Unmasking the Fashion of Masks | Covid-19

It has been over a month of lockdown in Thailand, and yesterday marked the cautious resumption of some businesses and re-opening of local parks. Though the number of new Covid-19 cases each day have dwindled down to single digits, looking towards a post-pandemic society still feels wearily distant, and the uncertainty will most certainly pollute our minds for much longer after that. I somehow fantastically managed to acquire runner’s knee during my 14-day quarantine (in my room, may I add), but it meant a rare opportunity to leave the house and explore Bangkok’s streets from the car window. Indeed, there is no doubt Covid-19 has transformed the way the world looks, and yet, much has remained the same. The local coconut shop has stayed open, supermarket queues trail all the way to the frozen section, Bangkok road rage is still a thing, and the nation’s addictive usage of Line has only increasingly stoked Thai people’s notorious social insecurities the more isolated we have to be (more from where that came from). Yes, the tourist traps are eerily empty and you’ll see the oddly heartwarming sight of Grab delivery motorcyclists making smalltalk in-store, but the biggest visual change? That would have to be the masks.

…a common site in many gardens here…

Masks everywhere, on everyone. Devoid of smiles, an abundance of expression. And as with any wearable item humans deem fit or have to tolerate, I’ve watched the inevitable emergence of something from the humble breath-catcher: fashion.

Masks now boast extensive diversity — from rugged motorcyclists adorning cartoon animal masks, to AirPod-wearing users boasting sophisticated minimalist designs that flatteringly pronounce their jawline, to young girls prancing around in pastel-coloured flower masks. (Also, what is it with so many people still not wearing a mask properly? I swear if you cross paths with me and I can see your nose I will not hesitate to SPRAY BOTH YOUR EYES WITH ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL, VERY LIBERALLY)

Mask-wearing isn’t a new practice in Asia, and since masks do claim dibs on a fair share of our face, the demand for more aesthetically appealing designs is pretty reasonable. However, I can imagine that masks becoming a mainstay item in the foreseeable future in Western cultures is an unfamiliar and radically different practice. It’ll become a “popular accessory” — and though I feel a bit uncomfortable about using that phrase in the wake of Covid-19’s devastating destruction, there is no dying that the demand for masks is more than just its efficacy.

Here’s a quick story. One time during residential back in Year 6, a classmate gasped when she saw me, and proceeded to exclaim in front of the entire year: “Oh my gosh I can’t believe you’re wearing patterned shorts with a patterned shirt! Everybody knows that’s wrong!”

People sniggered at me. I guess I was meant to be embarrassed, but alas, you can’t really care about something you put zero thought into. Plus, looking back, that statement definitely does not seem like something your average 11-year-old would say, but hey-ho. Not to brag but present-day me now harbours some fashion sense — you know, the fantastic clothes that’ll make you win “Best Dressed Delegate” at yet another overseas MUN conference (I’ve never won), all-black attire for concerts and performances that specifically have no shoulder restrictions (!!! very important !!!), and the increasingly popular all-in-one “Clerk @ 5, Club @ 11” outfit.

…sigh. Help me catch some of that pitiful despair, now would you?

Point being, despite my disturbingly limited sense of style, I do know that fashion is all about fitting in and standing out. It is an outlet of self-expression and personal value; a snapshot statement of individuality. Like wearing a poppy badge for Remembrance Day or adorning NHS rainbow badges on your lanyard, wearing a mask is not just about being the right thing to do but also being seen doing it. “Hello, it is I, pledging my allegiance to citizenship, and you should too.” The self-consciousness of mask-wearing has flipped its polarity from the embarrassment of wearing one to the embarrassment of an exposed chin.

At first I thought, great. Of course the characteristic nature of people is to extrapolate the phrase “high-in-demand” plastered all over the news as “a trendy opportunity”, a way to ride out this viral storm whilst desperately trying to stay relevant, stand out, look cool, versus the stark kind of desperate call from frontline workers for surgical masks and N-95s to simply feel a bit safer; aren’t fashionable masks a mockery, expressing sympathy for those at high-risk to our followers on Twitter from the comfort of our couch, basking in the affordable luxury to wring out the celebrity angle of this “popular” item?

