The COVID-19 pandemic catapulted face masks into the mainstream consciousness. For the first time, many are confronting the same questions I faced about fashion, protection, and public space.
I started wearing a mask in the fall of 2018 to protect my lungs from pollution and traffic exhaust. I moved to a new neighborhood, commuting by bicycle from my home in an industrial area to work in the center of the city. My route took me through dusty construction sites, under highways, and through city streets, congested with traffic.
This new route was way more intense than my old commute, so for comfort and safety, I amped up my gear. I swapped street clothes for a full cycling kit: padded bib shorts, long sleeve UPF top, and tall socks to protect my ankles. I’ve always worn a helmet, but I added shatterproof glasses to protect my eyes from the rocks, glass, and trash that pummeled my face as I rode through gravel-strewn intersections between city buses and garbage trucks.
With the new gear, I protected my outer bod, but my lungs felt it. I developed a cough, a persistent sore throat, and a hoarse, scratchy Kathleen Turner voice which, to be honest, felt kind of sexy but also alarming. When my raw throat improved on weekends and vacations, it was clear the commute caused tangible damage to my body.
Beyond my anecdotal experience, the data is convincing and scary: traffic fumes can trigger heart attacks. High levels of pollution, including exposure to the pollutant particles and nitrogen dioxide in traffic, can increase the risk of suffering a heart attack for up to six hours after exposure. And there I was, day in and day out, sucking down truck exhaust on my “healthy” bike commute.
I also learned there are masks designed to combat this problem, but remained skeptical: Were they effective? Was I overreacting? Was I confident enough to be the weirdo with the mask? On the one hand, wearing a mask fits my style, particularly my affinity for techwear — a subculture interested in the practical application of technology to meet environmental conditions through garment design. Some of techwear’s major influences are mask-appropriate environments: dystopian speculative fiction like the future dust bowls of Dune, Interstellar, and Mad Max, and the cyberpunk worlds of Syd Mead. There are factions within techwear, and while my style leans futuristic and minimal, I value material performance and design utility over #Techwear, which heavily emphasizes the aesthetic over everything else. It’s a slippery slope from technical apparel for the discerning urban citizen to the “all straps, no substance” Scarlxrd cosplay look. I worried a mask was a step over that line.
In the end, my concern for my health won out over my style snootery. There is limited but promising data about the effectiveness of masks to filter pollution, so I was willing to try. And I looked like a dork on my bike anyway. Padded butt shorts? Yes please! As long as I knew in my heart I wasn’t cosplaying as Melina from Mortal Kombat, I didn’t care. I wanted to get to work without feeling like I’d been vaping pop rocks.
What mask did I choose?
There are different masks available with varying degrees of protection, durability, and purposeful design. After evaluating my options, I landed on the Respro Sportsa because of the interchangeable, replaceable filters and positive reviews of the mask’s comfort for high-intensity activities like cycling. I liked that it’s washable, straps behind my head instead of hooking my ears, and has an adjustable nose piece for a good fit on my lady face. And it comes in black. Also I trust the filters: Respro City filters are charcoal and polypropylene, designed to screen out the chemical pollutant particles resulting from vehicle combustion. TL;DR: it keeps exhaust out of my precious lungs.
What did I learn?
Anecdotally, the mask makes a difference. After two years of consistent wear, I no longer get sore throats and coughing fits when cycling through city traffic. Worn with sunglasses, the mask covers most of my face, so I don’t worry as much about sunscreen mixing with sweat and stinging like hell in my eyes. In the winter, the mask keeps my face toasty and protects it from the wind. I also haven’t swallowed a bug since 2018, which counts for a lot.
As a masked person, I get a lot of attention, though I imagine that will change now. Frequently, I get stopped by a curious driver, a fellow cyclist, or a stranger on the corner. In varying degrees of politeness, they want to know “what the heck is on my face.” Because of the din of traffic, I often have to pull down my mask to explain what I’m wearing and why. They assume it simulates high altitude training (it doesn’t), and lose interest when I say it’s for traffic fumes. Apparently, pollution is boring. In the past, when I’ve ignored these questions, I usually regret it; I don’t love being called a bitch twice a day.
Paradoxically, while the mask draws attention, it also makes me anonymous. Riding through a city street full of angry, texting drivers behind the wheel of 5000 lb missiles, plus the risky business of being a woman in public — a double whammy of vulnerability experienced during cycling while female. Women cyclists report high rates of harassment like grabbing and catcalling, and there’s evidence to support that drivers are more reckless around female cyclists. A mask obscuring my face makes me less obviously female and so a less obvious target for harassment and negligent driving. There are still incidents (see: getting called a bitch for ignoring strangers), but after I started commuting masked, I notice fewer attempts to grab and catcall.
This anonymity makes me feel powerful. It is, in fact, a kind of cosplay: gearing up as a confident, skilled cyclist who can handle whatever the city throws at me. And at this point, it’s part of my kit and routine. On the rare occasions when I ride without the mask, I feel naked.
In these weird times, it’s impossible to predict if we’ll reach for masks along with our keys, wallet, and cellphone when heading out the door. Racism is a problem. There’s hate aimed at Asian-Americans who first wore surgical masks during the COVID-19 outbreak, and people of color often cannot safely wear masks in public. There’s also mask production: clothes have to look good but masks have to work. What are the risks when consumer-grade masks are produced by clothing companies? When brands accustomed to making goods quickly and at the lowest possible price are suddenly responsible for producing items that could mean the difference between life and death? Can fast fashion pull this off? Do we want them to? And would we trust them if they claimed they did? The techwear community typically asks these questions — what matters most? How a garment performs? How it’s made? How it looks?
I am excited by the swift adoption of protective masks. I am hopeful that progressive brands, independent makers, and motivated individuals will take on this new challenge with thoughtful enthusiasm and innovation.
Masks might someday be as ordinary as seatbelts and as stylish as sunglasses. It’s not hard to imagine telling my grandchildren about before we wore masks, the way my mom recounts her childhood sunburns in the years before sunscreen was a thing. It seems like we’re at a turning point in history, where masks are no longer an edgy accessory of an imagined cyberpunk future but a necessary tool for our uncertain reality. Either way, I’m wearing mine.