I’ve told this anecdote many times before, but it bears repeating at this time of pandemic and interest in public health. I never truly realized how bad men were at washing their hands until I was first asked to judge cheese. The men’s room at that hotel bathroom in Vermont was the first time I ever had to wait in line –not for the toilet –but to wash my hands. At an event filled with dairy scientists and food handlers, no one was skipping the sink and no one was just dribbling a little water on their hands and walking out. At a full twenty second minimum hand wash per person — most people were even more thorough — it was clear that bathroom architects do not expect everyone to wash their hands when they figure out stall to sink ratios. There was no place to wait!
I looked into this after I left the conference and, sure enough, it was actually a fairly well established observation that men wash their hands far less than women (different observational studies seems to mark the difference between 15-34%).
Why the difference? Undoubtedly there are many factors related to the way society socializes people and, you know, the patriarchy, but the study of cheese lead me to this historical tidbit… The late 1800s – at the time when best practices, including hygiene, was making larger scale production of cheese possible – was a time when public health was pushing women to take responsibility for family health by using the newest hygiene theories.
“Women were always at the center of hygiene improvement efforts. The public health workers who went to tenements and farms to preach this “gospel of germs” as visiting nurses, social workers, and home economists were often women. And under this new way of thinking, mothers were supposed to be the role models for the entire family—teaching hand-washing, stopping men from spitting in the house, and keeping anyone from kissing their babies.” (This info is likely drawn from Nancy Tomes book The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life)
Why am I mentioning this now? Because of the gender gap I am anecdotally observing in mask wearing (and the incredibly dumb “idea” that being required to wear a face covering* is somehow a violation of “freedom,” a show of weakness, or even, LOL, unconstitutional.) I’ve asked around and others are seeing the same thing: of the unmasked people in public places, probably 70-80% are men. Many friends observed heterosexual couples where women wore face coverings and men didn’t. In the grace period before we made masks mandatory at the store I would say it was 90% men that I had to tell that they needed to wear a covering the next time they shopped. When you consider that, traditionally, more women than men do grocery shopping, it’s even more striking.
So when men, including elected officials, refuse to wear face coverings, what is it about? It’s hard to remember sometimes that taking precautions is a sign of weakness for some people. It’s even more baffling when you remember that face coverings are primarily meant to protect others, not yourself (medical professional-quality level aside).
And a lot of this public refusal to wear a face covering though is just straight up posturing and bullying. I feel the twinge when I see dudes in the store or the street looking at me with challenge when I am wearing a mask and they are not. I know they are, intentionally or not, giving me the look where I should question my strength, my opinions and, most of all, whether or not I am a “real man.” It’s all so pathetic yet it’s a well-worn path. I know how I am supposed to react – act tough, stifle emotions, dumb-down – but luckily I’m 52. I don’t really let this kind of stuff affect me any more. But, if I am being honest like I am asking you to be, it still takes some effort to tamp down that urge to conform. Not nearly as much as when I was 18, but it takes a moment to identify and dismiss the bullshit. But that’s what we need to do.
There can be absolutely legitimate disagreements about health and safety policies and protocols –including when to wear a face covering — but there is an active element trying to dumb you down and make you feel that things like mutual aid and empathy for others is not only unobtainable but undesirable. Don’t fall for it.
*As I was finishing writing this, this academic study came out which includes data gathering of gendered responses to COVID-19. Check it out:
“Finally, we also find gender differences in self-reported negative emotions felt when wearing a face covering. Men more than women agree that wearing a face covering is shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness, and a stigma; and these gender differences also mediate gender differences in intentions to wear a face covering.”