“The Great Unwashed” and the Obsessive Cleanliness of Western Society

NY Times ran a post called The Great Unwashed and it brought up some interesting points, namely how obsessed we are with cleanliness.

A DAILY shower is a deeply ingrained American habit. Most people would no sooner disclose they had not showered in days than admit infidelity. But Jenefer Palmer, 55, of Malibu, Calif., cheerfully acknowledged recently that she doesn’t shower or shampoo daily and doesn’t use deodorant. Ever.

No, she does not work from home in pajamas.

In fact, Ms. Palmer, the chief executive of Osea, an organic skin-care line, often travels to meet business contacts at the five-star luxury hotels where her line is sold.

They might be surprised to read that Ms. Palmer, a petite, put-together brunette, showers “no more than three times a week,” she said, and less if she hasn’t been “working out vigorously.”

She contends that a soapy washcloth under her arms, between her legs and under her feet is all she needs to get “really clean.” On the go, underarm odor is wiped away with a sliced lemon.

I am the first to say (admit?) that I don’t shower daily, only every other day.

  • Don’t see the point: I don’t work out in a gym, get sweaty or smelly when I work
  • It really dries out my skin and causes my eczema to flare up something fierce
  • I don’t use body wash or soap, just a small washcloth and I have Tom’s natural deodorant but I haven’t used it often
  • I change my underwear and clothes everyday except for my pants (they are used at least twice a week)

This is an interesting post for me, because I do consider myself quite clean, but I find the obsession with being uber clean a funny thing.

On my hotel TV, all the commercials talk about the following products:

  • Candles, Home Scents and Sprays to make your home smell like anything BUT a home
  • Special microscrubbers that super scrub, super clean and disinfect while you sleep
  • Disinfecting wipes, disposable wipes for the bathroom, kitchen and bedrooms
  • Cleaners of all colours, smells and kinds
  • Perfumes and colognes to make you snag a man (or woman)
  • Deodorants that you spray on to make girls follow you like robots

It’s a huge industry, and I can see where marketers are making us feel worried and nervous about not having a home where we can eat off the floors.

(Actually, if you cleaned those floors with a chemical cleaner, I’m not sure I’d want to eat off them either, clean OR dirty.)

“We don’t need to wash the way we did when we were farmers,” said Katherine Ashenburg, 65, the author of “The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.”

Since the advent of cars and labor-saving machines, she continued, “we have never needed to wash less, and we have never done it more.”

WHATEVER the motivation, personal cleanliness in the United States has long been big business.

Widespread advertisements address (and arguably generate) anxiety about body odor, from the classic spots ordering consumers to “Raise your hand if you’re Sure!” to recent popular commercials with the actor Isaiah Mustafa hawking Old Spice body wash.

They seem to work: Adults younger than 24 use deodorant and antiperspirant more than nine times a week, but even for older age groups, usage never falls below an average of once a day, according to Mintel, a market research firm.

Ninety-three percent of the country’s adults shampoo almost daily, the firm said.

Reliable statistics for how often Americans shower are hard to come by, said Regina Corso, a senior vice president of the Harris Poll. “People are going to be hesitant to say they’re not showering every day,” she said.

I do agree that SOME people with exceptionally strong body odour need to shower and wear deodorant to stop the stink, but most of us don’t have that problem, seeing as women AND men smell just fine the way they are.

I probably wouldn’t even notice if you stopped wearing deodorant, except to comment that you don’t smell like a spring meadow today.

So readers, what do you think about our obsessive cleanliness in North America?

I agree there’s a minimum to be had for each situation, but when does it go too far or not far enough?

About the Author

I'm a 20-something year old girl who lived out of a single suitcase in 2007, and now I'm living with less, but only with the best. You don't have to get rid of everything to become a minimalist! Minimalism can help simplify and organize your life, career, & physical surroundings. You can read more about me as a minimalist. Or come and visit my other blog Fabulously Broke in the City where I got out of $60,000 of debt in 18 months, earning $65,000 gross/year.