Getting a kid to bathe is often like asking them to be flayed alive, but perhaps they’re on to something. We’ve gotten so used to modern conveniences that we’ve forgot that they’re modern and think these things are eternal. As an example, showering daily and using deodorant. It seems a necessity, but it was not always so, and it may not be even now. Some people in America are now bathing less, according to the NYTimes, and they’re not all hippies. Frequent showers and use of deodorant may be a social more worth discussing to see how much it actually makes sense.
For a long time bathing would have been necessarily social. People stuck to the rivers and lakes that they were used to. The most simple thing is to bathe like the elephants, just wade into the water. Any other type of bathing either involves some sort of plumbing, or people to move water about. In some places like Sri Lanka you’re rarely more than a few kilometres from some body of water so you can just walk in. Even here, however, our ancestors mastered some pretty slick water engineering like the baths in Anuradhapura from over a thousand years ago. In India, also, bathing in the Ganges is so old that it’s ritualized within the Hindu religion. The basic form of bathing seems to be finding some body of water and immersing yourself in it. This is simple, but inherently social. There are still public baths all over, including Sri Lanka, from the village to, like, Colombo. I just saw a bunch of men at a public well in Dehiwela, next to a garbage dump. I wanted to take a picture but, well.
Even when plumbing technology came in, bathing seemed to remain social. It was easier to plumb a public bathhouse than every home. Chinese and Japanese bathhouse culture seemed to spread from Buddhist monasteries in India. Indeed, Sri Lanka still has the ruins of ancient bathing centres, within monasteries. Greek and Roman baths were a bit more secular and, in some cases, sexual. Greeks seem to have bathed frequently, and Romans built public baths on a grand scale. The wealthy also had private baths, with Nero’s wife bathing in asses milk daily (Pliny The Elder). It sounds more funny if you say ass milk. The record of rites in Confucian China (6th century), however, only recommend taking a hot water bath every five days (Joseph Needham).
After the fall of Rome, however, bathing – which had become mixed sex and a bit vulgar in places – fell into disfavor. The Arabs occupying Alexandria did make a tragic attempt to keep bathing going by burning books from the Library of Alexandria to keep the water warm. In the east, however, bathhouse culture continued during this time. At some point, however, they started recycling water and letting all manner of ruffians and diseased people in, reducing the efficacy of what were then called Chaos Houses (Needham).
At this point you could say that bathing was inherently social and pleasurable. Bathing in a lake is fun and bathing in a well-designed Roman bathhouse must have been great. At some point, however, you simply get too many people in the bath and it gets dirty and sexualized. Like Facebook. The history of bathing went through loops like this, people enjoyed it, then they enjoyed it too much, then it stopped. This was repeated cross-culturally. In Samurai Japan, for example, baths with female attendants got out of hand and were regulated.
Around 800 Charlemagne emerged out of the western loop to discover hot water public bathing again and it again became popular (at least among the upper classes). This spread for a while until it inevitably got dirty and sexualized. The baths in Bath England were reopened around 1200, though by 1814 men and women were only allowed in on alternate days. This implies that one could bathe, at best, once every two days. Cross-culturally, however, it seems that the East was cleaner than the West. In an interview, Katherine Ashenburg, the author of ‘The Dirt on Clean’ said:
Christianity turns out to be the only great world religion — great in the sense of widespread and influential — that had no teaching or interest in hygiene. In the early years of the church, the holier you were, the less you wanted to be clean. Cleanliness was kind of a luxury, like food, drink and sex, because cleanliness was comfortable and attractive. The holier you were — and this really applied to monks and hermits and saints — the less you would wash. And the more you smelled, the closer to God people thought you were.
So then did Buddhists and Muslims think Christians were filthy?
Absolutely. And they were right, too. (Ashenburg, via Salon)
It was only later that bathing became private, yet that is something we now take for granted. This started from health concerns but gradually went beyond that. Private bathrooms began as a fashion in France and then gradually became a necessity in Western homes. What was once a public joy became a private shame and a pleasure, if enjoyed, enjoyed alone. Then, however, the cleanliness thing got married to commerce and any number of things had to be clean before you even went out. Now frequent baths are demanded socially, even if the medical need may not be there. This brings us back, in an extremely roundabout way, to the New York Times article I was referencing. In that, they describe westerners who now bathe less frequently. And they may not be insane.
Is there any health benefit to bathing every day, or is it more of a social convention?
It’s totally a social convention, according to the doctors I spoke with. They said it’s very important to wash below our wrists [i.e., hands], and the worst thing that could happen to you, if you suddenly became a 17th century person and never washed beyond your wrists, would be some skin conditions or fungal things. It’s no doubt comfortable to be clean. But there is no health benefit to washing above the wrists [i.e., the body] other than possibly preventing some fungal things. (Ashenburg, via Salon)
To quote the Times article:
Defying a culture of clean that has prevailed at least since the 1940s, a contingent of renegades deliberately forgoes daily bathing and other gold standards of personal hygiene, like frequent shampooing and deodorant use.
To the converted, there are many reasons to cleanse less and smell more like yourself. “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.”
In the west, this may be true. In Sri Lanka I’m not so sure, a day out does leave you wanting a shower something terribly. However, it does seem that culture -responding to a hygienic need – responded by promoting bathing. It seems that bathing, while no longer literally social, is still social in the sense that our attitudes towards it are socially defined.