Study data published in i-Perception suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered perceptions of mask-wearing individuals. In a research study conducted in Japan, mask wearing was found to be associated with higher perceived facial attractiveness during the pandemic period compared with the prepandemic period. Mask wearing was also less often associated with “unhealthiness” compared with the prepandemic period and was often associated with good health among survey respondents.
This survey was conducted as an addendum to a 2016 study that assessed the perceived attractiveness of individuals wearing sanitary masks. Per the 2016 study, mask wearing was associated with a decrease in externally rated facial attractiveness. The hypothesized contributing factors for this phenomenon were 2-fold: (1) the effect of occlusion, in which facial features are obscured by the mask; and (2) “unhealthiness priming,” or the perception that an individual wearing a sanitary mask is unhealthy. To test whether these factors persisted during the COVID-19 period, investigators administered 3 online surveys to adults in Japan. In the first survey, participants were asked to rate on a 7-point Likert-type scale the perceived level of attractiveness and healthiness of women wearing black or white sanitary masks. Participants were not shown images. In the second survey, undergraduate and graduate students were shown images of women with and without sanitary face masks and asked to rate attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 100. In the third survey, participants were asked to rate the perceived healthiness of women with and without masks, also on a 100-point scale. The first survey was conducted between June and December 2020, the second between May and July 2020, and the third on January 15, 2021. A chi-square test and residual analysis were performed to compare data from the prepandemic study with results from the current surveys.
A total of 286 adults responded to the first survey, among whom 153 were men and 133 were women. Mean age was 20.05 ± 2.27 years. The demographic features of the cohort were similar to those of the 2016 study. A significant effect of COVID was observed on the perceived healthiness and attractiveness of individuals wearing white sanitary masks (both P <.001). Compared with the prepandemic period, the number of people who perceived mask wearers as “healthy” increased, whereas the proportion describing wearers as “unhealthy” decreased (both P <.001). Additionally, the number of people indicating that mask wearing improved attractiveness increased (P <.001), and fewer respondents indicated that mask wearing decreased or did not affect attractiveness (P <.012). A similar effect of COVID-19 on perceived healthiness was observed for black sanitary masks, though not on perceived attractiveness.
The second survey enrolled 59 students with a mean age of 19.98 ± 1.61 years, among whom 29 were men and 30 were women. Compared with data from the prepandemic period, mask wearing had less of an impact on perceived attractiveness during the pandemic. The effect of mask color was minimal. In the third survey, which enrolled 44 individuals with a mean age of 41.18±9.98 years, mask-worn faces were less likely to be perceived as “unhealthy” during the pandemic period compared with the prepandemic period (P =.002).
Taken together, results from these studies suggest that the perception of mask wearing has been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared with the prepandemic period, mask-wearing faces were less likely to be perceived as unhealthy or less attractive during the pandemic. Study limitations include the relatively small size of the study cohorts and changes in social norms surrounding mask wearing, which may have prompted individuals to artificially rate mask wearers as more attractive or healthy. Further study may better elucidate the impact of COVID-19 on facial perception.
“[T]his study demonstrated a contextual modulation of facial perception that took place over a short period of time,” investigators wrote. “Long-term measurements of beliefs and perceptions regarding mask-worn faces would provide more information regarding the impact of the epidemic on societies worldwide.”
Kamatani M, Ito M, Miyazaki Y, Kawahara JI. Effects of masks worn to protect against COVID-19 on the perception of facial attractiveness. i-Perception. 2021;12(3):1-14. doi:10.1177/20416695211027920