviours and emotions in their youth. According to the American Psychological Association, “American society socialises boys and men to conform to a definition of masculinity that emphasises toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness and self-reliance”. These attributes are also central to the ideas of manliness in the UK and many other countries besides.
It can be argued that qualities such as stoicism and toughness make good sense when a country is at war, perhaps, or if your work involves physical risk. But they are becoming less and less useful in the modern world and, in the current health crisis, they may even be detrimental.
The challenges faced by men today demand a greater degree of emotional intelligence and a broader idea of what it means to be a man. The ability to express vulnerability, to admit to having feelings such as sadness or confusion, or even to just apologise or ask for help, would all be of such great help to so many men.
“Society socialises boys and men to conform to a definition of masculinity that emphasises toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness and self-reliance”
After reading this newspaper story, I started asking my clients if they wore masks when they were in public places as a way of checking in on how seriously they were about protecting themselves and others, and as a way to explore how they were being tested as men during this crisis. I was relieved when all the men I work with told me they wear masks.
All apart from Stephen, that is.
Stephen is an African-American client I help with building his confidence in the financial sector, where he works.
“I’d rather risk the coronavirus than be seen outside in a mask,” he said after I asked him if he regularly wore a mask.
“I’m kind of surprised to hear you say that,” I said, taken aback by the certainty with which he spoke.
“Look, I’m tall, I’m black and I’m a guy. Put a mask on me and plenty of white people in this country will see me as even more of a threat than they do already. I’d rather risk the virus than something much worse, like being shot by a cop,” he said.
Stephen gave me a crash course in his experience of being a black man in the US today. “If I have an argument with my girlfriend in a public place like a bar,” he said, “I’m sure to keep my hands behind my back and keep my eyes looking down. I can’t afford to appear threatening, least of all to the police.”
Stephen opened my eyes to his life and experiences, which I am sure are shared by many other black men in this country – experiences that as a white man I could never know. An essential skill in the work I do is to listen. This is often seen as a non-skill, or as something passive and with little meaning. This couldn’t be more wrong. Without listening to each other we can never really know the reality of other people’s lives and experiences. All we have to go on are our own assumptions.
After listening to Stephen, the New York Post headline has taken on a different meaning and the true complexity of the issue has begun to reveal itself. For some of the men choosing not to wear face masks to protect themselves and others from Covid-19, it may not be concerns about their masculinity driving their actions, but something much more fundamental: their survival.