Dirty Christians, Over-Scrubbed Americans, Soap, Advertising and You

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I feel dirty right now, and nauseated, having tried to read one of William Kristol’s editorials in the NY Times. Loathing and revulsion don’t cover the reactions I have to that man. I have despised him since he first came to my attention, back around 2002 when I started paying attention to the fact that there were evil people with power who really, really wanted us to go to war. I would say that I can’t believe the Times hired the guy, were it not for the fact that the Times credulously accepted the kinds of arguments Kristol and his ilk offered for why we should go to war.

Something else that made me feel dirty and nauseated was this article about the evil that is Facebook. I resisted Facebook for a very long time, but finally joined a few months ago, after people convinced me it was one of the more benign social networking sites out there. Wrong! It’s owned by some really dreadful people who are glad to give the CIA access to all your information. I looked into deleting my account, but it turns you can’t do that--you can only “deactivate it.”

But this is not a post about Kristol or the Times--or Facebook or spying. It’s a post about dirt and dirtiness and cleanliness, and Kristol et al is useful in that they show the way dirtiness and cleanliness are states of mind, the way things we think about can make us feel, genuinely (not just as a figure of speech), that we need to take a shower.

This isn’t a new idea. It’s covered quite well in Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas, a book about ritual filth and purity that I had to read in grad school and liked well enough that I read it again later, just for fun. I’m looking forward to rereading it this summer, both just for the fun of it and as research for an essay I want to write about that concept of contamination ever so important to childhood, namely, cooties.

As research for the same project, I recently read The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg, which also made me feel I needed to take a bath--and then made me acknowledge something I already knew: I have more exacting bathing habits than most people, though I’m not afraid of germs: I just like being clean. Here’s another connection to Facebook: my profile there announces that “I love the simple, transient pleasure of cleanliness, as in crisp, freshly laundered sheets; hair washed so recently it's still damp; the minty freshness of just-brushed teeth. I especially love going to sleep in a clean bed with just-washed hair and well-maintained teeth.”

I like being clean so much, in fact, that I feel slight psychological and physical discomfort if I violate my own idiosyncratic ideas of what is clean and what is not. Emphasis on slight discomfort: my attitudes aren’t extreme enough to constitute a phobia or a compulsion, but they do require an adjustment whenever I visit people, as I also feel uncomfortable answering the question “Why do you need to take a bath before bed if you’re going to take a shower in the morning?” and guilty about using up my host’s hot water.

I recommend this book, though it has a considerable ick factor: it’s just not that cool to read about people who never once, NEVER ONCE, washed their hair, who, in fact, had a grand total of two baths during their entire time on earth: one at birth and one as preparation for burial. But all in all, the history of bathing in the West from the time of the Romans (who loved being clean almost as much as North Americans do) is a fascinating topic, and Ashenburg does a good job with it.

A rough overview: the Romans loved bathing and cleanliness, but early Christians hated it. That’s right, Christianity is the only major religion that has no real interest in physical cleanliness. This is not an entirely bad thing on one level; Jesus was willing to hang out with people others shunned, and argued that there was nothing intrinsically “unclean” about menstruating women or people with various illnesses; he also maintained that it was silly to worry so much about purifying your exterior if your interior was somehow defiled. But his followers took this argument to an illogical extreme, claiming that to be filthy was a sign of holiness. It wasn’t until Victorian England that people were taught in Sunday school that “cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

Then, long about 1000 a.d., people in Europe started to discover that it felt good to A) take a bath and B) hang out with your friends who were also taking baths (because few private homes had bathrooms, most baths were taken in public facilities) and C) be clean after the bath. Bathing and cleanliness were on the rise until the bubonic plague hit; ideas of disease at the time held that bathing made you more susceptible to the plague, because it opened your pores, and so bath houses across Europe were shut down, which was a bad thing plague-wise, since it meant people didn’t get rid of the fleas actually causing the plague, but a good thing forest-wise: having enough fuel to heat all that water was a major cause of deforestation back in the day.

