Some years ago I was enjoying another visit to Japan when I noticed ordinary people wearing face masks. It wasn’t everyone. And it wasn’t all the time. But it was common enough that no one seemed to notice or care. It was a normal thing in Japanese culture. And it was primarily about protecting the larger community, not just the person wearing the mask.
I’ve had cases of N95 masks on hand for years. At first they were useful when I did woodworking projects to keep from breathing in sawdust and fumes. Then we had repeated waves of massive forest fires year after year and the N95 masks came in handy to help manage the smoke. Now we have Covid-19. The fashion du jour is to not wear N95s unless they’re being used in a medical capacity, so I bought some washable masks for everyday outings. My neighbor took one look at them in the laundry and instantly labeled them “face panties.” Bing! Meme. Hashtag. Zeitgeist.
There’s a particular strain of culture that sees any form of protective equipment as a sign of weakness and submission. The motorcycle helmet is the classic example. (Back in my university days I had a friend who was in medical school who referred to them as “donorcycles.”) What’s the point of being all butch in your crotch rocket if you negate the testosterone with a girlie helmet? The risk of accidental death or dismemberment is the whole point of being a rebel. # Face panties implies that anyone who wears one is a _________. I’ll let you fill in that blank.
In the American context there’s a deep distrust for central authority and a romantic vision of rugged individuals. But with very few exceptions most of us live pretty tame lives in highly constrained environments on quiet cul-de-sacs with vigilant home owners associations keeping tabs on everyone’s drapes and shrubbery. So we direct our need to be cowboys and outlaws in highly symbolic and irrelevant ways. I don’t have a horse in this race. But it is fascinating to watch.