The evolution of face mask culture

Sept. 1, 2020, 9:41 a.m. | By Katalina Li | 3 years, 6 months ago

Masks have become an integral part of life in the U.S. - will it stay that way after COVID-19 is gone?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, masks have become a big part of our daily lives. For most of us, picking up our mask on our way out the door has become second nature: you can’t go out without it. Once the pandemic is over, however, will masks still stick around? 

First, let’s take a look at mask culture from before COVID-19. “Face mask culture” originated in 1918 when the Spanish flu broke out and it was discovered that masks were an effective preventative measure against the deadly virus. 

At the time, World War I was in full swing and wearing face masks was a patriotic duty to protect troops. According to, the American Red Cross issued PSAs about the importance of masks, with messages like “the man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.” Most people diligently wore their face masks everywhere they went. 

Even after the Spanish flu was over, face mask culture remained prevalent in Asia. Masks became a common part of life and were used for a variety of reasons: blocking pollution, minimizing the effect of allergens, and for privacy. Masks were very common during seasonal disease periods too. 

While face mask culture was already adapted in the East, masks are a pretty new part of life for the West. In the U.S., masks went away after the Spanish flu and have only recently resurfaced during COVID-19. 

While polls from Ipsos show that most Americans are willing to wear masks properly in public, there is a lot of controversy over whether masks should be mandated by companies and businesses. Some Americans consider requiring masks to be an infringement on their rights, while others argue that it is one of the only ways to make workplaces safe during the pandemic. 

What makes mask culture in the U.S. so much more controversial than in other countries? Perhaps it is that our country was founded on the partisan protection of rights, or that we continue to receive mixed messages about mask requirements from our leaders. 

There is also a difference in American values and the values of Asian countries who have embraced masks more easily. While the American mindset focuses on independence, most Asian countries value more of a group mindset and collective nationalism. 

On the other hand, since American values are more centered around being an individual instead of part of a mass group, it’s harder for U.S. citizens to differentiate between doing something for themselves versus doing something for the public. 

This individualism tends to lead to more questioning of the government as well. It’s easier for people who view themselves as individuals to disregard what higher powers tell them - unlike in most Asian countries, where government orders are followed without objection. 

Likewise, there is also a difference between our current values and our values during the Spanish flu. Back then, Americans held a deep sense of patriotism, and were willing to put their own individual values aside for the war effort. Now, however, it’s the other way around - many Americans choose to put their own beliefs ahead of the nation’s needs. 

Thus, in America we now see a divide between those who are willing to wear masks for public safety, and those who hold tight to their own individual beliefs instead. Masks have subsequently become highly politicized and stigmatized in the U.S.

This then leads to the question of what face mask culture in the U.S. will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Masks fizzled away in the U.S. after the Spanish flu, but remained prevalent in Asian countries. Will this happen with the U.S. after COVID-19, or will face masks once again fade away?

According to an interview with bioethics professor Jessica Berg, it’s unlikely that masks will become a part of American culture in the same way it is in Asia. Berg thinks the politicization of masks will make it hard for them to integrate to American culture. “I think there’s still a genuine question about how hard it’s going to be for us, culturally, to accept masks now as not either stigmatizing or even problematic,” Berg says. 

Still, Berg says it is possible masks will become less stigmatized if enough people continue to wear masks regularly for seasonal disease periods. This takes away from the political aspect of masks and makes it a commonplace act of politeness and respect, regardless of whether they are being mandated or not.

Whether or not this cultural shift will happen at the end of the pandemic, we all have to do our best to stop the spread of COVID-19. Right now, wearing a mask should be a matter of care and respect for those around us, and we need to put public health before our personal values just as we did back in 1918. 

Masks need to be destigmatized and treated as a valuable and necessary measure in defeating COVID-19, and it’s a responsibility that we all need to take for the sake of our future.

Last updated: Sept. 1, 2020, 9:42 a.m.

Tags: Flue Season Asia COVID-19

Katalina Li. Hi there! I'm Katie (she/her). I'm a senior and a co-Editor-in-Chief of SCO! When I'm not writing or editing, I'm usually messing around on my trumpet, drawing Studio Ghibli characters, or making piano covers for my YouTube channel :) More »

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