The Renaissance was filthy, just filthy, but it wasn’t that people didn’t care about cleanliness: it’s that they believed bathing could kill them. Instead, if you wanted to be clean, you changed your shirt (which was the basic undergarment most people wore) a lot, because a clean linen shirt was thought to act as a wick that drew impurities out of the body. However, plenty of people put on their shirt or shift and left it on until it fell off in tatters--or until it had to be taken off for medical reasons, which could involve pulling away chunks of flesh as the garment came off. The court of Louis XIV seems to have been particularly dirty, since Louis didn’t like to bathe and had really bad breath. (In fact, for centuries, it was considered bourgeois to worry about bathing: only the middle class needed to care if they stunk, and until the mid-20th century, a lack of indoor plumbing was a sign of wealth in the grand homes of the British landed gentry: why install pipes to carry hot water to a little room if you were rich enough to hire men to carry a fancy-ass bathtub into your bedroom, set it by the fire, fill it with warm water boiled downstairs in the scullery, then haul the whole thing away after you’d had your bath?)

Baths began to make a come-back in the 18th century, for reasons of health, not cleanliness: medicinal waters were thought to cure disease. But once again, when people started taking baths, they discovered that doing so felt good. Along the way to the present day love of bathing was a debate about cold vs. hot water for bathing (Charles Dickens LOVED a cold shower every morning) and concerns about the use of soap.

Soap. We are so reliant on it now that it’s hard to believe people once advocated doing without it, and that a real battle was waged to convince people of soap’s necessity. It’s something of a truism that the goal of advertising is to make you feel insecure, and it turns out that was true from the get-go: modern advertising was created as a way to sell soap, and the way to do that was to convince people they would stink without it, and would therefore lose out on love, friendship and success. The same technique was used for mouthwash: No one would tell you have halitosis; they’d just avoid you, and you’d never know why. You know that saying, “Often a bridesmaid, never a bride”? It comes from an early ad for Listerine.

North Americans bathe more than anyone else, and care more about our teeth than anyone else; neither of which is necessarily a good thing: it is possible to overbrush your teeth, causing gums to recede or creating holes in tooth enamel, and this whole business of bleaching them white as snow them is bad for them. As for bathing too much, or using too many products; well, it may or may not hurt us, but it’s bad for the environment, something I acknowledge to my pain because I LOVE very hot, frequent baths. But I am determined to cut back--take short showers instead of long baths, for instance, and bathe only once a day instead of twice, as I really prefer to do.

In fact, after reading this book, I resolved that early in the summer, after the academic year ended and I’d no longer have to interact with people daily but before it got so hot I’d sweat a lot, I’d go a week without bathing at all, just to see if I could and what it felt like, though of course I still planned to brush my teeth and wash my hands after using the toilet or scooping out the cat box. I thought this was a very daring experiment until a friend sent me a link to this article by a woman who went six weeks without washing at all--including her hands or her teeth--with some very interesting results. She felt dirty, her kids refused to cuddle with her and she didn’t want to see people, but the quality of her skin improved and her irritable bowel syndrome cleared up, both of which she attributed to the fact that she was no longer putting all these gross chemical compounds on her skin to maintain or improve it. The one real physical ailment she suffered as a result of the experiment was a cavity from not brushing or flossing.

Anyway. This is, as I already mentioned, a quick overview of Ashenburg’s book. I hope I have piqued your interest, because it really is a good treatment of a fascinating and important topic.

8 Comments

Very good post. I plan to check out the Purity and Danger book you commented on. What is the general premise regarding pollution in the book?

I am also interested in the rituals of water symbolism that LDS experience. We are born in water, cleansed at baptism with water, cleansed by water sacraments, and washed with water in the temple. Since all actually involve water, how do these sacred cleansings differ from daily washings?

I think there is something sacred even in the act of cleansing yourself. It is a refreshing renewal of life. We are made of water, breathe water, drink water, and are cleansed by water. Here in the Northwest, after it rains, the landscape is alive with life.

Maybe the only difference is that we generally bathe ourselves, where in religious rituals of cleansing, it is generally done by another person to us.

It appears that there is a continuous cycle of filthiness that is always building up which needs to be removed – physically and spiritually. If my understanding is correct, it appears there is some value in allowing life to proceed naturally, letting our bodies respond to the dirt and learning to live with it. Lessening the cycles of cleansing would allow for greater meaning in the ritual of washing. Also, water is becoming a scarce commodity. Our collective embrace of filthiness would actually help to cleanse the earth.

Hi Green Mormon Architect--I love your name! I am glad to know there is such a thing as a GMA.

