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The duality of masks

It all started late last October.

I’m still not quite sure why, but on the morning of Oct. 26, 2020, I woke up with both of my eyes swollen shut. When I managed to get them open, I could see that my whole face was much of the same — red, patchy, swelling and altogether pretty disgusting. The doctor at the clinic thought it might be an allergic reaction, and my doctor back home was sure it was just my eczema (a skin condition with which I’ve struggled my whole life).

No one knew for certain, though. And no medicines seemed to be helping. 

For the past three months, through the end of the semester and all throughout J-term, I woke up to my own swollen, painful face in the mirror every day. Some days, I couldn’t even open my eyes or move my mouth without it hurting or worse — bleeding. People would wince looking at my face, but I was unable to even wince at myself.

To put it mildly, it was a rough time for me.

I, however, was lucky — lucky that this happened when it did, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That might not sound like fun, and it certainly wasn’t; going into doctors’ offices so often during a pandemic, especially for a non-pandemic-related issue, was absolutely terrifying. But for someone as self-conscious as myself, the masks in particular have been nothing short of a blessing during this time for me.

Though most people have been wearing masks for the sole objective of protecting themselves from catching the COVID-19 virus, for me, these homemade contraptions of cloth and filters have served a dual purpose. 

Whereas my friends and family removed their masks when we were outside and walking by ourselves or as soon as we got into the safety of our own car after a masked-up and socially distanced event, I always kept mine on. And not to protect myself from the virus amongst the people within my “COVID bubble.” 

Not only were the masks comfortable on my painful face, like a Band-Aid over a cut on your finger to stop the stinging, but they also made me feel better mentally. Like I didn’t have to worry about people staring at me, because they wouldn’t. 

All they would see, if they looked, was the mask.

Even better, my mother had worked tirelessly all throughout the quarantine summer and our winter break to create vibrant masks with fun patterns and colors. For someone like me, who particularly enjoys expressing myself through makeup and accessories, they were perfect when I could no longer wear eyeliner or earrings due to my inflamed skin. 

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There is nothing like a bright red-and-yellow-striped mask to cheer you up on a miserably painful day.

Now, thankfully, I’ve finally started to get better after three months of this pain. My doctors seem to have figured out the problem, and at long last, I’m being treated for it. My skin is already healing, my face is no longer so swollen or so red, and I was able to wear mascara this past week for the first time in three months. 

But I will still forever be grateful for the mask. After all, what if my eczema flares up horribly again? What would I do without the patterned cloth to distract from my face?

In a non-COVID world, I would just have to deal with it and walk out in public with all of my facial skin problems on full display. I would have to answer pestering questions and explain that, no, it’s not contagious. I would have to look away from people who stare, because let’s be honest, some people can’t help but stare at anything or anyone even slightly different.

For today, at least, I have my masks. I can express myself through them just as though they were my brightly-colored lipsticks and eyeliners. 

This is not to say that masks aren’t important as health equipment — in fact, that should be their main purpose. (Please wear your masks.) But to me, they are also a help to my self-esteem and something that I personally enjoy wearing.

Masks are not just something to keep COVID-19 away, for me. They are also something I will forever love for helping me when I was struggling. And while I hope that someday we are able to walk around maskless, without the worry of COVID-19, I am also glad to have had them now.