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.