But after much thought and mildly frustrated confusion, I’ve concluded this: 仕様がない. Just, 仕様がない*. Because yes, it is indeed the typical fashion of humans to take advantage of a situation, but lets at least put the “fun” in functional, because life goes on. There’s no denying the age of coronavirus is indeed dire, and the stats are more than horrendous; one can complain that ordinary people wearing fancy designer masks are not taking the situation seriously, but maybe those same people are simply getting on with life’s new normal. Don’t get me wrong, I find it digusting that some ‘social influencers’ and ‘celebrities’ purposefully exploit their audience with hiked prices for less-than-mediocire quality (that’s a whole other topic in itself) — all I ask is that if you’re going to make masks, you better do your homework, do it right, and if you will, sell it reasonably. And if we scoot past that, regardless of whatever intention you may have in mask-wearing, at least it still sends a very clear message of hygiene and safety to both yourself and everybody around you.

So if it is a coping mechanism for your feelings of helplessness to post numerous #maskies, so be it. If your post-pandemic routine before leaving the house becomes “Keys, wallet, phone, mask”, then you proudly whack on that (questionable) plague doctor bird mask, you do you. As long as they’re CDC-approved and not useless self-proclaimed “PPE” (looking at you, Boohoo), I think a little bit of colour is exactly what we need. Don’t you think?

©TMK

Music: “Stand Out Fit In” by ONE OK ROCK

*A Japanese phrase that basically means “can’t be helped” with all sorts of nuances (at least, that’s how I’ve interpreted it from living in Japan for a while!).

Sorry, Not Sorry | Covid-19

“So, this next consultation will also be done via phone.” Keyboard clacking sounds ensue. Then, “Even I have a 1 in 40 chance of dying.”

I’m mid-sentence making notes: “SCLC — paraneoplastic, LEMS, 40 dying–” Wait, that’s not what I was supposed to write down and wait what did she just say?

It’s March 12th, 2020: a bizarre Thursday with flip-flop weather that switched at a simple glance and the majority of this lung cancer clinic list being done over telephone. The respiratory consultant — a short-haired lady whose mind, I observed, had a certain zippiness that can knock you out for a second — had had her iPhone propped up behind the keyboard since I walked in. She was constantly refreshing worldometer’s Covid-19 statistics, fervently attending to every blaring BBC notification sound, and relapsing into solitary moments of a sighing & head-shaking combo as she checked the respiratory doctors’ WhatsApp group chat.

It was the first thing I asked about; of course it was. I’d walked in already on edge about this Covid-19 situation. I wasn’t feeling anxious up until two weeks beforehand — not when I couldn’t find hand sanitiser in Boots for the third weekend in a row; not when there were rumours swirling around about two confirmed and one suspected case in the trust I was practicing in. Maybe I didn’t want to admit that I had my doubts about not taking this seriously, but heck, I was still scoffing with friends in car-rides about how this was “just the flu 2.0”. It stemmed from this borderline prideful thinking that as future doctors, we have a duty and responsibility to prevent the spread of panic — but in retrospect, the horrendous cost we’re dealing with now is probably caused in part by that excessive downplaying attitude.

Perhaps it hit me hard after realising this wasn’t a blip — that this situation was not wavering. It was a consistent regression from what we knew and what would happen in the form of my Mum sending Line messages everyday in our family group chat (“Buy hand gel” “Keep some in stock” “Wear mask, take from hospital” “Buy Dettol”), a simple search for antiseptic spray and alcoholics wipes for electronic devices on Amazon Prime yielding “Out of stock” messages, the empty aisles of tissue paper and dried pasta — but most importantly, it was how light-heartedly everybody around me was taking it and laughing at those who were anxious. Thus, after much internal resistance, the palatable sense of worry suddenly got through to me because clearly, I wasn’t the only one worried if there were all the stock issues going on.

My concentration fluctuated drastically in the last two weeks before being shuttled off. I still risked clerking patients in the respiratory ward despite it being closed off due to a norovirus outbreak, brilliantly left my water bottle in one of the infected bays, put a cannula dressing on the wrong way in front of a consultant, lost a page filled with haematology notes somewhere in ED. Yeah, I was a bit of a mess — so, I made it a point to get into any respiratory clinic before the weekend, so at least I could hear what an expert in the field had to say. Luckily I was on a respiratory rotation.

