Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Secret Dirt. Last night I was having dinner with friends and I discovered that someone I know is secretly filthy. (I shall protect the guilty...) By 'filthy', I don't mean something like picking your nose and then eating it, or pissing on the bathroom floor. I mean a departure from what we interpret as the norms of personal hygiene.

Sometimes it is socially acceptable, even a form of intimacy with your friends, to 'confess' to some minor transgression of this sort - say, not washing your hair for six weeks. This doesn't reflect badly on you. But people would kind of change their opinion about you if you were to confess to not washing your bedlinen for six weeks, not showering for six weeks, or not cleaning your teeth for six weeks.

Where do these standards come from? Do I really believe that everyone else adheres to baseline standards of cleanliness much higher than my own, hence I must be the grubby one and never breathe a word to anyone for fear of being shamed? Or is everyone making the same assumption? I wonder if there was a completely anonymous internet survey about personal hygiene, what that baseline standard would be. Oh no wait, we're talking nerds here, aren't we.

As Daniel Harris writes in Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, the aesthetic of cleanness has been developed by an advertising industry that needs to show us its products in action, but is faced with the problem that cleanliness itself has no sensuous qualities; it's the absence of dirtiness. So the industry takes a two-pronged approach: inventing sensuous qualities (such as 'fresh' scents, frothy soap suds and sparkling surfaces), and playing on our fear of things we cannot detect for ourselves: invisible bacteria, or the social stigma of not noticing our own dirtiness.

I do feel paranoid about things like bad breath and body odour, even though I know that they were invented in the early 20th century by advertising agencies hawking soaps and mouthwashes. This is because from time to time I do find someone's breath and body odour disagreeable, and I can't help but wonder if they recoil at me. Of course, this paranoia wrestles with another of my impulses: laziness. That is why it is always reassuring to discover that someone else has their weak points when it comes to personal hygiene.

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