An interesting question was posed the other day. It went something like this: How keen are we to be clean? Clean as in hygienically clean as in washing our bodies. We still primp and pamper ourselves more than any of our ancestors. But quelle bloody horreur. The time for personal grooming is being squeezed out of our busy lives. It is being squeezed out as far as women are concerned but it’s probably equally true for men. What do I base this on? A survey, of course, conducted on more than two thousand women aged 18 to 50, by a British cosmetics company. Even if you don’t completely believe the findings they are nonetheless interesting and worthy of a discussion.
Four out of five women admit they don’t shower every day, and a third say they can go for three days without washing their body. The survey also found that almost two thirds can’t be bothered removing makeup before they go to bed, and one in eight own up to not brushing their teeth before they sleep.
When it comes to washing in the morning, only 21 per cent of females take the time to shower or have a bath every day, with 33 per cent admitting to leaving it as long as three days from wash to wash.
But to be fair, having a shower or a bath daily used to be a pastime only for the wealthy upper-class. Back in the days before we had convenient plumbing, almost no one would bathe every day.and almost everyone would have simply “freshened up with a quick wipe” in the morning and evening – which, according to that survey I mentioned is what 57% of women in 2015 are doing. It became, very much, a 20th-century routine to always include a daily bath. Later on, this morphed into taking a shower, by far the easiest way to wash off the dust, sweat and fatigue of a day’s hard work. This is what public baths were originally created for, when very few people had a bathroom; and we all know that coal miners had to wash before they would eat or sleep, as is true for those in the building trades today.
So where did this non-washing suddenly spring from? Eighty nine percent of those surveyed, blamed evening and morning tiredness for their lack of showering or bathing. I’m sure some people would be digusteded by this revelation. But is it disgust that is misplaced? Cleanliness maybe next to godliness but it is relative. Human bodies do not disintegrate if they are not washed for days even three or more days. So maybe we should be more forgiving of those who do not have the time or the energy for an evening or even morning grooming ritual. Maybe the time has come for us to acknowledge that most people lead busy,busy lives that get increasingly hectic as the day progresses. Many people have other things to do by 6pm, such as looking after children and cooking meals, worse still they haven’t even left work yet. Morning showers are more frequent, but not always possible in a family situation. I’m making a lot of excuses here. Just saying.
The curious finding in the survey is that parents, who don’t take an early evening bath, still regard it as an absolute ritual to bathe their children at 6pm every day. The why is because they are training their children in the habits of cleanliness, handed down directly from Victorian nurseries. But how effective are their efforts? How many parents find that their children’s grooming and tidying routines go on vacation immediately the children leave the surveillance of the parental home? The survey has an explanation for this. It may well be that the 63% who don’t bother removing make up or brush their teeth before bed, are young adults. They presumably have more important things to do with their time. But according to the experts ironically they will still, in all probability, train their offspring exactly as their parents trained them, because this is what humans do. It is how standards are maintained and passed on.
As one commentator pointed out, the really sad aspect of the survey is that even in the 21st century, personal grooming time is still a relative luxury, because we are still time-poor. We have almost completely lost sight of the extensive life-work balance that used to be the essence of the philosophy of Hygeia. Now I’m sure you all know about the philosophy of Hygeia. For those that don’t, Hygeia was the ancient Greek goddess of health. She gave her name to the philosophy of hygiene. The cult of Hygeia started in Athens in 600 BC, in connection with the cult of Athene, goddess of wisdom and purity. Statues of Athene and Hygeia stood at the entrance to the Athens Acropolis. Hygeia was a young goddess, daughter and chief attendant to Asklepios, the god of medicine. She was in charge of cleanliness and how to live a long life. She had two other medicinal sisters: Panacea (‘Cure-All’) and Iaso (‘Remedy’). The Romans named her Salus. In classical sculpture she was often shown holding or feeding a large snake, the symbol of medicine. Her other official symbol was a large water basin. Statues of Hygeia were erected in all the major healing centres in the temples of Asklepios. The cult of Hygeia was first spread about Greece in response to the bubonic plague, a disease symptomatic of poor hygiene.
In Greek ‘hygeia’ means ‘soundness’ or ‘wholeness’. Hygiene in medicine was about maintaining the ‘wholeness’ or ‘health’ of the body and keeping it fit. Hippocratic doctors formulated a philosophy of hygiene that covered almost every possible aspect of health – including mind, body and the environment. The influence of this philosophical thinking continued to impact on public health reforms during the past two centuries.
But with the passage of time and the Industrial revolution, hygiene became confined to the idle rich. They had the time because everyone else was too buy working to live. But reforms in working-hour legislation gave us a minimum of 10, then eight, working hours per day; then Saturday afternoons off; then Saturday mornings off; and finally the half-days that shops used to have on Wednesdays or Thursdays to allow workers time off for playing sport. All of these gains were painful and hard fought for and won from employers, but they’ve gradually been eroded by the pace of modern living. As one commentator observed, working hours have increased, under the same advanced capitalism that demands excellent personal grooming but spares us little time in which to perform it. Personal hygiene is now squeezed into our five-day working week, in an average office day which now ends (for both men and women) at 6-7pm rather than 4-5pm – if they are lucky.
As in the past, Saturday is still often the only day that allows time to get a haircut, or (these days) a pedicure, manicure, or a massage. You can get time off for the doctor or a dental emergency, but not the hairdresser, the yoga class, or for playing sport. So what does this all mean? Is it all just one giant excuse for being incredibly lazy and unhygienic? Or maybe we just don’t have time to be clean, at least not every day. The French don’t seem to have any hang ups about this. I’m sure it was Napoleon, who in a letter to Josephine, wrote, I will be home in a week. Don’t wash. That’s definitely pretty dirty.