Thursday, 8 May 2014

Face Masks

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 Hay fever season is in full swing, and face masks are popping up everywhere. I'm recovering from a cold, caught from a student who annoyingly came to class and coughed everywhere without wearing a mask, so I am enjoying a soothing ginger infused face mask. Each time I inhale, my throat get a temporary reprieve from soreness. At first I felt self conscious and uncomfortable wearing a face mask, but they quickly become second nature. A few years ago I read this article about Japanese people wearing face masks for non-health related reasons. It wasn't the first time I had encountered the idea of using masks as a form of barrier between oneself and the outside world. When I first came on the JET Programme I worked with a young English teacher who was still in his probationary period. He was morbidly obese, and the combination of his weight and low status in the staff hierarchy led to quite a lot of teasing and cruelty from other teachers and students respectively. I remember one day asking if he was ill when I saw him wearing a mask. He said no, but "the students won't say that I am ugly if I cover my face." On other occasions male teachers told me they wore a mask if they couldn't be bothered shaving.

Masks may be helpful for hay fever, but the way kids use them makes them fairly ineffective in preventing the spread of viruses in schools, I think. Kids tend to wear one mask all day, and often pull the mask down to expose their noses. They will touch the mask repeatedly throughout the day, probably ending up spreading as many germs from their fingers as they would have from their breath. Nevertheless, they make everyone feel safer.

There is a fascinating article on the topic titled "Risk, Ritual and Health Responsibilitisation: Japan's 'Safety Blanket' of Surgical Face Mask Wearing":

This article begins to develop understanding of surgical mask wearing in Japan, now a routine practice against a range of health threats. Their usage and associated meanings are explored through surveys conducted in Tokyo, with both mask wearers and non mask wearers. It contests commonly held cultural views of the practice as a fixed and distinctively Japanese collective courtesy to others. Historical analysis suggests an originally collective,targeted and science-based response to public health threat has dispersed into a generalised practice lacking clear end or purpose. Developed as part of the biomedical response to the Spanish flu of 1919, the practice resonated with folk assumption as a barrier between ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’. But mask wearing only became socially embedded as a general protective practice from the 1990s through a combination of commercial, corporate and political pressures that responsibilized individual health protection. Developments are usefully understood amidst the uncertainty created by Japan’s ‘second modernity’ and the fracturing of her post war order. Mask wearing is only one form of a wider culture of risk; a self  protective ‘risk ritual’ rather than collective, selfless practice.
The full article is available for free, and it is an interesting read.
For further musings on face masks, see Tofugu.
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