I plan to check out the Purity and Danger book you commented on. What is the general premise regarding pollution in the book?

That it's complicated and dependent on context, relating to a "definition of dirt as matter out of place." For instance, "Shoes are not dirty in themselves, but it is dirty to place them on the dining-table; food is not dirty in itself, but it is dirty to leave cooking utensils in the bedroom, or food bespattered on clothing; similarly, bathroom equipment in the drawing room; clothing lying on chairs.... In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications."

I am also interested in the rituals of water symbolism that LDS experience. We are born in water, cleansed at baptism with water, cleansed by water sacraments, and washed with water in the temple. Since all actually involve water, how do these sacred cleansings differ from daily washings?

I don't quite know how to respond to that question, because the answer is so obvious, but I'll go ahead and offer it anyway: taking the sacrament in church or being anointed with water and oil in the temple does nothing to lower the amount of bacteria on your skin, while an actual shower does. Being immersed in a font of warm water that other people are tramping in and out of, as is common these days with baptisms, may increase rather than lessen one's exposure to bacteria, unless there's a little bleach or something in it to kill the germs.

Also, I must ask: what are you referring to when you say that "we are born in water"? We are carried in water until the water breaks, but babies are kind of slimy when they're born--so much so that, as I mentioned, it was one of the two times some people were ever washed.

I confess I think you're working too hard with this business of "water symbolism," especially in Mormonism, which is so literal, and so thoroughly a religion of the desert. Mountains are symbolic in Mormonism, what you descend out of to reach Zion, but water--that's just what you irrigate with, or an actual substance you need to perform the ritual of baptism.

And keep in mind that water is not necessarily cleansing. It can be, but it's not always so. Remember the whole thing about how missionaries can't go swimming because "the devil rules the waters"? Then there are bodies of water like Lake Erie--it's so damn polluted that swimming in it is really not a good idea, though people do it anyway.

Maybe the only difference is that we generally bathe ourselves, where in religious rituals of cleansing, it is generally done by another person to us.

That is true of Christianity, which, as I already mentioned, placed a higher value on filth than on cleanliness for most of its existence, but it is by no means true of other religions. Islam has very elaborate rituals for actual baths, many of which are performed privately. Yoga has all sorts of procedures for cleaning the body in all manner of ways, including washing not only the skin, but the nasal sinuses, the esophagus (it involves swallowing a length of muslim and then pulling it so that it scrapes all this mucus off the walls of the esophagus), the colon (accomplished yogis disdain tools--like enema bags--that introduce water into the colon and instead learn to relax their sphincters to the point that they can sit in a bath, create a vacuum inside their colons, and draw water up into it), etc. All these practices, including a basic bath, are done privately, personally, and are considered spiritual endeavors.

Furthermore, Christianity and its various priesthoods are so much about withholding and conferring power, and things like baptism are not just cleansings but initiation rituals, something someone else has to do for you because you can't do it for yourself yet--you don't have the "authority" or the "power." In the same way, parents bathe children when they're not coordinated or reliable enough to do an adequate job themselves.

It appears that there is a continuous cycle of filthiness that is always building up which needs to be removed – physically and spiritually.

Does the forest get "filthy" when human beings aren't around?

Please remember, people lived six or seven or eight decades without bathing. So there is not necessarily any real "need" to remove filth--we just like it better that way. We don't "need" to wash any more than adult men "need" to shave their faces or adult women "need" to shave their legs or underarms. The physical cycle you refer to wouldn't exist if we didn't impose it.

And I'm not quite sure what you mean by spiritual filth, and how it necessarily accumulates. I try to avoid things I think are spiritually contaminating, and I don't feel that spiritual filth is a part of my life. Spiritual growth and change, yes; spiritual filth and cleanliness, no. Perhaps you are thinking of a situation better expressed by the idea of toxins, which can build up within our bodies, particularly when we do not avail ourselves of certain ways of cleaning it internally (such as those used by yogis). But the management and excretion of toxins is a constant process, not one in which they are allowed to accumulate to a point where a body is truly "toxic" or "filthy." If that happens, disease occurs. I think the same is true of spirits. You're either engaged in the process of maintaining your spirit, or you're not. You don't allow it to become "filthy" and then do a big cleaning once a year--or once a week, at a Sunday meeting, or once a month, at some temple. You do it all the time, or you're not doing it effectively, and I do believe this is part of what Jesus was trying to convey in the various accounts of his ministry dealing with issues of cleanliness and purity. (And that's one more reason I think you're going too far with this water symbolism business--it really doesn't work for the spirit.)

