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Wearing A Mask Has Been Liberating, For All The Wrong Reasons

It’s hard to effectively describe the feeling of being catcalled. It usually starts with an icy trickle of alertness and then develops into a physical shutdown; like a pinecone on a rainy day. You close up and get smaller (arms crossed, head down, walk faster, faster, faster). I sometimes liken it to taking a blind corner at speed – while you’re likely to make it round the bend unscathed, you never quite know when a car is waiting to smash into you on the other side. 

Like most girls, I first began experiencing the phenomenon of unwanted male attention when I was just a teenager. Far from being a deterrent, school uniforms seemed to actively exacerbate the situation. By adulthood, women are a palimpsest for these unfortunate lived experiences; our personal histories are marked by unwanted accosts on public transport and sexual expletives thrown our way out of car windows. It’s a sad order of events that means that just as a girl is old enough to begin moving in the world independently, a part of that freedom is instantaneously relinquished by fear. 

For the men who catcall, it seems there are a few ‘being a catcaller 101’ guidelines to abide by. Wolf-whistles and unabashed staring are both classic hallmarks of the sleazebag, but perhaps most infuriating is the incessant obsession with smiling. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told to smile by men, but I do know that the first time it happened I was just thirteen. Back then, I was perplexed more than annoyed – why? What does my facial expression matter to some random passer-by on the street?  

As I got older, it began to dawn on me that, to these men, women are ornamental. Something to look at while walking down the road. In simple terms, girls are decorative. It’s also a fairly loud symptom of a wider societal ideal; women shouldn’t complain or show their discontent, and they should always strive for one thing above all else: to be beautiful and pleasing. 

“It’s clear that the perpetrator derives joy primarily from demanding unease and attention. Like a kid sitting on an anthill, catcallers pull out their magnifying glass just to watch women squirm under their gaze.”

Catcalling in lockdown has amplified an already evident truth – in the majority of cases, street harassment is more about intimidation than physical attraction. When an outfit comprised of sunglasses, jogging bottoms, and a face mask still elicits a car beep that makes you jump into the air like a cartoon character, it’s clear that the perpetrator derives joy primarily from demanding unease and attention. Like a kid sitting on an anthill, catcallers pull out their magnifying glass just to watch women squirm under their gaze.

Strangely, I’ve found more than a few perks to wearing a face mask when dealing with would-be street harassers. The bother hasn’t gone away, far from it, but there have been upsides to being able to breeze down my local high street and outrightly ignore any man who decides to bother me. For one thing, they can’t tell me to smile – and for another, they can’t monitor my reaction. Catcallers can swing from a mouthful of compliments to a slew of misogynistic insults faster than you can say “sorry, I’m not interested”. While earphones have long been a technique for attempting to ignore harassment without reprisal, the mask – in its newness – provides an elevated level of effectiveness. Unable to derive insult from masked silence, many perpetrators are left confounded long enough to allow a speedy escape before the follow-up abuse starts. Of course, we shouldn’t *have* to wear masks or plug in headphones to be left alone in public, but as the world continues to change slowly, this respite is welcomed. 

While this has been something of a bittersweet side effect (after all, face masks should hardly be necessary for a comfortable stroll down the road) we shouldn’t lose sight of the reason we need to wear masks in the first place. We are living through a horrendous and deadly pandemic. While I doubt this has escaped anybody’s attention, with the intensity of social distancing messages cooling to a low simmer, it does feel like something that bears mentioning from time to time. 

The new guidelines around face masks have been a frequent trigger for the oft-precious snowflake-bashers of the internet. The petulant cries of “you can’t tell me what to do!” would surely be far quieter if face masks effectively protected individuals from COVID. Sadly, they don’t. Their effectiveness relies on collective participation so that unwittingly infected individuals don’t spread the virus further. Wear a mask to protects others? Pfft! Queue the hissy fits. 

It seems to me that there’s irony at play here. Many of the mask-opposers cite being uncomfortable as reason for not wanting to wear them. Yet, how many women have opted for less than ideal clothing in the summer out of fear that showing more flesh will draw hassle? Oh, then there’s also the line that being forced to wear a mask is trampling all over personal liberty. Huh. Try avoiding shady shortcuts or paying out for taxis rather than walking alone freely in the dark. 

Women, and other marginalised people, have so often compromised daily comfort and freedom in return for imagined safety. Rather than moaning on Twitter about having to don a small square of fabric while doing the rounds in the supermarket, it seems to me that the anti-mask opponents would do well to grow up, think of the vulnerable, and refocus their energy on the genuine inequalities rife in the UK.

Follow Caragh HERE.

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