Writes Paul McLauchlan
There’s not much to second guess in images of celebrities Kim Kardashian West and Paris Hilton strutting in and out of a gas station in Los Angeles. It is also no surprise seeing the pair dressed in matching velour tracksuits straight from Kardashian West’s shapewear line SKIMS. Yet, this is a world gripped by a global pandemic, and one thing did look out of place in these images: the lack of face coverings.
Even though Kardashian West was one of the first people to advocate for face masks as tensions surrounding the outbreak of the novel coronavirus began to escalate, months later her Instagram feed is less populated with public health information and more concerned with product placement and private island getaways. As the global pandemic took the world by storm in the beginning of 2020 with infection rates climbing exponentially, many countries were forced into government mandated quarantines and mask wearing became an essential act in the fight against Covid-19.
From pharmacies to luxury brands, discount stores to high street retailers, face coverings have become ubiquitous; with different permutations available for sale almost everywhere—from the sky blue disposable kind for a couple of euros to a reusable cloth branded with the label’s logo from Off-White for $105.
The mask has become a loaded symbol: synonymous with protection and adherence to the established order, as well as to the anxiety and misinformation at play. The mask acts as the emblem of the fight against the virus when we leave our homes or broadcast parts of our lives, despite simply being our modern method of protection. In some parts of the world they are a de facto feature in one’s ensemble.
Owning a mask is one thing, wearing one is another. In Ireland, public health laws have now mandated the wearing of face coverings for customers in shops, shopping centres, libraries, and other enclosed spaces. Non-compliance could result in a fine of up to €2,500 or up to six months imprisonment. As a second-wave of infections sweep across Europe and the virus continues to cripple the American healthcare system, the importance of protection is brought into sharp relief.
Consider Kardashian West and Hilton, with a combined 204.5K followers on Instagram; these women are not just influencers but image-makers. Their legions of followers pay close attention to content published to social media channels. If they can influence followers to engage with product placements and sponsored content with ease, it is likely that careful, consistent encouragement to equip oneself with a face covering would produce fruitful results.
It contrasts with the rise of anti-mask-wearing protests which have become a prominent feature in the discussion surrounding the virus with thousands congregating in the streets from Dublin to Philadelphia to express their discontent towards officials and distrust of science. In Dublin, protestors harassed commuters on the Luas. Across the globe, violent outbursts have been posted to social media.
“With masks, it’s a battle of values. Here we have the values of public health versus the values of personal freedom,” Dr Linda Aldoory, a professor in the Department of Communication and Associate Dean of Research and Programming at the University of Maryland, told the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Perhaps the most high-profile personality to have contested the validity of masks is US President Donald Trump. A celebrity in his own right, he downplayed the implications of the virus and delivered muddled messages about mask-wearing throughout the year. In one scenario, he mocked presidential election competitor Joe Biden for sporting one. In a turn of events, he started wearing one during the summer. Vacillation is only likely to lead to further confusion.
Research points to the benefits of masks. If celebrities, a cohort of the most closely watched individuals in the world, are not wearing face coverings on social media, do they become just as much of an afterthought or an optional accessory to us as they do to themselves?
However, actors like Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, and Reese Witherspoon, amongst a coterie of other influential figures in the creative industries, have taken to social media to highlight the importance of staying safe during the public health crisis. The hashtag #wearamask has garnered over 1.3 million uses on Instagram at the time of writing.
In March 2020, American basketball player Stephen Curry invited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to participate in an Instagram Live session in which they discussed the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and how to participate in the fight against it.
At the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards, singer Lady Gaga used red carpet pageantry to promote mask-wearing. She encouraged her fans to play their part throughout the pandemic, “Stay safe. Speak your mind, and I might sound like a broken record, but wear a mask. It’s a sign of respect,” she said during the show. Such proclamations are necessary to shift a wider cultural perspective, as socio-political cleavages are increasingly bubbling to the fore in light of the handling of the virus outbreak across the world.
The widespread public health emergency shows no signs of slowing down in the Western world with America reaching its highest daily totals in recent weeks. While there are those using their social media to propagate a positive message about the importance of face coverings, like publicising the wearing of masks, only a collective effort can truly have meaning and instill a sense of real change.