Who Was That Masked Man?

Fashion dances back and forth, concealing then revealing, eroticizing certain parts of the body by first hiding them, then allowing tiny peeks. In a time of lace-up boots, a glimpse of ankle could sear a man’s eye. When décolletage became too common to excite, the midriff was revealed.

Well, we have been covering our mouths for months now. My lipsticks sit neglected in a dark cabinet, never rolled up from their metal cases to see the world. My eyebrows are lifting all the weight, conveying smirks, frowns, and jaw-dropping surprise. In the few public places I frequent (okay, the grocery store), the mood is bland, because everyone’s emotional reactions are muffled, masks concealing the outrage beneath them (rubbing alcohol is sold out?) and the giddy excitement of finding donuts on sale.

So much, our mouths used to accomplish. Lips pressed tight as one of those old squeeze-open coin purses, warning disapproval even as the person nodded. Bit-bright passion. Blown kisses or bubblegum, Bronx raspberries, and stuck-out tongues, jaw drops. The twisted smile of grudging acknowledgment; the Cheshire grin that leaves the recipient unsettled, or should; the small smug closed-lip smile of an enemy; the wide happy smile that rated a special name, the Duchenne, because it is so real, it crinkles the eyes.

Driving, I look hungrily inside other cars, reading emotion like a comic strip. Missing lipstick, I think about its history: the cupid’s bow, when little else was expected of a woman; the brave scarlet of the 1940s; the pale pastels of the mod 1960s, the switch to “natural” lip gloss (though what is natural about lips coated with an ever-sticky slick of goo, I am not sure). Now, why bother with any of it? You will just smear the inside of your pretty mask.

At least, I hope it is pretty. We are going to have to make our peace with this accessory, not keep grabbing disposable surgical masks as though the pandemic is nearly over. Our choice of mask will reveal us as surely as Chanel’s Bohème once did. Like cosmetics, all clothing acts as a second skin, at once covering us and becoming part of us. Erasmus called clothes “the body’s body”: We have a body to express our soul, and our body has clothes to express its character.

Masks express almost as much as our mouths once did, but what they say depends on your point of view. To some, they are proof of gullible passivity; to those I would rather hang out with, they show selfless concern for others and a reason for hope. Fast politicized—and what is not, in this polarized time?—masks were the perfect object to carry all that extra meaning. They have always been used to conceal and often to deceive, whether the motive was to pull off a bank robbery or seduce someone else’s partner during the Carnival of Venice. (Who was that masked man?)

Americans eager to vilify the mask equate it with what they see as Muslim oppression of women or Asian fear of contamination and contagion. America is not like. We take long strides, breathe in fresh air, rely on ourselves. (Except that now, we cannot.)

Until recently, most social fights over garments that conceal body parts have sided with concealment. In Victorian times, even piano legs were covered, as analogy. Flappers were frowned upon because those elegant sheaths had cutaway sides and high slits—how else could you do that immoral Charleston? Even in the swinging Sixties, squares frowned at hot pants and miniskirts; later, it was halters and tube tops, shirtless men and, most recently, leggings.

Setting airlines’ inexplicable prudery aside, contemporary western culture prefers the explicit, the tell-all, the transparency so often touted and seldom achieved in circles of power. Concern for human rights is not the only reason burqas make us nervous.

And now here we are, just when we had bleached our teeth to an Antarctic gleam, forced to hide our smiles. They are concealed to keep us alive. And our masks are letting us notice and enjoy, more fully than we ever imagined possible, other people’s eyes, brows, foreheads, even their slender or gulleted necks.

When we can finally strip off our masks, mouths will be sexier than ever before.

The tips of our noses, too.