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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Petula Dvorak: For some, wearing a mask is liberating

By Petula Dvorak Washington Post

A year into the pandemic, a lot has changed. And we’re reminded of that every time we go outside (if we go outside). Masks have joined the traditional don’t-leave-home-without-them trifecta of keys, wallets and phones – and they are here to stay.

There are folks who hate them, who can’t breathe through them, or who think they’re a sign of political oppression.

But for others, the widespread use of masks has made the past year one of liberation.

With a mask, you can sing in the grocery store, talk to yourself on a walk, grimace in the gym, leave the spinach in your teeth, have coffee breath, forget lipstick – and no one is the wiser. Oh, the savings on Altoids and L’Oréal this past year!

Folks on social media write little odes to the masked life:

“I love wearing a mask. I want to do this forever. It has helped my social anxiety so much.”

And: “Wearing a mask is really letting me be ugly in peace. I love it here.”

One librarian much loved by local kids on the West Coast said she loves being able to go to do errands without being recognized by her tiny fans.

Amid half a million lives lost, financial ruin and social devastation that the coronavirus has wrought there are teeny tiny glimmers of good things this cruel virus has left us. The normalized use of masks is one of them.

“I don’t think I could ever go back to not wearing a mask,” said Donna Bauer, a “40ish” Twitter maven in Orlando, Fla. (Masks hide the laugh lines, so why not run with it? “40ish” it is, Donna!)

“I like not catching colds, not wearing makeup and not being noticed,” Bauer said. “So even vaccinated and with herd immunity, I’m still going to be hiding behind it.”

It’s a familiar sentiment as we mark a year into a global pandemic.

My 16-year-old son made me think about this.

Yes, he’s a teen who comes with all the familiar afflictions of his gender and age, that misanthropic streak that makes him roll his eyes when I’m chitchatting with store clerks.

He’s a polite and well-spoken kid when he has to be, but I didn’t consider that social graces aren’t easy for him.

“I want to keep wearing a mask after this is over,” he told me. “I can just go and do my thing, and I don’t have to interact with people. It’s liberating.”

Hmm. Interesting. And I realized the small and guilty exhale my mask has granted me, too.

At first, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us we should be wearing masks, I went through an exhausting pantomime, gesticulating with my hands and eyes, Marcel Marceauing my way into people-pleasing kindness during interviews, grocery checkouts, oil changes because those thick masks hide so much.

Eventually, months into this, I began giving up the exaggerated act. And sometimes, it felt good.

But there are also the folks who’ve spent their lives stared at by others because of physical differences in their faces, and who now are finding relief from these first judgments.

“Wearing a mask means people can’t see my facial tics, and I love that,” said Pietra Pereira, 19, a student in San Diego.

“I’ve always chewed on my tongue ever since I was a kid,” Pereira said. “I also have a lot of facial acne that masks hide. Acne so bad that random people I meet on the day-to-day feel the need to comment on it and give me advice, as if I haven’t been to tons of dermatologists.”

“I feel much less self-conscious out in public when I’m wearing a mask,” she said.

Ariel Henley found that a lifetime of standing out with her asymmetrical face and what she described as “crooked, wide-set eyes” from a craniofacial condition changed once masks became standard during the pandemic.

“Covering my face changed how I was treated in public,” she wrote in the Post last year. “During a recent visit to the post office, I stood in line behind strangers, all of whom also wore fabric coverings on their faces, and for once the most noticeable thing about my appearance was not my misshapen eyes but the vibrant colored mask that did all but cover them. I was grateful for the sense of anonymity and the chance to blend in that wearing a mask provided.”

Conni Bullock, 66, found the same comfort in being able to cover half her face without being stared at.

“I started wearing a mask as soon as Dr. Fauci advised the nation to do so,” Bullock, of Mattituck, N.Y., said.

She has Stage 4 breast cancer, and the anti-nausea medicine she takes to help with chemotherapy treatments gave her another condition, one affecting the nervous system – tardive dyskinesia.

“Mine manifests as constant contortions of my mouth and tongue twirling,” she said. “I was mortified to go out in public.”

Which is sad, because Bullock has a beautiful, wide-open smile and sparkling eyes.

Wearing a mask made her feel comfortable being around others again and gave her “great solace.”

And people can still see that dazzling smile of hers – they see it in her eyes.

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