“How worried should I be?” I remember asking. “Because I am, but people around me aren’t. So I don’t know if I should be.”

I remember her abruptly swivelling on her chair and looking directly at me. When unquestionable resolute, she replied, “You should be”, before turning back.

The entire clinic was a lot of her abruptly stopping to check something Covid-19-related and me immediately prompting her about it. I’d ask a Covid-19 question out of the blue that would’ve probably been deemed inappropriate manners in another setting, but she always answered without hesitation. After internally battling the two ends of putting on a face for my family to not worry, to getting my own worries immediately deflected by my colleagues, talking to her was…nice. Mildly cathartic, even.

As a sort of final assessment of how serious she felt about Covid 19, I remember saying, “Well, I guess I’ll be canceling my meeting at the library this weekend, do online grocery shopping, and freeze my gym membership.” At this point I wasn’t even sure I’d do those things. But her reaction: an approving nod, and a simple “That sounds very reasonable.”

That sort of cinched it for me, and I felt oddly lighter. It was a huge, ironic relief to meet somebody who felt as anxious (albeit much more knowledgeable and sensible), even more so as a freakin’ respiratory consultant. I felt I could justifiably worry.

Besides the racist floodgates that this pandemic has outrageously opened, looking back, it was a massive conflict in attitude. Me, at the beginning of February, thinking how ridiculous it was to buy a box of masks to send back to my family in Bangkok as per my Mum’s order, embarrassed to see predominantly Asians wearing masks on the street, and healthcare professionals laughing about how this was being blown out of proportion. Then me, experiencing a sudden turn in tide at the end of February, being scoffed at for sanitising my tuff box and my stethoscope, berated at when telling colleagues to “At least wear a mask if you’re coughing”, and being told repeatedly that I’m worrying way too much as people rolled their eyes at me. “Stop contributing to the panic, I’m not going to wear a mask, they don’t even help” to “We’re gonna be fine if we get it anyway, whatever” were common things being said.

It was hard to predict what was going to happen. Fast-forward to present day, numbers have sky-rocketed unbelievably high, healthcare systems are more than exhausted worldwide, and PPE is horrifyingly running out. No one had any way of knowing.

But, why wait? It was unnerving to see my surrounding colleagues blissfully at ease with everything as if life was completely fine, because that was what I was like before my wall ‘crumbled’. It was more unnerving that even after we were told to permanently go home and an official statement was made by Boris Johnson, some people were still going to concerts, clubbing, and traveling for the weekend, like “Oh, maybe I can catch the tail-end of the last bits of freedom”. On a more personal level, I was stunned that yet again, we were all medical students — but hey, we’re all human in the end.

I wholeheartedly agree that panic is bad, and like I said, we had no way of knowing how bad it’d be — but at that point, after a couple serious official statements were made, surely it’d be a bit daft to think you could go on with life normally. Okay, so wait until you get symptoms before deciding to self-isolate. Wait and hold out against wearing a mask because they’re not even that effective until WHO officially says you must. Wait until the number of deaths creeps up until you decide social isolation is convenient for you. But why should we sit tight twiddling fingers until an official statement is released, at which point, things are usually pretty dire?

This conflict in attitude is what made me question myself in those last two weeks. That because I was acting and worrying on my own accord, I was in the wrong. Medical school hasn’t said anything. The news hasn’t said anything about a mask. ScIeNcE hasn’t told me what to do yet!11!! I was using the “but we are medical students!” reasoning both ways — a duty to not spread panic? Yeah, but a duty to prevent the worst-case scenario is just as important. A tricky balance.

That’s something I’ll remember if there is another pandemic of sorts — it’s okay to sensibly worry. You’ll know you crossed the line if you start gulping down Dettol.

©TMK

Vibrators | Time Capsule Log 💊

I just came back from the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies titled “Globalized Thailand? Connectivity, Conflict, and Conundrums of Thai Studies” in Chiang Mai – my amazing sister presented her LSE dissertation, Thai Youth Sexual Culture: Exploring Representations of Gender and Sexuality in the Thai Controversial Series, Hormones (2013).” If you’d like to read the masterpiece, here’s the link (scroll down to Tammarin Dejsupa and press that PDF logo); there were way too many intelligent words coming out of her mouth, and needless to say, I was immensely proud, but also very confused…

The panel was on sexuality, media & commercialisation – and so, to kind of continue on a similar theme, I decided to dedicate this time capsule log to that by writing about…vibrators.

