Masks Protect Us

Can you find two turtles in this picture?

Several months ago, BuzzFeed News ran a story about a woman who won the kind of contest no one even wants to place in: worst tattoo ever.

It makes sense that such a tattoo would involve words rather than art. Plenty of people have rued the day they got someone else’s name inked on them. But this woman’s choice initially seemed harmless. She chose a quote she liked.

Not a famous quote. Not great poetry, or even mediocre poetry. Instead, Leah Holland chose the words of a friend of hers.

I’ll admit that if a friend of mine paid me a compliment, my first impulse would not be to think, “She’s right – I AM totally rad.” And I doubt that I’d follow that up with, “I should tell the world!”

But that’s what she did. On March 4, 2020, Leah Holland paid to have the words “courageously and radically refuse to wear a mask” tattooed on her arm.

On March 6 of that same year, Holland’s home state of Kentucky had its first official case of there’s no way I have to spell this out for you.

What’s even more striking about the timing is that Holland says she waited two years to make that compliment permanent. If she’d just waited two and a half, no one but her family and friends would have ever heard of her.

I may be the only person who doesn’t think that the original sentiment was nothing worse than badly timed. Leah Holland – young, white, and presumably neurotypical – is quoted in that BuzzFeed article as being “the type of person who thinks it’s pointless to pretend you’re someone you’re not.”

Even before we talk about my own personal take on this idea, I want you to ask yourself what comes to mind when you imagine someone who says, “Look – I’m not going to pretend to be someone I’m not.” The people who spring to my mind are white American men who not only refuse to apologize for being sexist, racist, and anti-science, but take every opportunity to brag about how often they defy what they like to call “the PC police.”

But never mind that. Let’s pretend that “be yourself” just means “be someone who is genuinely good and kind and well-intentioned but who refuses to, I don’t know, pretend to love baroque violin music when really she’d rather spend the afternoon blasting ABBA’s greatest hits.”

And as long as we’re in The Land of Rainbow Make-Believe (Yes, We Have Unicorns Here!), let’s also pretend that being against “wearing a mask” could of course only ever be taken in a figurative sense, and that everyone is of course absolutely fine with and even enthusiastic about wearing a literal physical mask if that’s what it takes to protect ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. (Look, I SAID this was a fantasy.)

There’s still something upsetting about the idea that it’s “pointless” to cover your true self.

“Masking,” as a recent article pointed out, is something many autistic people do on a regular basis. It isn’t fun. It can be deeply uncomfortable. But we do it because we’ve been told that being ourselves is one hundred percent NOT okay.

Not making eye contact? Not okay.

Covering your ears against a sound no one else notices? You know you’re not five anymore, right?

Not faking a socially acceptable expression? You really should smile more.

Yeah, okay – that last one could be referring to autistic people, or it could be what everyone who presents as female gets to hear at least once in our lucky little lives.

It’s damaging to mask in the long run.

In the short run, masking can sometimes be, or at least seem like, the only way to get or keep a job, a friend, a family.

I mentioned in my previous post that I spent some of my time away from blogging doing some work I had mixed feelings about. I’m the onsite manager of the building I live in, and part of my job is showing vacancies to prospective tenants.

Some buildings have management companies that simply let people grab a key and take a look around the empty apartment in question. We don’t.

We don’t because the last two tenants our management company found for us by doing that ended up being people who broke their leases and (in one case) left without paying their last month’s rent. Running a credit check on someone tells you surprising little about what they’ll be like as a tenant.

So I show people around. I tell them about the place. I field their questions.

And I listen. Boy, don’t I.

Here’s an actual conversation I had with the management company a few years ago:

MC: So, what did you think of that couple who came by this morning? They sounded nice on the phone, and their credit score is great. They’re really interested in renting the place.

Me: They’re also really interested in how much light the front room would get if they knocked out the wall between the kitchen and the living room.

MC: Never mind.

Showing people around means talking on the phone. Which means answering the phone. Which means that even the neurotypicals are with me on how ick my job can be at times.

Showing people around means playing a part. I am the helpful manager whose voice is upbeat without being too saccharine or chirpy, whose tone is warm but not inappropriately friendly, who is brisk and businesslike and above all Here To Help.

Showing people around means nonstop masking.

And to be honest? I’m kind of into it.

I’ve spent my whole life struggling and usually failing to understand what’s expected of me. I’ve felt like an anthropologist in my own peer group: why do they do that? Why don’t they do this? And why can’t I ever figure it out well enough to pass as one of them?

Being a building manager means following a script. And oh, honey – I’ve been “scripting” for decades now.

Playing the part of manager means that for once, everyone understands when I say how exhausting it was dealing with people all day.

Being a manager means that for once, I’m not covering up who I really am because there’s something wrong with her. I’m skillfully masking my true self under a veneer of professionalism to protect my own privacy. Anyone would do the same in my shoes.

And for once, playing a part comes with a tangible payoff. I may still be struggling with the most basic social interactions in my personal life. I may be resigned to being the neighborhood weirdo. (“How many lizards does she have now?”)

But by gum, I’m able to put on the mask of Middle-Aged Manager In An Upper Middle-Class Neighborhood well enough and often enough to keep our building full of tenants who so far haven’t taken a sledgehammer to a single wall, load bearing or not.

2 thoughts on “Masks Protect Us

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