5 things underwear can teach us about masking up

By African Potential Foundation researcher, Minja Milovanovic

With the inundation of COVID-19 information, Covid-Karens (sorry Karens) demanding accountability for every inconvenience, and even top global health institutes yo-yoing on their own recommendations, it’s no surprise that everyone in pandemic life is veering between information overload, or just plain ‘gatvol’.
But as winter nights get shorter, our hopes of a COVID-free summer are bashed by news of new waves coming out of Europe, Australia and the US, with many holding their breath for 2021. I’m starting to think it’s better to stick with the devil we now “know” than to open for a warm embrace from the one that carries a neon bright ‘pending’ sign.

So as we gingerly open up, there is something to be said about being on the back burner of the West – they are getting hit first, and we’re (supposed to be) learning from their mistakes. This makes it essential to take a moment to reflect on one of the most glaring ones they have made, to massive detriment – masks.

(Note: If you’re reading this article and are not aware of the many internal struggles that have been waged in the US alone around personal rights and freedom of choice with mask wearing, then I would strongly encourage you to deviate from this page and engage with a quick Google search.
This article is not about whether or not people have a right to wear or not to wear a mask: that discussion requires time and space to unpack the many ideological and structural constructs that influence beliefs and the way they are enacted. That’s a story for another article; for the purposes of this one we embrace it, and hope to discuss how to do it best.)

As South Africa’s number of new COVID infections decreases, our government has loosened restrictions. Some of us are finally able to enjoy a well-aired glass of red without feeling like a back-alley criminal, while others are inhaling their cigarettes like they’re being reunited with a long lost lover. But whatever your vice, it is in the best interests for all of us to ensure that as the days get warmer we don’t forget to remain vigilant, and keep that mask close at hand. While my hands have never been cleaner and I have started to appreciate my personal bubble so much more, I still (like many) struggle to remember to take my mask everywhere I go.

We are still mastering this covering-up etiquette, so let’s compare it to another staple of civilisation: undies, boxers, briefs, panties, broeks.

No one entered this world clutching their knickers; rather, undergarments were something we learned to do.
For many reasons we no longer debate – to cover our modesty, for comfort, support, protection of our delicates, and because it is socially expected – underwear is an accepted way of life. A learnt behavior, if reinforced many times, becomes the norm. The compliance of children is one amazing example of how easy masking can be when we embrace it as a way of life.

(Of course, as with underwear, you will always get that one guy or gal who prefers to feel ‘fresh’ and ‘free’, but the difference is that with masking up, if you go bare you aren’t endangering others’ nether regions. As with going commando, what I previously assumed to be confidence appears to be rather ignorance or arrogance. And alas, it is becoming easier and more common to confuse the two.)

So for the rest of us (the majority to be precise), a whole manufacturing industry has evolved to give you the option: thong or boxer shorts, leather or lace, it all depends on your mood really, but the point is that it is easier, more comfortable, and sexier than ever to find something that suits you.

Similarly, face masks have done a fast evolution. What started with an over-dependence on the traditional surgical mask has paved the way for modern designs and new fabrics with a pinch (or shovel) of creativity. The options are becoming limitless, from Victoria’s Secret inspirations to the stock standard, but like with your jockstrap, comfort is key.

In my research I have had the pleasure of witnessing imagination functioning within the scope of the current social expectation: sturdy gentlemen wearing bright pienk knitted face coverings, plastic packets, scarves, and occasionally a t-shirt pulled up so that the wearer appears to be missing a neck.

Facepalm… Why bother?! Except then I realised that people probably think all coverings are created equal.
These encounter got me thinking – maybe the conversations we should be having now are not so much about cover your face and wear a mask (‘mask- up’ is competing with Nike for the winning slogan spot) but rather that we should be getting to know our masks, know what they’re made from, and know how to wear them properly. Just because they are a must-have item during the ‘pandemic days’ doesn’t mean that they should be held to a lower standard of comfort, function, and form than our thongs.

One of the many recently published studies was done by Duke University, testing 14 commonly available masks and face coverings (and 1 mask material) to understand how much protection they really offer. To be sciencey for a minute, the medical and scientific premise for wearing a face covering is to limit the transmission of particles and droplets that could carry the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Simply, if your face covering of choice has holes in it and I can see your morning stubble, chances are that it’s not going to do a very good job of capturing these viral droplets.

So to aid my fellow COVIDers, I’ve compiled a list of 5 things to consider when browsing for your next boxers…
I mean, mask:

  1. Ear loops vs head tie vs toggle:

    Whatever your bondage preference make sure you pick a mechanism that allows you to easily adjust the mask, with minimal contact, so that it is comfortable and secure. We don’t want it falling down in the most compromising of situations or slipping when you get too excited. Personally, I’m a fan of the loop around the head, but the choice is yours.
  2. Know your fabrics:

    From hardcore leather and latex to simple cotton – what works best? A number of studies and TikTok videos have emerged emphasising the importance of knowing the material that your face covering is made from. Essentially it has to be dense enough and have filtration power while simultaneously allowing for breathability, so woven is better than knitted or laced. I would recommend leaving the lace and latex for those intimate moments.
    Essentially it has to be dense enough and have filtration power while simultaneously allowing for breathability. If you’re still uncertain on whether the mask you have purchased is made from adequate materials, you can always try the light test. Hold your mask up to a bright light and stretch it. If light passes through and you can see the fibers or you can see straight through the material, chances are that it is not going to be very effective.
  1. Add some filter:

    Want to up your face mask game? Instagram has taught us that a filter can make all the difference. You should consider designs that make provision for filters. These are usually nestled between two layers of fabric and allow for higher capture of particles.
  2. The perfect fit:

    When it comes to the correct etiquette of mask wearing, you want to adopt the simple principle of ‘the more the merrier’. While it’s important to ensure that personal style is on display, I would strongly encourage anyone wanting to make a statement to embody Sophia Loren and keep viewers guessing. Your mask should cover your face from the bridge of your nose to under your chin and have a good side seal. It should fit comfortably but still be secure enough to stay in place. Think, room to breathe without flapping wildly in the wind. Make sure you can talk with your mask on without it shifting and that it doesn’t irritate you, so you’re not tempted to touch it or pull it out of place.
    On a sidebar, if the eyes are the window to the soul then this is our chance to become hopeless romantics! Boost those lashes, tint those brows, and practice deep longing stares. And for those of you, who like myself, have to endure the burden of glasses, hang in there, our time will come.
  3. Handle with care:

    Like every garment that adorns our physic, face coverings need to be washed, and regularly! It is recommended to have more than one to swap out when things become damp and sweaty.

As we collectively navigate the dystopian landscape that COVID-19 has unleashed on us, many are filled with uncertainty and doubt. These sentiments have birthed a plethora of conspiracy theorists, a dis/trust of scientific recommendations, a shift in working culture, and a new-found
love for baking. Who would have thought that a pandemic would redefine societies relationship with carbohydrates so emphatically?! And, like bread and the home office, COVID-19 has also globalised and normalised face coverings. An opportunity to feel like a masked hero, a cowboy in a dust storm, or empathise with surgeons, the sobering reality is that underwear doesn’t tell the public as much about our personalities as the small but significant face mask does.

Love them or hate them, they are here to stay, if only for a little while… or the next pandemic.