Women Don’t Want to Give Up Masks, and Go Back to Catcalls
Women are smiling more underneath their masks—and not because strange men are yelling at them to. Some want to wear them forever, but others say harassment happens either way.
With the CDC’s recent announcement that the vaccinated can ditch face masks and joyfully spew aerosols onto the nearest stranger comes much anxiety. Some people, it turns out, like feeling protected from a deadly airborne disease. Others enjoy the anonymity covering up provides. And some women are noting an unintended perk of face masks: no more catcalling.
“Does anyone else like wearing masks so less dudes cat call you or stop you to try and chat??” read one tweet. “Best thing about the masks is that men can't tell me to smile when I'm out in public,” added another.
Certainly street harassment has not completely ended during the pandemic—“pull down your mask so I can see your face” has become the most loathed pick-up line of 2021.
But as Vanessa Gordon, the CEO and publisher of East End Taste Magazine, told The Daily Beast, “In general, masks have been a deterrent [for street harassment]. I’m going to keep wearing them. I don’t want to be bothered, and I feel incognito.”
If Gordon is running late or just cannot be bothered, she’ll throw on some sunglasses with her mask to head to town (Sag Harbor, New York), undisturbed. She plans to keep doing so “until it becomes socially odd to wear masks.”
That’s not to say Gordon has emerged from the pandemic entirely respected. While visiting her grandmother in Lady Lake, Florida, last year, a man came up to her in the Publix parking lot. She was wearing a mask, so the man could not see her face. No matter—instead he “made a comment about [her] rear end.”
“I just played dumb and said, ‘Who, me?’” Gordon recalled. “I pretended not to realize what they were saying.”
Gordon has also noticed that while men tend to be be less vocal in their harassment, they have come up with ways to silently look threatening.
When Gordon goes out to eat, she tries to keep her mask on for as long as possible, and not just for hygiene purposes. “Men will stare at you,” she said. “You get those very hard stares, like they’re trying to undress your face.”
M., a 36-year old artist from Salt Lake City who asked The Daily Beast only use her initial, added that she’s experienced “no catcalling” in her mask since the start of the pandemic. Sometimes people will “be caught off guard” and laugh at her unique face mask, which comes blazed with an image of skeletal animal teeth. But other than that, “nothing creepy.”
Years ago, M. noticed that she would be catcalled, or sometimes followed, by men more often when she was smiling. So she evolved. “I purposefully taught myself how to have a resting bitch face and kinda scowl as I walked or rode my bike or otherwise minded my own business in public to seem less inviting to the type of guy who thinks a bus stop is a great place to pick up chicks,” M. explained.
But now no one can see M.’s mouth. “I can just relax and have any facial expression I want,” she said. “I started smiling a lot in public—if I felt like smiling, of course—and nothing happened! No change in how often I was approached or yelled at in public.”
It’s not the only reason M. wants to keep wearing her mask, “but it’s just so nice and freeing to be able to decide whether to smile or not, just based on how I feel personally.”
M. added, “I intend to be one of the people who normalizes masks for purposes like avoiding transmitting colds and the flu or for fashion, like some Asian countries. I don't feel it's really time to think the pandemic is over, but even if it was, that's my long-term game plan.”
Rebecca, 28, a medical receptionist and photographer from Michigan who asked The Daily Beast only use her first name, said that she is “a little nervous” for the mask mandate to completely lift, because it has significantly curbed the amount of harassment in her life.
“I am no longer told to ‘smile’ and ‘look happy’ while grocery shopping or out and about in general,” Rebecca said. “I don't get comments about my looks at gas stations or or at work. Nobody has followed me around a store, a parking lot, or out on a walk. All which have happened to me numerous times before the mask mandate.”
Not everyone feels as secure in their perceived camouflage. One New York City bartender told me that “men will always be terrible,” even if she wears a mask through her entire shift.
“When I’m bartending, they’re like, ‘Can you take off your mask, I wanna see your face,’ or try to buy me a shot so they can sneakily see my face which is so creepy and weird.”
A survey written by the advocacy group One Fair Wage found that 25 percent of restaurant workers reported a “significant” increase in sexual harassment during the pandemic, and the CDC found that “threats and assaults” may be “more likely” to occur to service industry workers.
Diana Weisman, an art director from Baltimore, learned this the scary way while walking home in the dark last November in New York.
She was wearing headphones with music on “low,” so Weisman could hear a man’s feet running up behind her on the pavement. She first thought he was a jogger trying to pass, so she jumped to one side.
Instead, the man came dangerously close and said, “I wanted to tell you I thought you were cute.” Weisman wondered to herself how the man even knew what she looked like, since she was nearly completely covered in a mask, scarf, and winter hat.
“Once I got rid of him, I kept walking and just called a friend and started crying,” Weisman recalled. “I remember I kept saying to her that I was completely covered up. For some reason, I couldn’t believe that could happen to me [looking] like that.”
Weisman, like most women, understands that street harassment is rarely about what one is wearing. It happens whether a woman is in six-inch heels or running sneakers, masked or not. So why would she, or any of us, expect the catcalling to curb during the pandemic? It has always been about power and dominance, anyway.
“I think the mask made me feel more invisible than I was, so I was caught off guard more than usual when the man accosted me, “ Weisman added. “The masks make you feel a bit stealthy, I think. Maybe part of it was also me thinking that now I couldn’t possibly be hit on, because he couldn’t see my face. But of course, that has nothing to do with it.”