The Pandemic Has Made Me Hungry for Faces

But what about face hunger? English has a word for something similar: Pareidolia means seeing familiar shapes in unfamiliar objects, including seeing faces where none exist. That’s what happens when you look at a cloud and see a cherub-cheeked smile, or when you spy Jesus in your toast. It’s why I imagine my car’s front grill and headlights are grinning at me. Our brains interpret lines, curves, and shadows as faces so often because they’re constantly scanning for meaning, and faces mean a lot to us humans.

Masked life feels strange, and not just because of the constant low-grade smothering sensation. Every few weeks, I pop into the local bookstore to sign orders of my books. The staff members are my friends—I used to work there, in fact—and I know their faces well. Since the spring, our visits have been different. I stand at a table across the room from them—all of us wearing masks—wielding my Sharpie and stacking my books myself instead of passing them to a bookseller. I enjoy catching up on the employees’ lives and how business is going, muffled as our exchanges may be, but on my most recent visit it occurred to me how bizarre it is that I haven’t seen the bottom half of any of their faces since March. I never realized how much I would miss seeing people’s mouths move when they speak, how much I took it for granted before.

Research has shown that a lack of face-to-face social contact can increase your risk of depression. By this point in the year, my family normally would have taken several overnight trips to see my parents, who are in their 70s and live one state over, in Georgia. While I know our choice to stay away protects them, I also miss them terribly and worry about how long they’ve gone without seeing family. Over the summer, we got in the car and drove six hours just to stand on their front porch and catch up with them from two arms’ lengths away. While I loved our masks for keeping us all safe and allowing my parents and their grandkids to have a conversation in the same place, I also wanted to rip off those barriers to my loved ones’ faces.

Seeing family and friends’ faces virtually on FaceTime is far better than nothing, but I’d rather see their living, breathing faces in real time. Like a lot of people, I have a case of screen fatigue. My eyes are tired of two-dimensional digital approximations of people, and Zoom meetings often feel like group staring contests. Paradoxically, the technology that purports to bring us closer also flattens our likenesses and drains them of life.

There’s a reason people say “It’s so good to see your face!” and not “It’s so good to see your elbows!” As poets had been writing about for centuries before Charles Darwin wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, faces showcase our feelings and personalities. If you’ve grown up in a culture where faces go uncovered in public, suddenly covering them can pose a challenge to reading people. While my kids’ school did open back up for modified in-person classes, all students and staff wear masks on campus, which means that my daughter, a brand-new ninth grader, has been learning the faces of new friends by their eyes alone. I remember how she learned my face as a baby, staring up at me while she nursed, occasionally lifting an arm and hooking her tiny fingers onto my chin, and I wonder how her first impressions of her schoolmates—and theirs of her—might be affected by receiving less than a full face of input.