•••••

There’s a tale that goes Egyptian Queen Cleopatra invented the vibrator; she supposedly had the idea to fill a hollow gourd with angry bees, and the violent buzzing caused the gourd to vibrate…and the rest is history. Or is it?

If you do a quick Google search on the history of vibrators, many will state it was invented by Victorian doctors as a prescribed “pelvic massage” treatment for patients with hysteria to induce “hysterical paroxysm” (read: orgasm) because the medical professionals back then complained about the manual labour being tiresome. It’s a great conversational story, huh? Imagine breaking the ice with “Hey! Did you know, the vibrator was invented to treat women with hysteria because Victorian doctors got tired of manually stimulating them?” And then there’d be shared boisterous laughter, suggestive nudges and comments like “Ugh, tell me about it!”

hysterical.png
Source

The story makes the Victorians sound reserved, that they were oblivious to the art of self-pleasure and never saw pelvic massage as anything other than medicinal. And until the 20th century, it was even more so believed women did not experience sexual desire; to be a lady was to lack sex drive, with a duty to put up with their husband’s sexual needs. It would feed directly into the stereotypical connotations I’m sure most of you have about the Victorians – the whole high prudery attitude resulting in shrouding piano legs and a “Lie back and think of England” kind of mentality.

It’s true that some doctors during that time believed the art of self-pleasure was highly dangerous to your health (check out these painful looking anti-masturbation devices – moment of silence for all the teens during 1840 to 1900). However, Michel Foucault famously critiqued these stereotypes, and in his book “The History of Sexuality” explains the repressive hypothesis: “…that Western man has been drawn for three centuries to the task of telling everything concerning his sex; that since the classical age there has been a constant optimization and an increasing valorization of the discourse on sex; and that this carefully analytical discourse was meant to yield multiple effects of displacement, intensification, reorientation, and modification of desire itself.”1 Basically, as readers, we’ve read into the history of the past three centuries assuming sexual repression. Whether or not you accept this hypothesis, Foucault sparked much academic work exploring the various ways Victorians did indeed openly speak of desire; there are a lot of examples. Victorian attitude towards both male and female sexuality can be seen just as expressive and expansive as it is today – a prime example being the glamorous courtesan of Paris, Cora Pearl, who lived a very erotic life. In fact, Victorian women had a healthy interest in protecting their bodies whilst still enjoying a sexual relationship; Annie Besant’s “Fruits of Philosophy”2 published in 1877, was a guide that listed every single possible contraceptive method available to the Victorian reader, becoming so popular it even reached out to 125,000 Brits in the first few months alone.

So, back to that whole women-with-hysteria-treated-with-massage-and-vibrator-was-invented story. In actuality, it was only a hypothesis by Dr. Rachel Maines, famed sex historian and author of seminal 1999 book, The Technology of Orgasm”. She even said so herself, “Well, people just thought this was such a cool idea that people believe it, that it’s like a fact. And I’m like, ‘It’s a hypothesis! It’s a hypothesis!’. But it doesn’t matter, you know? People like it so much they don’t want to hear any doubts about it.”3 Truth! Even when I began researching about the topic, I thought it was a hoot and a half to tell. But now we know – yes, the vibrator was officially invented in Victorian times, but that is definitely not the full story. Number one, doctors were fully aware what they were doing; keep in mind, people thought real sex was only penetration to male orgasm, and sex education was incredibly limited. I just wanted to make clear Victorians weren’t this prude, unaware society. Number two, the vibrator’s history is much more complicated. Hopefully we can get past the party story version.

So, what’s the actual history of the vibrator, then? Well, we definitely know its origin was very much within the medical setting; the earliest vibrators, as stated by Dr. Maines, “…came out of massage, hand technology for massage.” Not with the intention of inducing orgasm. But other than that, there is vast amount of speculation out there, which in turn further deep-dives into a plethora of ancient obstetrics & gynaecology papers. I particularly enjoyed Helen King’s critical analysis of the history behind therapeutic masturbation associated with “hysteria” – it’s 32 pages long, but 32 pages of such splendidly interesting information citing many dated texts (honestly, worth checking out). However, I attempted to comb through the tangles of speculated knowledge so you don’t have to (but there is still so much out there I haven’t mentioned). Here we go.

