Holly Todd Cartoon

Cartoon by Holly Todd

Thomas Pease

Thomas Pease

Coronavirus vaccines have arrived! As we hold in hunker-down mode, its the news weve all been waiting for. 

Nonetheless, we need to celebrate with restraint. We shouldn’t strip off our body armor and pirouette across the battlefield before the enemy disarms. And an invisible enemy lurks among us. 

Medical professionals warn not to let hope breed complacency. Vaccines, they caution, will not be available for everyone immediately. We still face six more months of uncertainty; six more months of human life at risk. 

How do we safeguard health and human lives until then and beyond? By doing what health officials have told us to do for months: wear masks. And most importantly, wear them correctly.

But how do we persuade people to keep wearing masks, especially when too many ignore  medical guidelines?  How do we convey that an exposed nose is offensive at a time when an exhale can be deadly? The answer: fashion shaming.

Just as excessive cleavage and sagging pants are vulgar in normal times, so is the nose during a pandemic. It’s the most prominent facial feature on an unmasked person. Until the coronavirus is fully contained, we need to view the nose as an obscene appendage. Roman noses and runny  noses, button noses and bulbous noses, snub and snout, pierced and pimpled, all noses should be considered unsightly. 

I propose the CDC and our state epidemiologist target the ugliness of the nose through a series of public health announcements to promote responsible mask wearing. Open with something bold and Alaskan, Your Nose is a Weapon, Keep it Holstered. Segue into subtlety for the artistic type: Leave something to the imagination, mask up.  A line to use at the bar (once they reopen), Maskup and show me back at my place. For the romantic type:  It’s all in the eyes, cover your nose. And an appeal to the young and virile: Yes, but only if you wear a mask.

We don’t need to rely solely on health officials to guide our actions. Our own fashion observations can be applied to the pandemic precautions we take. As a teacher, I’m familiar with repulsive fashion trends, along with the peer pressure and influences that perpetuate them. And I’m well practiced in policing my students. 

A few years back, crop tops were a fashion craze for young women. These elastic tubes squeezed flesh out both the top and the bottom. As a male teacher, I needed to communicate these fashion missteps delicately using an age-old code embedded in our profession. I would send the barely clad adolescent on an errand to deliver a note to a female teacher down the hall. It read: “May I borrow the left-handed stapler?” Sometimes the student would return to my class wearing a baggy sweatshirt and an insolent eye-roll. Other times, she wouldn’t return at all. Later, I’d see her waiting in the office for a parent to bring her something more stylish than a sweatshirt to change into.

Male students respond to more direct fashion shaming. “No sagging. Pull ‘em up,” I caution routinely. “I don’t want to see your boxers.”  

This same message applies to masks. Yet policing adults is more uncomfortable than policing students. Whenever I see a person wandering a store with a sagging mask, I don’t say anything. But I have the same visceral reaction I do to sagging pants. I recoil, I hold my breath, I turn away. Gaaak, a nose! 

Maybe I overreact. But is it an overreaction? An exposed nose during a pandemic presents a health risk that a butt crack does not. After all, our country far exceeds the rest of the world in per capita infections and deaths. Masks are annoying, I know. But they work. So, let me try again. 

Last week, our furnace quit. Winter in Alaska is neither a good time nor a good place to have a furnace go out. Furnace failure in a pandemic causes even more anxiety. My bubble is small, so having a plumber enter the house felt sketchy. But I had no choice to expand my bubble. The portable electric heater wasn’t keeping up with the dropping temperature, even with the living room sealed off. 

I met Wayne at the front door in a mask. To my relief, he wore a mask as well. Nonetheless, it felt invasive. He worked in the basement while I worked upstairs. After some time, I reluctantly ventured downstairs to check on progress, since this plumbing outfit charged $205 an hour. Wayne knelt on the concrete floor with boiler parts strewn about him. Yes, he had the requisite plumber’s crack. As he raised his head, I saw his exposed nose, a porous protuberance jutting over the elastic band of his mask. I went into silent teacher mode. With my hands at belt level, I performed my “pull ‘em up” signal. Horrified at getting flashed in my own home, I fled back upstairs.

If my response to noses still seems extreme, here’s another attempt to persuade. Think of a mask as a Speedo swimsuit. Some Speedos aren’t much bigger than a mask and don’t do any better job concealing unattractive body parts. 

In the mid-90’s, my wife and I honeymooned in Eastern Europe. I don’t know if it was cultural or trendy, but everyone displayed generous amounts of flesh. Even in rural, more traditional parts of the old country, men wore Speedos on weekends as they tended their subsistence gardens. These were fleshy, aging men tucked into bikini briefs with huge bellies that turned pink under the sun. They hacked through hard pan with sharpened hoes to allow rain to seep beneath the clay surface. All that vigorous chopping generated ample motion, and, yes, slippage. Reflect on the image of a low slung Speedo every time you see a nose poking over the top of a mask.

There you have it. A nasty visual to encourage mask compliance. Think of a mask as a Speedo on your face, preventing you from becoming a fashion victim and shielding the public from a disgusting appendage. But most of all, wear it to protect the health of everyone around you.

Be fashionable. Cinch up that mask. For your sake and for ours.


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