Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Dirt on Clean

My sister handed me the book while we were in Albany, NY for our grandmother's memorial service. I declined at first, thinking it was a diatribe about how Americans' obsession with cleanliness was fueling the drug-resistant bacterium and MRSA virus.

I'm glad I took a second look, though. Instead, the book is a history of humans' bathing habits through the millenia, from the ancient Greeks and Romans, who had elaborate bathing rituals, none of them involving soap, through the Middle Ages when no one bathed, to the present with Americans' hyper-cleanliness.

The reasons for not bathing were the most interesting to me. About the time of the plagues running through Europe in the Middle Ages, "experts" decided that illnesses were caused by the skin letting in vapors or humours, and the way to prevent this from happening was to avoid water at all cost. Bathing, it was thought, opened the pores, allowing bad things into the system. People really went their whole lives without bathing - they'd get water on them when baptised and again when they were buried. Blech.

And while the rest of the world considers Americans to be obsessed with cleanliness - just look at how much we spend per year on soaps and lotions - I'm quite happy with my daily shower. I just can't start the day without it. I don't care that it's not strictly necessary for good hygiene.

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