The History of Vibrators

We begin with Hippocrates, widely regarded as the Father of Western Medicine (we swore the derivative of his medical oath during the promise ceremony first week of uni). Despite his brilliance, there was a lot about the female body Hippocrates did not grasp – he believed the womb was an actively moving organ that even travelled to the trachea during orgasm, contributing to heavy breathing. The label “hysteria” is never used in early texts, but that weird womb-moving theory Hippocrates thought of is mentioned as a condition called “suffocation of/from the womb”. The womb, he believed, was to blame for “nervousness, fluid retention, insomnia, and lack of appetite”4 Later, Greek doctor Galen, most admired for being a brilliant anatomist ahead of his time and a master of medical philosophy5, proclaimed the symptoms were caused by retention of semen and saw widows as a particularly high-risk group. The cure: herbal remedies, pelvic massage, and even getting married6 (can you imagine getting this as your prescription). Mind you, the concept hysteria hasn’t been mentioned yet.

It persisted through the Middle Ages; treatments still included marriage and pelvic massage, but also “irritating suppositories and fragrant salves”7This treatment continued throughout the Renaissance period, and Nathanial Highmore was one of the first doctors to publicly acknowledge the end result of pelvic massage – the hysterical paroxysm8Orgasms became kind of a socially acceptable treatment for this strange condition that hadn’t been named yet. Whatever the condition was, doctors agreed it included a wide variety of symptoms including nervousness, anxiousness, emotional outbursts, hallucinations, “tendency to cause trouble”, fluid retention, and yes, sexual thoughts/frustration. 

In the 1700s, speculated causes of this condition shifted from the womb to the brain, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century when the condition was finally labelled hysteria (the Greek word for womb) and was something in need of treatment. The treatment was hysterical paroxysm, horse-riding, and even unpleasant blasting of water on the abdomen.9 Doctors apparently dreaded giving hysterical paroxysms because it was time-consuming, taxed physical endurance, and hand fatigue giving the massages meant they couldn’t always produce the desired result. They pushed for an invention to aid them – thus, here enters the very first vibrator: the Tremoussior, a strange wind-up clockwork contraption invented in France, 1734 (mind you, this was before electricity was invented). Then, in 1869, came along the steam-powered vibrator, “The Manipulator”, invented by American physician George Taylor – however, it was this cumbersome, immovable thing that you constantly had to shove coal in.

Finally, an enterprising English physician, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, patented an electromechanical vibrator during the 1880s, which became greatly popularised and was soon a permanent installation in the doctor’s surgery at that time. It became incredibly popular and soon, battery-powered vibrators were introduced as a household appliance; it was a huge commercial success, becoming the fifth electrical appliance to be introduced into households alongside the kettle, sewing machine, fan, and toaster10.

 

But then the vibrator had its debut in pornography and became unacceptable as a household tool to treat hysteria, labelled prurient rather than respectable. Women could no longer disguise their intentions of buying one, and doctors dropped the devices because of their sexual connotations. Vibrator ads disappeared from consumer media, and lips were sealed shut – that is, until the women’s movement in 1970s. Feminists like Betty Dodson11 made it a symbol of female sexuality, and vibrators became just as popular as before.

As for hysteria – being such an amorphous condition, the diagnosis surprisingly only recently fell from medical grace in American Psychiatric Association’s mental disorders in 1952.12

So there you have it. From womb-moving theories to feminism, that is how a medical cure became a female sexual icon.

Sources:

1: https://g.co/kgs/Z5hx6H

2: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/38185/38185-h/38185-h.htm

3: http://bigthink.com/ideas/18073

4: http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/article4032852.ece

5: http://www.greekmedicine.net/whos_who/Galen.html

6: http://www.vonnaharper.com/history-of-the-vibrator.html

7, 8: http://www.motherjones.com/media/2012/06/hysteria-sex-toy-history-timeline/

9: Cosmacini G.  The long art: the history of medicine from antiquity to the present. 00. Rome: Oxford University Press; 1997.

10: http://www.thedailybeast.com/hysteria-and-the-long-strange-history-of-the-vibrator

11: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-15/the-history-of-the-vibrator/7925988

12: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-vibrator/

©TMK