Who hasn’t worn a mask?
Literally or figuratively, masks are an essential part of our day to day lives… even more so in the last few years! Masks have been around since… well, so long that we’re not actually sure, really. It seems the literature admit that it’s all “best guesses” or sometimes mere speculation.
The definition of the mask also shows significant breadth and depth… in a vague and all-encompassing kind of way.
1. a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or frighten others.
2. a covering made of fibre or gauze and fitting over the nose and mouth to protect against air pollutants, or made of sterile gauze and worn to prevent infection of the wearer or (in surgery) of the patient.
1. conceal (the face) with a mask.
2. conceal (something) from view.
As we move through spooky October with more and more people getting into the Halloween spirit, it seems a good time to think about the purpose of the mask. Whether you’re a costumed trick or treating true believer, or a judge-y “we don’t do this in Australia” observer, it’s impossible to not see, react to, and try to shake off the effect of the many masks that appear in the shops, and on children’s (and sometimes adults) faces in the streets on the last day of October. Why is that so?
Some would say Halloween is fun. Dress up however you like and go to strangers' houses asking for party favours without having to actually attend the party. It’s super exciting, none of the usual rules apply. It’s… not… real. You’re not you. You have your costume and more importantly, your mask so you have your socially acceptable rule-breaking pass, and most people won’t even know it’s you. There is something both very exciting AND very unsettling about that as a concept… and there are a bunch of horror films to prove it.
The tradition of wearing masks on Halloween comes from the belief that the ghosts of the dead rose on that night, but if you covered your face your identity was protected so you could safely leave your home without risk of being under threat from these spirits. Furthermore, the belief that they wouldn’t be a threat to you was based on the intention of the masks acting as a disguise that would convince the spirits that the wearer was one of them.
So, let’s unpack the role of the mask…
Masks protect us:
Masks can provide a sense of power – war paint, military and religious masks have all been used to represent strength, a visual cue of something beyond the physical body. This use of masks spans across cultures, centuries and communities.
Their power can be the actual physical barrier they provide – whether you’re fencing, welding or dealing with COVID, the mask keeps the bad stuff out – literally, and allows us to do things that might otherwise have put ourselves at risk – so that we can continue to do the good stuff.
And they can hide our identity in times of risk, when being recognised could lead to negative outcomes.
Masks make us feel good:
Many masks are aesthetic, worn in masquerade balls, or to cover disfigurement.
They can in fact be “good for us” – the million dollar skin care industry of the face mask/peel, with its many variations of fruit and vegetables, vitamins and “super – whatever’s” – where we walk around looking like a crazy person (definitely not aesthetic) knowing that the mask is making our skin feel a whole lot better… and in theory will look better once the mask is off.
And often, they’re fun – and the huge celebration that Halloween has become attests to that.
Masks hide things from us:
What is most interesting, is that masks have a darker side… which comes down to who is using it. The outcome doesn’t change, but the motivation can be a problem.
The power of the scary mask (ala Scream) or the pulled down balaclava leads to the ability to create fear and terror in those around you, giving you control over their behaviour. The same mask can also hide the identity, allowing the perpetrator to do things they definitely would not try if we could point to them in a line up the next day. This leads to the ability for certain people to commit crimes without the same risks. The potential use of a mask to protect the self, when the rest of us are not wearing one, also allows some to inflict trauma while they stay safe. The apparent safety that masks afford us in normal life are also afforded to those behaving badly and can end up creating risk.
Sometimes masks can make us lazy – wearing them in COVID may have excused us not distancing or putting a cucumber honey combination on our face sorts out the excessive drinking and fatty foods we consumed last night.
One of the lesser used dictionary definitions for mask - “a person's face regarded as having set into a particular expression. [i.e] his face was a mask of rage” – acknowledges how sometimes a mask of emotion can sit “over” our face… this may be one we’ve chosen to display so that we can hide the ones we’re actually feeling, or the opposite – display the feelings we have even if we did not mean to share. The coping mechanism of hiding how you really feel, or “Masking”, is a common survival mechanism played out in many of us and almost a necessity because of the society we live in. It can be easier, and quite comfortable. Useful.
But this is also risky – partly because most of us are not aware of how our emotional mask presents itself and this can leak information we may not have planned, as well as because the use of our faces as a mask decreases our authenticity and connection with others, and makes it very hard for people to create trust – if your face can itself be hiding your true identity or generating power over another, then nothing is real… and that is very unsafe, not just for others, but over time, for you too.
In the end, like everything else in life – it seems masks, like that bloody coin, always have two sides.
They are a rich and ingrained part of our history and our every day. And they can be both useful and fun. But we need to be able to ask ourselves, when are they helping us and when are they hindering us? When do they make us safer, and when do they put us at risk? And when do we use them to hide ourselves from ourselves?