Few things have proven more contentious amid the coronavirus pandemic than masks. The protective covering has been debated and scrutinized through the lens of politics, religion, governance and — as of this week — masculinity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been recommending that healthy Americans wear masks since April 3, saying that doing so can “protect people around you if you are infected but do not have symptoms.” Models have shown that if 80 percent of people wear them, coronavirus cases — which now top 1.4 million in the U.S. — may plummet.
Still, in a new preliminary study released this week, researchers suggest that men may not only be less likely to wear masks but that some actually view them as a sign of weakness. The research, which is currently being peer-reviewed, may shed light on why public-facing men — especially white men — seem proud to appear in public without them.
The study, a collaborative effort between researchers at Middlesex University London and the Mathematical Science Research Institute in Berkeley, Calif., involved an online experiment with more than 2,459 individuals who were given various messages intended to promote wearing a face mask and then asked questions about their intentions. The researchers concluded that “men less than women intend to wear a face-covering,” and that the two driving forces are that men are less likely to “believe that they will be seriously affected by the coronavirus” and that they consider masks “shameful, not cool [and] a sign of weakness.”
To be clear, plenty of men are surely following CDC guidelines in the U.S. — you may be one of them. But the study is a window into the minds of those who aren’t — men who are either unaware or unconvinced of the sobering facts about coronavirus that are unique to them. Namely, that they are not only getting infected at higher rates and experiencing more severe symptoms of COVID-19, but are also more likely to die.
Matt Englar-Carlson, the author of multiple books on masculinity as well as the director of the Center for Boys and Men at California State University at Fullerton says masks are just the latest iteration of a longstanding issue. “Decades of research on men’s health has shown disparities between men and women in health behaviors,” says Englar-Carlson. “These disparities exist around preventative health measures such as self-exams, helmet use for cycles, using sunscreen, seat belt use, preventative health care and seeking of health care services, but also in taking life-threatening risks. Men tend to engage in more risk-taking behavior, and not wearing a mask or downplaying the risk of COVID 19 is a considerable health risk.”
He notes that there are many aspects of masculinity, but this one seems to fall under one that’s toxic. “The notion that men need to always appear strong and show no weaknesses — and when that is rigidly adopted and not adaptable to the environment or new information — allows a man to be consistent with his notion of maintaining his sense of masculinity, but it comes at a significant cost,” he says.
Caroline Heldman, a senior research advisor for the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media as well as a professor of politics at Occidental College, agrees. “There are many wonderful aspects of masculinity, like being confident and rescuing others in crisis, but masculinity becomes toxic when it causes men to put their lives at risk,” she tells Yahoo Life. “This is the very definition of toxic masculinity, and toxic masculinity is a killer.”
The study did not explore the differences in motivations behind mask-wearing among racial lines, which — in the wake of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery — cannot be overlooked. As Vox recently pointed out, the decision to not wear a mask may be less fraught for “a certain subset of mostly, white conservative men,” for whom “not wearing a mask seems to have become a hallmark of manliness."
Judy Lubin, a sociologist, policy analyst, racial justice advocate who founded the Center for Urban and Racial Equity (CURE) argues that for white men, not wearing a mask is a privilege, where for black men — who have routinely been targeted by police — it’s a matter of life or death. “Masks have traditionally been associated with criminality and black men who, because of racist ideas and stereotypes, are often perceived as criminals,” says Lubin. “So wearing a mask for black men is deeply complicated and conflicting. The thing — a mask in this case — that may protect you from contracting a deadly disease, may also be the thing that subjects you to deadly police brutality or white vigilante violence.”
White men, it seems, may eschew a mask for different reasons. President Donald Trump and President Mike Pence, the two most visible examples of this, have both appeared in public spaces without a mask — Trump during a tour of a production facility in Arizona last week and Pence at a visit to the Mayo Clinic in late April. Pence has since expressed regret for not wearing the mask, saying he “should have worn” one in retrospect; Trump, on the other hand, has defended his decision, saying he wasn’t told it was necessary. Neither responded to Yahoo Life’s request for comment.
Lubin says that Trump’s decision may be galvanizing a group of individuals who feel the freedom to put their lives at risk. “Trump's base is largely white men who have an affinity for traditional masculine ideals,” Lubin says. “Men who embrace traditional ideas of masculinity, like the macho persona that Trump portrays, tend to engage in more risk-taking behaviors that compromise their health. So wearing a mask when you perceive COVID-19 to not be a serious threat is a sign of weakness.”
Helman says these actions — no matter the reasoning — are “reckless” and send a dangerous message. “Since the office of the president is so tied to hyper-masculinity, Trump and Pence are performing almost a caricature of toxic masculinity by refusing to demonstrate basic safety precautions,” Heldman tells Yahoo Life. “As leaders, they are sending a terrible message to American men that they should put their lives at risk. With COVID-19, this reckless messaging from Trump in order to project a toxic brand of masculinity is putting everyone at risk because many Americans are following his lead.”
As of now, masks are not mandatory in the U.S., but Lubin argues that they may solve some of these issues. “This is a public health issue and a matter of life and death,” she says. “Requiring that everyone wear a mask or some type of face covering is important to countering the politicization of COVID-19 public health measures that have some segments of the population willing to put the health of others at risk.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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