Too macho for a mask? What science is uncovering about pandemic perceptions of masculinity


EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — States across the country are re-opening during the COVID-19 pandemic whether communities are prepared or not.

In states like Texas, business is gradually resuming and social distancing is dissolving even though cities like El Paso have yet to undergo a 14-day decline in COVID-19 cases, one of the recommendations for reopening.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in El Paso are rising on a daily basis while people grapple with how to protect themselves and their families.

Cultural norms are shifting as many medical experts agree that wearing a face mask or covering will be in vogue for the foreseeable future to prevent further transmission.

Despite this consensus, many across the country are not psychologically prepared for the impact the new norm will have on identity.

One study suggests that men more than women are resistant to wearing facial coverings. KTSM spoke with a gender studies scholar at UTEP about the cultural and gender implications about emerging research and what it means to our community.

“To expect men to wear a face cover is to say ‘Look, even if you’re strong, we’re asking you to think about others. To be empathetic and mindful of others who might not be in your position,'” Dr. Guillermina Gina Nunez Mchuri, Director of Women and Gender Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology at UTEP, tells KTSM.

“And of course it goes back to privilege. Who has the privilege to feel like they don’t have to follow the rules?”

The study published this week from researchers at Middlesex University in London and the Mathematical Science Research Institute in Berkeley California reveals the impact of messaging and gender on the practice of wearing a face mask to slow the spread of COVID-19.

According to respondents, men reported negative feelings brought on by wearing a face mask.  The study revealed “Men more than agree that wearing a face covering is shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness, and a stigma.”

The study found that men are less likely than women to believe they will be affected by COVID-19 directly by contracting the disease or indirectly by transmitting it to others.

Many countries across Europe have implemented mandatory mask orders while the orders in the U.S. are less clear.

El Paso, for example, lifted and then reinstated mask orders when Texas reopened but it remains to be seen how the order is being enforced.

Health experts agree that many people have died from secondary causes of COVID-19 and that it is critical to take preventative measures as shelter-in-place orders are relaxed.

Community response to combatting the pandemic is paramount that requires swift and significant adaptations on an individual level. It is impossible for governments to monitor and enforce mask orders, which means that implicit behavioral interventions must be used to modify behavior.

Men are more than twice as likely than women to die from COVID-19 and its complications, so why are so many resistant to wearing a face covering?

Dr. Nunez says one facet to this issue is boundary settings.

Boundaries are used to describe the complex physical, social, and psychological structures that produce the similarities and differences between men and women. Literature on boundaries explains that the separation between the domestic and physical spheres has contributed to gender roles.

Dr. Nunez says one notion of boundaries is not wanting to be bound by social restrictions, and then responding with hyper masculine performance to assert the masculinity believed to be threatened.

According to the research, “the assignment of women to the domestic realm, men to the public one, the physical separation between both spheres, and the social prestige attached to the public domain” contributes to how (and if) boundaries are enforced.

For men, imposing boundaries that impact their role in the public sphere — man’s domain — creates a conflict of identity.

“Having to stay home is being put in a boundary. Having to cover your mouth is another boundary,” says Dr. Nunez.

“Something that is really striking is thinking about men who refuse to wear condoms.”

A 2017 study reported that 65.5 percent of Americans have unprotected sex and that nearly a third of the respondents have unprotected sex every time.

This statistic is significant because it demonstrates that more than half of Americans flout disregard protective wear and were doing so before the pandemic.

If people refuse to wear condoms in intimate settings, how can we expect them to cover their mouths in public settings?

Asking men to dress a certain way and commit to social norms raises issues of privilege and consent that many men have not had to consider (at least seriously) until now.

Men are no longer able to enjoy privileges traditionally denied of women: to be seen, to be heard, to be recognized without fear of consequences.

The researchers who conducted the study on messaging, gender, and wearing a face mask found that orders to wear a face mask affected the intentions and feelings of men more than women.

Many men have decided to opt out.

According to the study, “the self-reported negative emotions felt when wearing a face covering were not mediated by the likelihood to get the disease and by the likelihood to get over it easily in case one gets it.”

The researchers conducted an exploratory analysis to determine the negative emotions men associate with wearing a mask: uncool, shameful, and weak were among the most reported.

Reporting these feelings are important because it enables health experts to design future interventions that will appeal to men’s masculine sensibilities. 

The researchers recommend testing to see whether priming men to use reason versus emotion in order to increase positive feelings will incentivize future use of masks.

Someone in your life doesn’t want to wear a face covering? Try using moral messaging that appeals to both ethos and ego.

Wearing a mask or facial covering shows that you care about not exposing someone to something that could kill them.

I can’t think of a more honorable quality.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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