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Face masks were a rare sight in Australia just a year and a half ago.

Now, they have become an integral part of our daily lives, with most Australians having a stash of masks somewhere in their house or scattered throughout their bags, car, and laundry basket. 

But according to new research from UNSW Sydney, the humble face mask does more than help stop the spread of COVID-19: it has become an object of symbolic power, representing some of the biggest social, political and cultural struggles of our times.

“Face masks are no longer just pieces of medical equipment,” says sociologist Deborah Lupton, a SHARP Professor at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture. “These small pieces of fabric have taken on incredible significance – not just here in Australia, but globally.

“Their absence or presence on a person’s face immediately broadcasts not only how much at risk they feel from the coronavirus, but how much they care about others, and even their political views.”

Prof. Lupton leads a team of four sociologists from UNSW’s Vitalities Lab studying the changing role of the face mask during COVID-19.

“Masks are anything but mundane... they are in fact quite remarkable.”

Their findings – discussed in their new book The Face Mask in COVID Times – show how masks have transformed from specialist medical gear into cultural artefacts.

“Masks are anything but mundane,” says co-author Dr Marianne Clark, a postdoctoral fellow and co-author of the book. “They are in fact quite remarkable, imbued with social, political and cultural histories and meaning.

“Face masks remind us that sometimes the fine details – the seemingly unremarkable and ordinary – can tell quite extraordinary stories about our times.”

Woman sewing a face mask

Sewing masks – or even just wearing masks – has become an act of care. Photo: Shutterstock.

A symbol of care

Dr Clark hasn’t seen her mum, who lives in Canada, in over a year. 

Their last visit was cut short when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Now, like many other families around the world, they still aren’t sure how long it will be until they can see each other again. 

But despite their physical distance, every few months her mum sends a care package all the way across the globe: a collection of hand-sewn face masks for Dr Clark and her family.

“It feels very much like being taken care of from afar,” says Dr Clark.

Sewing and gifting masks has become a way to show our care for others during COVID-19 – thanks, in part, to the abundance of online mask-making tutorial videos. 

But during a pandemic, even the simple act of wearing a mask can be a sign of caring for others.

“It is a practice of caring for the collective and acknowledging that we are connected in ways we don’t often see or think about.”

“When we wear a mask, we protect others – both those we know and don’t know,” says Dr Clark. 

“It is a practice of caring for the collective and acknowledging that we are connected in ways we don’t often see or think about.”

On the other hand, people who don’t wear face masks can be seen as lacking care for others – even though not everyone can wear face masks.

“There are legitimate reasons people cannot wear masks and shaming is never helpful, so we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions too quickly,” says Dr Clark.

But while some can’t wear masks for health reasons, others choose not to wear masks for other reasons – like to make a political statement.

An anti-mask protest, with picket signs showing a cross through a face mask

Mandated mask use during COVID-19 sparked many anti-mask protests around the world. Photo: M.Moira / Shutterstock.

A political symbol 

The mask a person wears – or doesn’t wear – can be a way to show their support for a political party or political viewpoint.

“Masks have really become politicised around the issue of personal freedom – about whether governments and health officials have the right to require individuals to wear masks,” says co-author Dr Clare Southerton.

“There’s been a significant split along political party lines on the issue of mandatory mask-wearing, most notably in the USA.”

Woman wearing face mask with Joe Biden's face

Researchers have found significant splits along political party lines when it comes to mandatory mask-wearing. Photo: Unsplash.

The division between pro- and anti- mask wearing in the United States can be seen at the top level. Former President Donald Trump was outspoken against wearing face masks, while current President Joe Biden gave a speech on why masks matter.

These divisive approaches trickled down to be the views of many supporters, with a 2020 poll finding that Republican voters are less likely to wear face masks compared with Democrat voters. 

Some people take other measures to bend the rules when mandated mask use is in place. 

“There are masks that display anti-mask messages such as ‘this is a mind control device’,” says Dr Southerton.

“Others are tampered with in some way, like having the mouth area cut out, or use a material that is obviously not appropriate for a mask, like lace.”

A video went viral in Australia last year showing a woman at a Bunnings store – dubbed ‘Bunnings Karen’ – who was angry at staff for asking her to wear a mask in store. This video came at the beginning of many similar videos spreading across Australia of people protesting compulsory mask regulations. 

“These incidents, and public reaction to them, show how issues of personal freedom versus collective good are being negotiated,” says Dr Southerton.

Breath is always political, says Dr Clare Southerton. Photo: Rose Makin / Shutterstock.

A protest sign

In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police sparked a series of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe. 

Floyd’s final words – the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ – became an integral part of the protests, with the phrase written or printed on many protestors’ face masks.

“‘I can’t breathe’ is a really compelling message to put on a face mask,” says Dr Southerton. “It’s a reminder that breath is always political.

“Face masks are also intimately connected with the idea of breath. Not only is the virus transmitted through droplets, but we think about our breath and experience breathing differently when we wear them.” 

“It’s a reminder that breath is always political,” says Dr Southerton.

Co-author Dr Ash Watson says that face masks are a prominent site for political messaging and protest.

“Like wearing a logo-emblazoned cap or t-shirt, face masks are a really obvious place for messaging that catches people’s attention,” she says.

“But unlike more normal things we wear, face masks are already drawing additional attention because they’re unusual and a clear reminder that we’re in the midst of a pandemic.”

Woman stands next to a lion statue, both wearing face masks

“The face mask is arguably the key symbol of the COVID crisis,” says Dr Ash Watson. Photo: Ned Snowman / Shutterstock.

The face of COVID-19

Masks have become a normal part of our daily lives, whether they’re homemade, designer, medical grade, or covered with political slogans.

They’ve also found many non-intended decorative uses this year, like being put on public statues, Christmas tree ornaments and teddy bears.

“The face mask is arguably the key symbol of the COVID crisis,” says Dr Watson.

“They give us a sense of protection and make us aware of risk. Because they are something new on our faces, they are also highly visible – we are so aware when we are wearing one, and when others are (or aren’t).”

“The virus itself is relatively invisible, but the mask is very visible,” says Dr Clark.

Illustrations and graphics have shown us what SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, looks like under the microscope: a round ball with red spikes.

But other than these computer-generated images, it’s hard to picture the deadly disease that has killed more than three million people worldwide.

“The virus itself is relatively invisible, but the mask is very visible,” says Dr Clark. “It’s connected to the body, which is of course vulnerable to the virus.

“It brings a tangible and visible expression to abstract concepts surrounding the virus: breath, contagion, rights and freedoms.”

Children's plush toys wearing face masks

Face masks have found many unconventional uses during COVID-19 – including child's play. Photo: Shutterstock.

While it’s not clear how much longer face masks will be an integral part of our lives, their role during the COVID-19 pandemic will leave a lasting mark.

“They’ve become a prominent symbol of just how much our lives have changed.”

“Masks may seem at first like a simple medical tool, but they are connected with many important issues that emerged during the pandemic,” says Dr Southerton.

“They’ve become a prominent symbol of just how much our lives have changed.”

Prof. Lupton says that studying the social meanings and practices around face masks will continue to be important – both during COVID-19 and beyond. 

“Face masks will tell us much about how the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.

“We are still in the midst of this crisis, with no end yet in sight. Face masks will remain an important intervention against COVID-19 and possibly future pandemics.”