After a year and a half of lockdown, America is coming to grips with what the disruption can mean to some of its most vulnerable citizens: children. No doubt social isolation, including teacher’s union imposed public school masking, will have a lasting effect. The losses can already be quantified in marked regression of special needs students, hopefully reversible developmental delays in infants, and a marked rise in teen suicide. As heart-wrenching as all of these developments are, the most tragic outcome of universal masking could be the inevitable social transformation that’s coming with what appears to be an emerging new role of women.

Young women are not alone in seeking comfort behind the mask: I’ve met middle age matrons enthusiastic about their N95’s because they hide wrinkles. However, over the course of the last school year, teenage girls seem to get particularly attached to facial cloths, walking covered down empty streets months after the outdoor mask mandate was lifted in San Francisco Bay Area, and talking to their BFF’s with only their eyes peaking out over the fabric.

Adolescence is tumultuous. As hormones begin to surge, and bodies change, teenage girls find themselves objects of strange animalistic attention. It would be wrong to say that the young women universally dislike their newly discovered power of sex, but that it causes confusion is not a matter of discussion. At times teen girls want to be seen, and at times they want to melt into the wall.

It’s very natural for young women to demure. Unfortunately, some of the most influential voices in our society decided that the insecurity adolescent girls exhibit is a product of capitalism, and can be successfully countered with steady injections of self-esteem. Most of the self-esteem building effort is centered around reminding girls that they can be anything they want to be, but part of the project consists of convincing them that men are in no way aroused by the sight of women.

For instance, a few years ago the public school district in my hometown banned the dress code on the premise that it oppresses girls. The previous, very reasonable set of rules that excluded sleeveless shirts, ripped jeans, and low-cut blouses was tossed. An eleven-year-old boy was quoted in a local paper saying that he doesn’t feel distracted by scantily-clad classmates.

The Challenge of Female Adolescence

What feminists misdiagnosed as dip in self-esteem is not a product of Western heteronormativity, but a natural state. Other cultures solve the problem of female puberty by veiling, often starting at a prepubescent age. We have a different script for male-female relations: give women a set of rules for social interactions, and encourage them to face the world. It’s probably best described in the most iconic scene of Russian literature, Natasha Rostova’s debutante ball in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Customs of Napoleonic era may romance the reader, but the way Tolstoy’s characters interact with each other is easily recognizable. Natasha’s first ball is not unlike the party scene anywhere: loud music, gawking, gossip, lots of dancing, and keen awareness of social status. At first, the teenage Natasha feels dwarfed by imperial grandeur. Spotting her standing by the wall, Pierre Bezukhov, the man charged with introducing Rostova to Petersburg’s society on that New Year’s Eve 1810, directs his friend Prince Andrey Bolkonsky to ask her to dance. After the first round with Andrey, Natasha is invited to dance by many other gentlemen. Countess Rostova was noticed at the ball:

“Prince Andrey was one of best dancers of his day. Natasha danced exquisitely. Her little feet in their satin dancing-shoes performed their task lightly and independently of her, and her face beamed with the rapture of happiness.

Natasha Rostova (Ludmila Savelyeva) attends her first ball

Her bare neck and arms were thin, and not beautiful compared with Ellen’s shoulders. Her shoulders were thin, her bosom undefined, her arms were slender. But Ellen was, as it were, covered with the hard varnish of those thousands of eyes that had scanned her person, while Natasha seemed like a young girl stripped for the first time, who would have been greatly if she had not been assured by every one that it must be so.”

A mere century ago the young countess would have been treated differently. In a long-standing tradition, high status women in Russia had been secluded into Terems, or female quarters, and denied contacts with men outside their immediate family. In addition to strict limitations to mobility, they were veiled, dressed in loose gowns, and fattened up. All marriages were arranged.

The Westernizing tzar Peter the Great put an end to that custom. In 1698, Peter decreed that all courtiers should wear western dress, and adopt the western way of life. He transformed the backwards medieval elite into a modern one, schooled in science, and rationality, and ready to receive the Enlightenment. In a little more than a century, Russia produced one of the greatest intellectual traditions in history.

How Today's Changing Dating Rules Hurt Young Women

The most important question in any society is how men, and women meet each other. In the West, young people have a great degree of autonomy in forming family units. The idea that men and women should at least try to be friends is the underlying part of the arrangement; the plane on which the courting game is played.

Both sexes have relative physical mobility, intellectual exchange is encouraged, and ideas flourish. Bolkonsky, Bezukhov, Rostova are complex in their thoughts, and their feelings. No surprise since they are products of the culture that sanctioned a prince to waltz a countess in front of the emperor.

Tolstoy is right to note that there is something wildly unnatural and exploitive about the party habits of St. Petersburg elites. But he points repeatedly that Natasha enjoyed herself immensely. More importantly, the future wife of Pierre Bezukhov had the opportunity to find substance in a sea decadent superficiality.

She was able to do so because she had a set of rules  to follow. Our society removed many of the rules: a boy can be a girl and go to the girls’ bathroom. A girl can wear revealing clothes on the premise that the boys won’t find her manners sexual. If a girl doesn’t intend for her behavior to be sexual, it is not, and she can change her mind about her intent years later.

The physical world today, too, is changing. With the introduction of the shelter-in-place regime, after years of pushing provocative garbs in the girl’s wardrobe, the hipster woke retail chain Target went Mormon traditionalist in its women’s department.

Modest dresses might be a short term trend, but the fact that the same retailer added larger sizes to children’s clothing, and introduced bulkier styles, presumably to accommodate boys who dress up, and that California Assembly is on the verge of passing a law that would require large box stores to feature gender neutral children’s clothing suggests something different. Adolescent dress really is getting de-sexed in a radical way.

The mask to which so many adolescent girls are clinging despite great discomforts of wearing might be the last nail into the dating scene coffin. The next generation of blue state women—the American petty aristocracy, such as it is—will grow up veiled, shrouded, and isolated, with rare sexual encounters arranged electronically over networks heavily policed by multinational corporations, and government agencies. Perhaps coincidentally, their speech, and their thoughts will be policed both online, and in the classroom in novel ways that we are only beginning to understand.

The country where women hide behind masks instead of facing personal social challenges will be America in name only. It already looks more like Afghanistan than the last standing superpower.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit (in essay): Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1966-67)