Thanks - I like the name too. I recently started a blog hoping to do what I can to kickstart the church and its members into being responsible when it comes to the environment.

Wow - that's probably the most thoughtful response I've received to a comment on a blog. Thanks for taking the time - especially since my comment was all over the place.

You're probably right that I'm making too much out of the whole lds water symbolism thing. What I meant by my question was that separate from removing bacteria and being physically clean, there seems to be a spiritual aspect to bathing, which, in my mind, links it to other forms of religious cleansing rituals. They are obviously not the same, but could evoke the same sense of inner peace, with water being the facilitator, or cleansing agent, in both cases. I may be off base, but after bathing, I feel renewed with life and at peace. Likewise, after being washed in the temple, I feel renewed with life and at peace.

"You're either engaged in the process of maintaining your spirit, or you're not...You do it all the time, or you're not doing it effectively..."

Maybe it's just me, but I don't know how to cleanse myself spiritually all the time. The only way I know how to is at intervals, similar to how I take a shower when I feel dirty physically.

Speaking of which, since it's not a physical need to bathe, do you think your preference for frequent bathing is some type of inward drive for cleanliness, or mostly tied to the American culture we grew up in?

"In short, our pollution behavior is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications." – I LOVE that definition of pollution.

I recently started a blog hoping to do what I can to kickstart the church and its members into being responsible when it comes to the environment.

You might check out the Sunstone archives in "ecology" and "environment"--you will find dozens of sessions dealing with the efforts of various LDS people to get Mormons to be greener and more environmentally responsible.

that's probably the most thoughtful response I've received to a comment on a blog. Thanks for taking the time.

You're welcome. I try to be thoughtful. It's especially important, I think, when someone new takes the time to leave an interesting comment on my blog.

What I meant by my question was that separate from removing bacteria and being physically clean, there seems to be a spiritual aspect to bathing, which, in my mind, links it to other forms of religious cleansing rituals. They are obviously not the same, but could evoke the same sense of inner peace, with water being the facilitator, or cleansing agent, in both cases.

Well, bathing CAN be a spiritual or religious cleansing ritual, but it doesn't have to be, and I'm not sure it always should. Consider taking a shower or bath with one's lover: it can be a sexual experience, and I guess if you accept the notion that sex is also always a religious experience, then sexy bathing could be spiritual bathing. But it could also be a romp. Little kids like to play in the bath, with bubbles and boats and other floating toys; it doesn't have to be peaceful or calm. Some mornings I take a shower to wake me up and get me energized; "peaceful" is not really what I want to feel at that point. Washing my really long hair can be a real pain; I have to plan ahead and make sure sure I've got the extra time to lather it up, put conditioner on it so I can get a comb through it, then dry it enough that it doesn't freeze when I walk outside. Sometimes it's a nice, relaxing treat, sometimes it's no big deal, and sometimes it's an onerous obligation.

In other words, I reject the idea that common activities have to be approached the same way--I'm not sure it's even a good idea. I remember once in some Mormon email forum I belonged to someone spouted this high-minded nonsense about how "sex is how adults play with one another." I responded, "What, Scrabble and softball are out of the question?" Obviously sex can be play but it can be other things as well, and becoming sexually active should be no means prohibit us from other forms of play.

I wrote:

"You're either engaged in the process of maintaining your spirit, or you're not...You do it all the time, or you're not doing it effectively..."

You responded:

Maybe it's just me, but I don't know how to cleanse myself spiritually all the time. The only way I know how to is at intervals, similar to how I take a shower when I feel dirty physically.

I guess we experience our interior lives differently. I can discuss feeling psychologically "dirty" as a metaphor, but it's not really how I think of my psyche or soul or spirit. After all, as long as my memory functions well, it's not like there's a way I can remove an experience or a thought from my mind--OK, I can end and not repeat the experience, I can quit thinking the thought, but I'll remember that I had the experience and thought the thought, which means there's a way it's all still there, still mucking things up (if I were to think that way).

