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Excerpt: 'The Dirt on Clean'


Chapter 1

For the modern, middle-class North American, "clean" means that you shower and apply deodorant each and every day without fail. For the aristocratic seventeenth-century Frenchman, it meant that he changed his linen shirt daily and dabbled his hands in water but never touched the rest of his body with water or soap. For the Roman in the first century, it involved two or more hours of splashing, soaking and steaming the body in water of various temperatures, raking off sweat and oil with a metal scraper, and giving himself a final oiling — all done daily, in company and without soap.

Even more than in the eye or the nose, cleanliness exists in the mind of the beholder. Every culture defines it for itself, choosing what it sees as the perfect point between squalid and over-fastidious. The modern North American, the seventeenth-century Frenchman and the Roman were each convinced that cleanliness was an important marker of civility and that his way was the royal road to a properly groomed body.

It follows that hygiene has always been a convenient stick with which to beat other peoples, who never seem to get it right. The outsiders usually err on the side of dirtiness. The ancient Egyptians thought that sitting a dusty body in still water, as the Greeks did, was a foul idea. Late-nineteenth-century Americans were scandalized by the dirtiness of Europeans; the Nazis promoted the idea of Jewish uncleanliness. At least since the Middle Ages, European travellers have enjoyed nominating the continent's grubbiest country—the laurels usually went to France or Spain. Sometimes the other is, suspiciously, too clean — which is how the Muslims, who scoured their bodies and washed their genitals, struck Europeans for centuries. The Muslims returned the compliment, regarding Europeans as downright filthy.

Most modern people have a sense that not much washing was done until the twentieth century, and the question I was asked most often while writing this book always came with a look of barely contained disgust: "But didn't they smell?" As St. Bernard said, where all stink, no one smells. The scent of one another's bodies was the ocean our ancestors swam in, and they were used to the everyday odour of dried sweat. It was part of their world, along with the smells of cooking, roses, garbage, pine forests and manure. Twenty years ago, airplanes, restaurants, hotel rooms and most other public indoor spaces were thick with cigarette smoke. Most of us never noticed it. Now that these places are usually smoke-free, we shrink back affronted when we enter a room where someone has been smoking. The nose is adaptable, and teachable.

The North American reader, schooled on advertisements for soap and deodorants, is likely to protest at this point: "But body odour is different from smoke. Body odour is innately disgusting." My own experience tells me that isn't true. For the first seven years of my life, I spent countless hours with my maternal grandmother, who came from Germany. She lived only a few houses down the street from us in Rochester, New York, and she often took care of us grandchildren. She was a cheerful, hard-working woman, perpetually cooking, cleaning, sewing, crocheting or knitting. Two smells bring my grandmother vividly to mind. One is the warm amalgam of yeast and linen, from the breads she shrouded in tea towels and set to rise on her dining-room radiators. The other smell came from my grandmother herself. As a child, I never thought to describe it or wonder what it was — it was just part of my grandmother. Whom I loved, so the smell never troubled me.

When I married, my husband and I went to Germany on our honeymoon, staying in bed-and-breakfasts in small, clean-swept Bavarian towns. There, unexpectedly, memories of my grandmother came flooding back. The industrious Bavarian women who cleaned our rooms and made our breakfasts didn't just act like my grandmother; they smelled like her. By then, as an adult raised in cleaner-than-clean North America, I knew what the smell was — the muffled, acrid odour of stale sweat — and for the first time, I consciously connected my grandmother's characteristic smell to its cause. She cleaned her house ferociously but not her body, or not very often. (It was a northern European habit I would later read about, when travellers from other European countries, as far back as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would marvel at the cleanliness of Swiss, German and Dutch houses and even streets, but note that it did not extend to their bodies.)

I had to learn that my grandmother's smell was not "good," as determined by twentieth-century North American standards. My natural, uncultivated reaction was that it was neutral or better. Similarly, there are tribes that consider the odour of menstrual blood pleasant because it signifies fertility; others that find it repulsive, because their taboos include blood or secretions; and still other tribes that remain indifferent to it. When it comes to feelings about our bodies or those of other people, much depends on the assumptions of our group.

To modern Westerners, our definition of cleanliness seems inevitable, universal and timeless. It is none of these things, being a complicated cultural creation and a constant work in progress. My grandmother kept her Old Country notions of cleanliness until she died, in the late 1970s. Her daughter, my mother, left Germany when she was six, in 1925. Growing up in Rochester, she went to college and became a nurse. She also became an American, watching with the immigrant's ever-vigilant eye as her adopted country ratcheted up the cleanliness standards in the 1930s and '40s.

