Beauty in confinement: how protective face masks are changing femininity

We might have been underestimating the impact Covid-19 would have on the fashion business, on the way we look, the way we feel, and how we perceive the human body. Masked faces are now the recommendations of several governments.

Ironically, France, Netherlands and many other countries recently banned the use of the burqa, calling it offensive. The argument was that it covered the face, and these governments decreed that the face should be completely visible for security purposes. Many rightly saw it as an attack on the lifestyle of Muslim women; a lifestyle, fashion, and beauty ideal different from western norms, and therefore regarded as “uncivilised” when measured against Eurocentric standards. Faced with Covid-19, and now obliged to use face masks, perspectives and perceptions have changed.

The face mask today does not look exactly like the burqa, yet it also covers around two thirds of the face. It not only protects us from the virus, but also from the prying eyes of people who can see the naked and unmade faces underneath, hiding all their flaws. In many countries, Covid-19 containment measures include home confinement and the obligation to wear face masks when leaving the house, and this has had an impact on how women now dress and have adapted their looks.

In the days before the pandemic, a typical working woman would wear lip gloss or some lipstick as she left the house on whatever errand. Women would usually have different shades and textures of lipstick to go with their skin tone, their mood, the occasion, and sometimes the dress they were wearing.

Masks create challenges for these women, as they are incompatible with their beauty regimes. One problem is that the mask covers the lips and thus sticks to the lipstick. I read from a recent entry in my diary:

The first time I wore my mask was after I had made myself up, and drove to town. When I was to step out of the car, I wore my mask, and immediately it stuck on my 30-dollar lipstick. Not only did it feel messy, but I wondered “why would I spend thirty dollars on a lipstick that is no longer necessary?”.

The stickiness feels messy and uncomfortable, it makes money spent on lipstick feel like a waste. As wearing a face mask is made compulsory in many countries, lipstick may lose its place and value in the marketplace – at least temporarily. Of course, even in confinement, a lot of people still use lipstick, but demand for it is diminishing.

The use of skin toned powders, concealers and foundations poses other challenges. Face masks are not compatible with these different facial foundations. They rub off onto the mask and can create unevenness in skin tones. The way materials stick to and leave marks on the mask also create a dirty look.

As the use of face masks increases, women may have to renegotiate the ways in which they represent their femininity in relation to fashion and beauty. Women’s looks have been key in the construction of femininity. “Glossy” looking women who wear lipstick and foundation on the face, construct their femininities through this make-up.

In pandemic times, the context collapses the distinction between women who wear lipstick and those who do not, and conventional standards of make-up also collapse. As the pandemic progresses, it will be important to follow up how women feel without lipstick or make-up, and what will replace these practices in their expression of femininity.

Adapting to a life with Covid-19 brings with it a significant change in lifestyle. Changing lifestyle means changing fashion and looks, and thus highlighting the production of some accessories and abandoning others. The fashion world might have missed out on selling lipstick to women wearing burqas, but it did not miss the opportunity to design beautiful burqa outfits.

Today new designs of face masks could add to women’s look, perhaps shaping what might be the next “new look” of the year. Fashion designers and clothing companies the world over have joined the fight against Covid-19 by producing much needed personal protective equipment for health workers, who are risking their lives to save others. Safety is the main concern, but in the process designers are creating fashionable items.

Louis Vuitton, Prada, Ralph Lauren and many other global household names are in the race to help protect healthcare workers. New York-based Christian Siriano noted in a tweet that:

In Cameroon, where I live, tailors and designers in the main cities across the country, from those working at Bamenda central food market, to the ones in Marché Central Douala, and in Foto Dschang, all sat at their sewing machines to help heal the world. Each with their own skills contributed to fighting the invisible king Corona, who has chosen to feed on humans with an insatiable appetite.

In the neighbourhood of Old Town, in the city of Bamenda, tailors use traditional fabrics and designs that are customary in the Cameroon Grassfields, to craft colourful face masks that match head dresses, gowns and handbags, so that the overall result gives the impression that people have been dressing this way for a long time. Women who wear these masks adjust their looks without losing a tinge of their cultural representations of femininity.

But all is not fashion and glamour. Findings from a social media ethnographic survey I carried out recently show that, as masks have been made compulsory in Cameroon, people have different interpretations of what constitutes adequate facial protection.

Some think that a simple nose cover does the trick. We also have masks made from raffia palm fibre, calabash, banana leaves, woven palm leaves and many other materials. While these items are often aesthetically pleasing, they do not offer enough protection.

Sadly, among the most dispossessed sectors of society, it is now common to see people using whatever they can find – perhaps a piece of plastic or cardboard – to cover their faces in the attempt to protect themselves, and comply with the rules.

Even as we celebrate the creativity and efforts of tailors and designers, we are reminded that, in the face of a deadly virus, many cannot afford neither the looks nor the protection. Those who can afford the protection, will have to strike a compromise with their looks.

Lilian Lem Atanga is an associate professor of discourse, gender, and political studies at the University of Bamenda. She is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Florida, working on discourse, social media and political participation in Cameroon.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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