Why Are Men Incapable of Wearing Face Masks Correctly?

It's a simple contraption that you put on your face when you leave the house. For many men, that’s just too much to ask.
20 July 2020, 10:16am
Man not wearing face mask correctly
Photo by Artem Tryhub / Alamy Stock Photo
Why, Bro? is a semi-regular series where we look at the reasons why men do the things they do.

What’s the issue? Masks. Well… really, it's the pandemic. But masks. And related: why are so many men, specifically, not wearing masks? Or not wearing them properly?

How long has this been going on for? Since the growing scientific consensus led health experts to recommend masks to stop the spread of coronavirus, fingers have been pointed at just about anyone not wearing a mask.

So how do we know men are refusing to don the cloth more than women?

Well, there’s the discourse. A survey in May of 2,459 people living in the US found that men perceive wearing face masks as “shameful” and “not cool”. Caitlin Moran wrote a column about men not wearing masks. There are loads of tweets. But to be absolutely sure it’s true that it’s the men who are mostly mask-free, I conducted an informal study.

In an afternoon on Kingsland Road in east London, I tallied 500 men and 500 women's face-covering habits. On average, 61 percent of men were not wearing masks, 13 percent were wearing them incorrectly (i.e. not covering their nose and mouth or around their chin); and only 26 percent were wearing masks correctly. Fifty-nine percent of women wore masks correctly; 16 per cent incorrectly; and 25 per cent were not wearing them at all.

I’d like to allow a margin for error based on any accidental misgendering of some of those counted, but even so the results are compelling:

Only a quarter of men wore masks correctly, compared to near two-thirds of women. I didn’t notice much difference by age, but I was also tallying up a thousand people, so allow it.

Where does it happen? Well, it definitely happens outside Dalston Kingsland Station – a very busy pedestrian-dominated area in London.

Ok, but why aren’t men wearing masks? Well, it isn’t compulsory in public yet, although it will be mandatory in shops from 24th of July onwards. So there is that.

But Steven Richards, a consulting psychotherapist for the National Council of Psychotherapists, says a lot of this male behaviour goes back millennia. “Psychologically, lockdown was like being put back into a cave: the environment outside is threatening and we only venture out to get food or resources.”

What this translates to is that by choosing not to wear a mask, men are signalling dominance. Richards says: “Wearing a mask means you seem less fit, because you are afraid of catching something.”

Sally Baker, a senior therapist added: “Young fit men feel immortal, they're at their peak, they're in their prime.”

To find out more about why men aren't wearing face masks, I asked some.

Robert, who is a man not wearing a mask justified it by saying: “I’m not vulnerable, so I feel I can run the risk a bit more. I’d miss being able to smile at and interact with people properly.”

Charles, another man without a mask, said: “I haven’t worn one yet as I’m not 100 percent sure it is effective, and why should I have the hassle of wearing one if it isn’t?”

“Men are very oppositional. They want to be seen to be striking their own route," Baker says.

Psychotherapist Richards agrees: “[Man's] instinct is pushing him to assert himself: ‘people are being aggressive telling me to wear a mask, but that's just gonna make me not want to wear one even more’.”

Ethan, a man with a mask, represents the other side of the story. "I always wear one. Even if I'm just popping down to the shop. You have a duty of care to other people – it's just about not being a fucking arsehole. If you're not wearing a mask, you’re being a twat, really, aren’t you?”

Ultimately, the mask conundrum centres on ideas of toxic masculinity. There's the notion that you have to be tough, that you have to look like you don't give a shit. It's a deeply rooted issue, which doesn't seem to have a fix, at least not until masks become normalised – either through further evidence of their efficiency, or on the spot fines for not using them, which are coming into effect soon.

The other reason men aren’t wearing masks is likely because the male leaders of the world aren’t, which feeds into an idea of exceptionalism.

“Because Boris Johnson got COVID and escaped it very lightly, men – and particularly white men – are able to assume they’re above risk too,” Baker says. However seeing as Boris isn’t exactly a beacon of health, this is more about complacency than anything else. In a nutshell: just put a mask on, mate!