What We Miss When We’re Masked

There’s a reason people say “It’s so good to see your face!” and not “It’s so good to see your elbows!”

composite of a face
Patrick Zachmann / Christopher Anderson / Magnum / The Atlantic

A few months into the coronavirus pandemic, I started seeing a new physical therapist for my cranky back. His name is Matt. Matt wears khaki pants and favors quasi-athletic, cushioned loafers. He loves football. His grandfather was an accomplished cellist. He and his wife have a new baby daughter, and their toddler, a spirited girl with red hair just like her dad’s, is having a little trouble adjusting to the new member of their family, but they’re all hanging in there. I can tell you all this, but I might not be able to pick Matt’s face out of a photo lineup, because I’ve never seen more than his eyes and forehead. He probably wouldn’t recognize a picture of me either; we’ve both been masked for the entirety of our acquaintance.

With the exception of my immediate family, when I see people these days, I see only the slice of face between their hairline and the bridge of their nose. I miss seeing people’s faces. Their whole faces. I miss seeing mouths twisted sideways in indecision, teeth bared in silly grins, upper lips curled in confusion, pouting lower lips, wrinkled noses, clenched jaws, all of it.

Many socially distanced citizens the world over now understand the concept of skin hunger, the mental and physical malaise that comes from going too long without being touched. Personally, I’m not experiencing that kind of sensory deprivation. In addition to getting manhandled at physical therapy every week, I get plenty of incidental touch during a typical day living with my husband, two children, and two dogs. As I’m typing on this 75-degree Tennessee afternoon, a hot beagle lies wedged between my lower back and my chair cushion, snoring.

But what about face hunger? English has a word for something similar: Pareidolia means seeing familiar shapes in unfamiliar objects, including seeing faces where none exist. That’s what happens when you look at a cloud and see a cherub-cheeked smile, or when you spy Jesus in your toast. It’s why I imagine my car’s front grill and headlights are grinning at me. Our brains interpret lines, curves, and shadows as faces so often because they’re constantly scanning for meaning, and faces mean a lot to us humans.

Masked life feels strange, and not just because of the constant low-grade smothering sensation. Every few weeks, I pop into the local bookstore to sign orders of my books. The staff members are my friends—I used to work there, in fact—and I know their faces well. Since the spring, our visits have been different. I stand at a table across the room from them—all of us wearing masks—wielding my Sharpie and stacking my books myself instead of passing them to a bookseller. I enjoy catching up on the employees’ lives and how business is going, muffled as our exchanges may be, but on my most recent visit it occurred to me how bizarre it is that I haven’t seen the bottom half of any of their faces since March. I never realized how much I would miss seeing people’s mouths move when they speak, how much I took it for granted before.

Research has shown that a lack of face-to-face social contact can increase your risk of depression. By this point in the year, my family normally would have taken several overnight trips to see my parents, who are in their 70s and live one state over, in Georgia. While I know our choice to stay away protects them, I also miss them terribly and worry about how long they’ve gone without seeing family. Over the summer, we got in the car and drove six hours just to stand on their front porch and catch up with them from two arms’ lengths away. While I loved our masks for keeping us all safe and allowing my parents and their grandkids to have a conversation in the same place, I also wanted to rip off those barriers to my loved ones’ faces.

Seeing family and friends’ faces virtually on FaceTime is far better than nothing, but I’d rather see their living, breathing faces in real time. Like a lot of people, I have a case of screen fatigue. My eyes are tired of two-dimensional digital approximations of people, and Zoom meetings often feel like group staring contests. Paradoxically, the technology that purports to bring us closer also flattens our likenesses and drains them of life.

There’s a reason people say “It’s so good to see your face!” and not “It’s so good to see your elbows!” As poets had been writing about for centuries before Charles Darwin wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, faces showcase our feelings and personalities. If you’ve grown up in a culture where faces go uncovered in public, suddenly covering them can pose a challenge to reading people. While my kids’ school did open back up for modified in-person classes, all students and staff wear masks on campus, which means that my daughter, a brand-new ninth grader, has been learning the faces of new friends by their eyes alone. I remember how she learned my face as a baby, staring up at me while she nursed, occasionally lifting an arm and hooking her tiny fingers onto my chin, and I wonder how her first impressions of her schoolmates—and theirs of her—might be affected by receiving less than a full face of input.

Our brains are wired to detect faces. I suspect that’s why I have unexpectedly come to love the magnifying mirror in my bathroom, an “amenity” I swore until recently I would never own. But after four decades of reliable eyesight, my perfect vision evaporated. My friends had warned me that middle age would bring farsightedness, but I had no idea it could happen seemingly overnight. One day, I could read the tiniest text in any book just fine; the next, I couldn’t decipher the ingredients in a recipe or the instructions on a pill bottle. For weeks, I tried to train my eyes to do more with less. Then I learned the hard way that the tube of zit cream and the travel-size tube of zesty mint toothpaste are the same size and shape. I finally caved. I bought a pair of fuchsia-framed reading glasses at the drugstore, and I installed a makeup mirror on a stainless-steel arm over my bathroom sink.

I used to consider magnifying mirrors the height of narcissism, for selfie addicts hooked on micromanaging their complexion. Now I realize that using one feels nothing like snapping a self-portrait. No one’s watching me, for one thing. When I look at my face up close, I am neither admiring nor judging myself. I am observing myself, in a sort of intimate, visual conversation. I notice how my reflection has changed since I last looked at it. I can see broken capillaries I didn’t know were there before, a spray of pink stars across my cheek. I have two new freckles at the edge of my mouth, disrupting the line where my lip fades into my skin. Having not observed my countenance this closely in, well, forever, I am meeting it as if it were the face of a new friend. At a time when we have lost the ability to get close to our friends, there’s something oddly comforting about at least being able to get close to ourselves. The mirror serves as a kind of crutch.

I didn’t time my blurry vision to coincide with our current era of face deprivation. It just happened that way. But my longing for faces makes me greet my own with extra interest and kindness. It feels good to see and be seen in return—always, but especially when separated from the rest of humanity. We need to lay eyes on one another just like we need to lay hands on one another. Being unable to do so creates a particular kind of yearning, even grief. Say what you will about the ending of Cast Away; to me, the saddest scene in the movie comes when Wilson the volleyball floats away, leaving Tom Hanks sobbing for his friend with the face made from a handprint.

Who knows when it will be safe to bare all our facial features to the world again? Until then, I continue to look more closely at not just my own face but other people’s faces, even masked. From six feet away, I zero in on what the mask doesn’t cover—the color of eyelashes, the curve of earlobes. I see details, pores, tiny pulsing movements, all telegraphing the truth that we are each so strong, so delicate, so singular. You can see it if you really look: We are all so alive.