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Baby got mask: The allure of the masked-up stranger

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Maskandattraction

I am the type of person who finds their could-be soulmate almost every day. The skater boys practicing their kickflips in Red Square; the talkative clerk bagging my groceries at QFC; the fluffy-haired angel with glasses sitting in the fifth row in my Kane Hall lecture. 

I’m not proud of it, but my ability to see an attractive person and develop a mental picture of us growing old together is unmatched. In the time it takes me to convince myself this guy is the one, he hasn’t even noticed me, let alone thought about what our kids’ names will be. 

It will come as no surprise, then, that this past fall, I was more than eager to get back to campus where I could be surrounded by potential mates my age. 

But something seemed off. Not only were there large amounts of masked-up boys roaming around campus and the dining halls, they were all attractive. My hopeless romantic of a brain started finding husbands every time I laid eyes on a new boy, instead of the usual once-a-day cycle.

Was this because of the mystery of a half-covered face, or was it just quarantine horniness?

While social distancing may be having an impact on our newfound attraction to strangers, new research points to the masks. 

A 2020 study by researchers from Temple University and University of Pennsylvania found that people are judged to be more attractive when wearing face masks. 

Specifically, 100% of the people who were deemed “unattractive” when bare-faced were rated significantly higher after putting on a face mask. 

Study participants were shown photographs of 60 faces with and without surgical masks and asked to rate the attractiveness of each face. Participants were first shown pictures of people without masks and then pictures of people with masks.

The largest percent improvement was among the group of faces originally designated as unattractive without masks. Those in the unattractive group had an approximately 42% increase in ratings of attractiveness. 

Some students are echoing these findings.

“I call it optical illusion, because the only facial feature I am able to see is the eyes, and that's what’s making them attractive,” Ching Chiu said. “In this case beauty IS the eye of the beholder.”

Chiu hypothesizes that people seem more attractive because a major portion of their face is blocked by the mask, leaving only their eyes and hair. 

“I don't think anyone could have ‘unattractive’ eyes,” she said. 

Prior research has shown that reduced visual input — such as images of faces that are blurry, reduced in contrast, or half-covered —  increases perceived attractiveness. While not specifically using masks, half-covered faces were ranked as far more attractive than fully visible faces, exemplifying the phrase that “less is more.” 

And while face masks appear to be helping people out in the looks department, they’re also helping as originally intended. A meta-analysis of 172 studies found that face masks could greatly reduce risk of infection, and another study showed that face covering mandates were associated with a decline in the daily COVID-19 growth rate. 

It’s this very success that makes mask-wearing so attractive. 

“I get very uncomfortable around people using minimal or less effective face coverings because it shows that they do not care about the others and they only care about themselves,” Yeji Sohn said. “There are celebrities I used to find attractive, but now I just find them frustrating and no longer attractive because they refuse to wear a proper mask.”

Chiu agrees.

“People wearing masks that [are] not considered effective are not attractive to me,” Chiu said. “I think the standard surgical mask everyone wears and the reusable mask, like the cloth ones, are the two masks that make people more attractive compared to bandanas and such.” 

Not all masks are created equal, as Sohn and Chiu point out. 

This skepticism toward bandana and gaiter-wearers is likely spurred by and fueling the hot debate around their efficacy in stopping the spread of coronavirus. 

And for some, wearing a mask is a way to satisfy mandates rather than for personal protection.

Men have been shown to negatively see mask-wearing as a “sign of weakness." A survey by the sexual wellness brand Royal may change that, though, as 88% of adult women in the United States reported finding men who wear face masks “sexier” than those who do not. 

Face masks are putting in overtime, as they do double-duty. So why not protect yourself and those around you while also looking hot? In the meantime, I’ll be simping — from a social distance — over the group of boys wearing masks as they play spike ball on Denny Field. 

Reach writer Hannah Sheil at specials@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @thehannahsheil

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