How Mask Shaming Is Becoming a Public Battle

Dad putting a mask on his son

iStockphoto 

Social media has long been a breeding ground for public shaming and this pandemic is no different. People have politicized everything from stay-at-home orders to mask-wearing and have repeatedly taken to social media to shame one another for differing views. But now as the country begins to open up, the mask shaming has moved from social media to in-person confrontations.

There are those who maintain that wearing masks is infringing upon their civil liberties or that it's not an effective means for preventing the spread of COVID-19. And then there are those who believe masks are beneficial and stop the spread of the virus—and they want to be sure they are following the guidelines of their public health officials and government leaders.

The Origins of This Controversy

Part of the shaming problem stems from the fact that early on in the pandemic, government officials were concerned about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and advised Americans against buying or wearing masks. They even went so far as to say that masks weren’t effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19. 

Of course, with additional research and studies, they have concluded the masks are in fact effective in slowing the spread.

Additionally, it's important to remember is that this is a novel coronavirus—meaning that this virus is so new that scientists, researchers, and public health officials are still learning about what works and what doesn’t not only in treating the virus but also in preventing the spread.

As a result, what these experts thought about masks two months ago has changed as more studies have been conducted. Consequently, it’s important to be flexible in allowing room for new discoveries and developments as experts learn more about how to effectively address this pandemic.

How Mask Wearing Has Evolved in the U.S.

In early April, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Disease, and one of the nation’s top doctors leading the fight against the pandemic departed from the government’s original recommendation that you should only wear a mask if you were caring for someone with the illness or had it yourself. He changed his recommendations and indicated that if everyone wore a mask we'd be doing more to protect one another. 

Not long after that, the Federal Government's coronavirus task force shared national recommendations for Americans to wear non-medical face masks. They also emphasized that the recommendation does not eliminate the need for social distancing. From there state and local governments began developing guidelines for how mask-wearing would be handled in their individual regions.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now encourages mask-wearing whenever you go out in public. Apart from preventing obviously ill people from spreading the virus, these recommendations stem from the fact that many people who are in fact infected present as asymptomatic. Consequently, without a mask, they are highly likely to spread the virus to other people—perhaps even the most vulnerable among us without even knowing it. 

By wearing a mask, they are significantly reducing the chances of spreading COVID-19 to others. Most scientists and medical professionals maintain that to slow the spread of the virus from person to person, it is best to wear a mask in public and maintain a six-foot distance between people.

Today, both disease experts and governments that represent 95% of the world’s population agree with the science that cloth masks are shown to limit the spread of COVID-19 among the general public. What’s more, according to Masks4All, a non-profit devoted to compiling scientific evidence on mask-wearing, more than 100 countries and 14 U.S. states require mandatory mask-wearing.

Additionally, 28 more states have some, slightly more lenient requirements regarding wearing masks. Only eight states do not have any requirements when it comes to masks according to Masks4All. These states include Wisconsin, Kentucky, South Carolina, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. 

Why Mask Shaming Occurs

Mental health professionals indicate that mask shaming has erupted during the pandemic primarily due to the lack of consistent rules, misinformation, and anxiety. This pandemic created a situation that no one could have anticipated, and people need consistent messages about what is expected and why.

Inconsistent Policy

Without a streamlined national policy on wearing masks, people are left to sift through information and draw their own conclusions. And, while the CDC and the Surgeon General both recommend wearing cloth face coverings in public, there is no official requirement to do so.

Instead, most states are making those decisions individually and sometimes inconsistently. This leads many people to gravitate toward information that reinforces their personal beliefs, regardless of whether that information is medically accurate or not. 

So if someone simply doesn't feel like wearing a mask, they might cite resources from earlier in the year that said wearing one won't make much of a difference. It's tough to effectively convince someone that they should be wearing a mask when there aren't enough definitive rules. This is where the shaming impulse comes into play.

Fear

Another motivating factor behind mask shaming is fear. When people are scared or uncertain, they sometimes respond in aggressive ways. It’s a self-defense mechanism that serves to squash their fear and allows them to hide behind a false sense of power.

For people who are afraid of getting COVID-19, they may resort to shaming others online or in public in an attempt to get everyone to take precautions. And for people opposed to mask-wearing, they are shaming other people because of a fear of losing their freedoms or being controlled.

Mask Shaming in Real Life

Now that states are starting to open up their economies and their businesses, the culture war of wearing masks has left the digital realm and spilled over into parking lots and grocery store aisles. Many people are reporting hostile encounters with complete strangers over face coverings. And, it’s happening on both sides of the debate.

Public Conflict

People who are wearing masks are being called fearful or told they are sheep for following the CDC’s guidelines. Meanwhile, people who are not wearing masks—because they choose not to, cannot afford one, or have a condition that prevents them from wearing one—are being insulted as well. They are being called everything from stupid and uneducated to conspiracy theorists and murderers.