I don't think of my inner self as part of my involuntary system, the way skin is, something that "gets" dirty because it can't repel pollution itself, as something that has to be washed by the parts of me that are under my control.

Similarly, I don't think of my muscles as "dirty" and in need of washing; I think of them as toned or strong or weak or flabby. That's more how I experience my inner self. It's not "dirty" or "clean"; it's in good shape and able to do what I need it to do, or else it's not. And weekly trips to the gym don't really do much to keep you in shape; one's workout regime has to be more frequent and more committed than that, or it's not really effective. I think spiritual maintenance requires an entire set of daily habits. (full disclosure: while I do try to have daily habits of spiritual maintenance, I DON'T go to the gym--ever. I get my exercise mostly from long vigorous walks and the occasional yoga session--and one reason I know how little good it does to exercise only sporadically is how crappy I have become at poses I used to do really well.)

(And by the way, one of the profound benefits of leaving the church is that, if you still care about such things, you have learn to maintain your soul on your own. It's one reason I advocate leaving the church as part of an endeavor to achieve spiritual maturity.)

Speaking of which, since it's not a physical need to bathe, do you think your preference for frequent bathing is some type of inward drive for cleanliness, or mostly tied to the American culture we grew up in?

A couple of things.

First, it's not as if any "inward drive for cleanliness" is really separable from the culture I grew up in. There were deliberate efforts in schools to make children not only clean, "but to make them love to be clean." I am an example of the success of such programs. I like being clean, and from an early age, I liked how bathing improved my life: I'd get to sit in this tub of warm water and play with stuff, and afterwards, one of my parents would read me a story in bed and cuddle with me. I didn't like having my hair washed because shampoo got in my eyes and having the tangles combed out hurt, but other than that, from the time I was really little, I didn't see much of a downside to taking a bath.

Secondly, the fact that there is not an absolute need to bathe doesn't mean that it doesn't have pronounced and profound benefits--and consequences. Similarly, there is no need to drink moderately or to refrain from drinking entirely; both have been shown to have benefits to one's health. There is no need to eat meat or be a vegetarian--both can provide a healthy life to the eater (though being a vegetarian is better for the rest of the planet and all the other creatures on it).

I feel that bathing improves my quality of life in many, many ways, as well as the quality of life of those who interact with me. So I'm going to go stop doing it. I just want to do it responsibly and with concern for how my bathing practices impact the health of the planet in long-term ecological ways.

I don't mean to trivialize this discussion, because it's really interesting. Regarding your comment about feeling dirty after reading that editorial, I had a similar experience after seeing the movie "Rocky Horror Picture Show." I'm not a prude, and normally stuff like that doesn't bother me, but for some reason both times I saw that movie I felt almost physically dirty.

My dream house will have a great big clawfoot bathtub. One of my dear friends in grad school lived in an old hotel that had one of those in the communal bathroom, and she'd let me come in and soak in it sometimes. You could get up to your neck in hot water... in a good way.

Hi Juti--

I had a house with a huge, long, deep, stand-alone clawfoot bathtub--and no shower. I never missed the shower, and I LOVED that bathtub. But so many people would say to me, "How do you live without a shower?"

Now, having to live without a bathtub--that would be hard.

Holly, I stumbled across your site, while in pursuit of a sticker I saw in a bathroom stall. Sounds gross,huh? I had seen a saying, apparently written by Charles Dickens (as his name was at the bottom) anyway it was very interesting and thought provoking, especially after a recent conversation I had with a coworker who was astonished to JUST realize that many of his friends DO NOT wash their hands after using the restroom. Dickens talks of the epidemic of people falling violently ill after eating with the same hands they (and others) neglected to wash.. So I wanted some stickers, with these profound words, to stick inside every bathroom stall right at eye level, leaving little chance of ignorance..

Enough said on that topic. The reason I post this comment is that I became entrhalled with your writings.. truly, you made me laugh, and your blogs are fantastic! don't give up the dream.

Hi Regina--I have to thank you for leaving such a flattering comment. Seriously. I was having a really crappy day when you left your comment, and your encouragement and praise meant quite a lot. It helps a lot with the whole business to know that someone who just stumbles upon my blog can find it fantastic.

I hope you'll continue to drop by from time to time.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 14, 2008 12:48 PM.

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