She remembered the advertising campaigns, launched by razor manufacturers, inculcating the novel idea that women's hairy legs and underarms were bad and, in the case of underarms, encouraged body odour. She remembered when she first heard of a newfangled product known as deodorant and when she realized that something called shampoo worked better than the boiled-down soap her mother produced for washing hair. She never wore perfume because, as she liked to say, "That's what Europeans use instead of soap." (Not that perfume had ever touched her no-nonsense mother's body.) Her own regime involved plenty of soap and Mitchum's, a clinically packaged deodorant "for problem perspiration."

In my generation, standards reached more absurd levels. The idea of a body ready to betray me at any turn filled the magazine ads I pored over in Seventeen and in Mademoiselle in the late 1950s and early '60s. The lovely-looking girls in those pages were regularly baffled by their single state or their failure to get a second date or their general unpopularity, and all because their breath, their hair, their underarms or-- the worst — their private parts were not "fresh." A long-running series of cartoon-style ads for Kotex sanitary napkins alerted me to the impressive horrors of menstrual blood, which apparently could announce its presence to an entire high school.

The most menacing aspect of the smells that came with poor-to-middling hygiene was that, as we were constantly warned, we could be guilty of them without even knowing it! There was no way we could ever rest assured that we were clean enough. For me, the epitome of feminine daintiness was the model who posed on the cover of a Kotex pamphlet about menstruation, titled You're a Young Lady Now. This paragon, a blue-eyed blonde wearing a pageboy hairdo and a pale blue shirtwaist dress, had clearly never had a single extraneous hair on her body and smelled permanently of baby powder. I knew I could never live up to her immaculate blondness, but much of my world was telling me I had to try.

While ads for men told them they would not advance at the office without soap and deodorant, women fretted that no one would want to have sex with them unless their bodies were impeccably clean. No doubt that's why the second-most-frequent question I heard during the writing of this book — almost always from women — was a rhetorical "How could they bear to have sex with each other?" In fact, there's no evidence that the birthrate ever fell because people were too smelly for copulation. And although modern people have a hard time accepting it, at least in public, the relationship between sex and odourless cleanliness is neither constant nor predictable. The ancient Egyptians went to great lengths to be clean, but both sexes anointed their genitals with perfumes designed to deepen and exaggerate their natural aroma. Most ancient civilizations matter-of-factly acknowledged that, in the right circumstances, a gamy, earthy body odour can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Napoleon and Josephine were fastidious for their time in that they both took a long, hot, daily bath. But Napoleon wrote Josephine from a campaign, "I will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don't wash."

Early in my reading about the history of cleanliness, I began talking one day at a lunch about some of the extremes, in both directions, that I was discovering. Another guest, a journalist, was astonished. "I just assume everyone is like me," she said, "showering every single day, no more, no less." Her assumption, even about educated North Americans like her, is not true, but most people are loath to admit that they deviate from the norm. As I went on reading about cleanliness, people began taking me aside and confessing things: several didn't use deodorant, just washed with soap and water; some didn't shower or bathe daily. Two writers told me separately that they had a washing superstition: as the end of a long project neared, they stopped washing their hair and didn't shampoo until it was finished. One woman confided that her husband of some twenty years takes long showers at least three times a day: she would love, she said wistfully, to know what he "really" smells like, as opposed to deodorant soap.

Something similar happened during the writing of my last book, which was about mourning customs. Most of the traditional customs were obsolete and considered primitive or sentimental — or both — by a world interested in "moving on" as quickly as possible. But while I worked on that book, people would tell me privately about a mourning observance that was acutely important for them, even if it didn't seem quite right in the twenty-first century — how they wore their father's old undershirts, for example, or had long talks with their dead wife. Now that people were confiding their washing eccentricities — usually on the side of less scrupulosity rather than more — I was amused. Is a failure to meet the standards of the Clean Police as bizarre as full-blown mourning in the modern world? The surreptitious way people revealed their deviations to me indicates how thoroughly we have been conditioned: to risk smelling like a human is a misdemeanour, and the goal is to smell like an exotic fruit (mango, papaya, passion fruit) or a cookie (vanilla, coconut, ginger). The standard we read about in magazines and see on television is a sterilized and synthetic one, "as if we're not on this earth," a male friend remarked, but it takes some courage to disregard it.

Excerpted from The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg. Copyright © 2007 by Katherine Ashenburg. Published in November 2007 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Katherine Ashenburg