To further complicate matters, businesses that require masks just like they require a shirt and shoes, are trying to enforce the new standards often without state backing or police support. As a result, their employees are the ones trying to enforce the new rules and are being ridiculed, assaulted, and sometimes even killed over mask-wearing.

Business Challenges

And some businesses who have developed strong face mask rules are dealing with threats of being boycotted. For instance, the retail giant, Costco, has taken a hard-line and is requiring customers to wear face coverings at its stores nationwide regardless of each individual state’s requirements.

“We know some members may find this inconvenient or objectionable, but under the circumstances, we believe the added safety is worth the inconvenience,” Costco President Craig Jelinek said in a statement. “This is not simply a matter of personal choice; a face-covering protects not just the wearer, but others, too. In short, we believe this is the right thing to do under the current circumstances.”

How You Should Respond

Even though wearing masks in public is becoming commonplace in the United States, it’s still causing deep divisions among people. Yet, mental health experts like Amy Morin, a licensed psychotherapist and author of the New York Times best-selling book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, say that shaming other people isn’t the right way to go about changing people’s opinions or their behaviors.

“Shaming other people often doesn’t produce the results we want it to,” Morin says. In other words, shaming people through a social media post or shaming them in public is not going to produce change—a change comes from having a respectful dialogue.

Likewise, Morin says that whether people are wearing a mask or not, it’s important to remember that unless you have a close relationship with the person, you don’t know their story. So, making assumptions about them—and shaming them—without knowing the full story is unfair.

For instance, Morin says some people may not be able to wear face coverings because of a mental health issue like having claustrophobia, a panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even people who have had a traumatic experience like being abused or raped may have trouble covering their faces.

Likewise, people who are wearing masks should not be judged either. Aside from abiding by CDC guidelines, there could be any number of reasons why they may be wearing a mask. For instance, a college student may wear a mask in order to protect her elderly parents at home. Or, a mom could wear a mask in public because she has a son with cancer. 

Some people wear masks simply because their state or employer requires it and they feel it is the moral and responsible thing to do. Whatever the case, “Most people, if they knew the full story behind why someone is wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, would not be so quick to judge or to shame others,” Morin says.

Responding to People Who Shame You for Wearing a Mask

Before mask-wearing became a recommendation—and a requirement in some states—people assumed that if someone was wearing a mask, that they were sick with COVID-19. Some of that questioning still lingers a little in the back of people's minds.

Additionally, some people are so sure that the coronavirus is not an issue, that they find it laughable that people are even bothering with masks. Consequently, they can be downright mean in response.

Morin suggests dealing with these people by ignoring their hurtful words and comments. "It also might help to develop a mantra that you repeat to yourself anytime someone says something rude or insensitive. Then, remind yourself why you're wearing a mask," she says. "You could even write it down and stick it in your pocket as a reminder."

You could also come up with a generic response that you repeat when people make a snide remark. "Remember though, it's not your job to educate people," she says. "Just go about your business and if you can move away from the person."

If the shaming occurs on social media, Morin suggests finding the mute button. "It's OK to unfollow or unfriend people. You want to follow people that make you feel good about who you are."

Interacting With People Who Refuse to Wear Masks

While it's never a good idea to engage aggressively with a complete stranger over a volatile topic, it is OK to defend yourself if someone infringes on your rights or puts you at risk.

For instance, if someone is not wearing a mask and is infringing on your personal space, it's perfectly acceptable to ask them to respect the six-foot guideline of social distancing. And, if you're not comfortable confronting them, remove yourself from the situation.

Regardless of where you stand on the mask-wearing debate, it’s important to remember that not only does the CDC recommend that people wear cloth face masks in public, but there is plenty of scientific evidence to support this recommendation. When you wear a mask, you are not only protecting yourself but more importantly, you are protecting others.

A Word From Verywell

No matter where you stand on the mask-wearing debate, it’s important to follow the guidelines of the area in which you live. Likewise, be respectful of the businesses you frequent and abide by their guidelines. 

And remember, shaming others does nothing but hurt other people. In order to change someone’s opinion, you need to first have a relationship built on trust and the time to have a meaningful and respectful conversation. You are not going to change someone’s opinion with a social media post.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. CDC. Recommendation regarding the use of cloth face coverings, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Updated April 3, 2020.

  2. PBS. What Dr. Fauci wants you to know about face masks and staying home as virus spreads. Updated April 3, 2020.

  3. Masks4All. What U.S. states require maks in public?. Updated May 30, 2020.

  4. AP News. 3 charged in killing of store security guard over virus mask. Updated May 4, 2020.

  5. Costco. Coronavirus update.