Mr. President, when did protecting others become unmanly?

Mr. President, when did protecting others become unmanly?
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It was quite an image: After three nights’ hospitalization for COVID-19 at Walter Reed — having been treated with multiple therapeutic cocktails unavailable to the everyday American — the president walked unassisted from his helicopter up a few steps to the White House balcony. There, he ceremoniously removed his mask, took a couple of labored breaths and, with a stern, almost scowling expression, gave a thumbs up.

His message? Presumably, that he’d bested COVID-19, even though he wasn’t clearly “out of the woods.” And, virus be damned, that he wasn’t going to be wearing a mask.

Of course, Trump’s adversity to masks didn’t begin on the White House balcony last week. In April, the president remarked, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”


In mid-July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made clear that “cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus,” but the president continued to signal he wasn’t convinced. In August he opined, “Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just good. Maybe they’re not so good.” And, at the debate on Sept. 29, mocking the size of Joe BidenJoe BidenRev. Barber says best way to undercut extremism is with honesty Biden requires international travelers to quarantine upon arrival to US Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 MORE’s mask (“the biggest I’ve ever seen”), he made clear, “I don’t wear masks like him.”

Many of Trump’s supporters have taken their cue from him, defying state-wide mandates and “mask-only” restrictions in stores and restaurants. Especially men.

What’s going on here? While some decry mask-wearing as invasive governmental infringement on their personal liberty, there seems to be another over-arching driver of those who embrace anti-mask animus: the conviction that it’s unmanly.

Multiple studies point in this direction. For example, research by Peter Glick, a senior scientist at the NeuroLeadership Institute highlights “one critical reason” for the reluctance to model safe behavior, which is that “appearing to play it safe contradicts a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness.”  

Similar research by Middlesex University and Berkeley’s Mathematical Science and Research Institute found that men are less likely than women to wear face masks in public, and are more likely to agree that wearing one is “shameful, not cool, a sign of weakness and a stigma.”


Meanwhile, there are cheerleaders aplenty for the masks-equal-unmanliness camp.

Rush Limbaugh, to whom Trump awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, called masks “a symbol of fear.” David Marcus, The Federalist’s New York correspondent, opined that the image of Trump wearing a mask while performing his duties “would be a searing image of weakness,” signaling a country so powerless “that even its president must cower behind a mask.” And, in response to a video image of Biden donning a mask, while Trump removed his, Fox Nation host Tomi LahrenTomi LahrenGolf legend Jack Nicklaus, former NFL star Jay Cutler endorse Trump 50 Cent calls on followers to vote for Trump citing Biden tax rate plan Mr. President, when did protecting others become unmanly? MORE tweeted: “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.”

Not ones to be caught dead — so to speak — with a purse, the president and countless numbers of his followers eschew the wearing of masks. That behavior, as COVID-19’s recent carnage at the White House attests, has consequences.

But what’s particularly ironic — and tragic — about all the mask push-back is the all-too-common misconception about what cloth face coverings are actually for. While they might provide some protection to the wearer, their principal purpose, as described by the CDC, is to "slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others." In other words, by preventing large respiratory droplets that might contain the virus from landing on people nearby, masks primarily protect not the wearer, but other people. 

So, wearing a mask is not about being fearful that you, the wearer, will get sick. It’s about showing others that you care about not getting them sick. In other words, it’s about protecting them, and not yourself.  

Under any interpretation of manliness, how is that not manly? And how is that not the kind of manliness every president should model?

Michael Felsen left federal service after 39 years as an attorney with the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of the Solicitor, concluding his career as New England regional solicitor from 2010-2018. His office was charged with enforcing federal worker protection laws, including The Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.