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As I admitted to some colleagues earlier this week, I have a lot of thoughts about how often celebrities bathe… which even I acknowledge is a bizarre thing to have an opinion on. But what can I say? Twitter made me.
I wasn’t planning on spending any time over the past few weeks thinking about how often Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis wash their children, much less themselves, but the more celebrities talked about their showering habits, the more this deeply inconsequential topic began to take on some pop cultural significance.
There's a stark divide in reactions to any viral story involving cleanliness—remember the great leg-washing debate of 2019, when a Twitter user posted a poll asking if people wash their legs in the shower? Most people, and particularly racialized folks, tend to be… a little grossed out when celebrities and internet randoms say they don’t wash their legs, rarely bathe or otherwise neglect basic hygiene practices. Meanwhile, a small minority tend to be dismissive, as if those of us who are pro-daily showers are overreacting. (And I do mean a minority; during the leg-washing thing, about 700,000 people replied to the Twitter poll and only 20% reported not washing their legs, according to Elite Daily.)
I don’t think anyone actually feels super strongly about this, as much as social media has turned it into a Discourse. But even though it’s kind of silly, I do think it’s worth explicitly stating that these conversations aren’t actually about how often wealthy people use their fancy soap and expensive marble showers. Or at least, it’s not only about that. It’s also about who gets to be dirty, and the inherent unfairness of cultural elite getting to transgress social norms around hygiene when those of us who belong to marginalized groups—including racialized, fat and disabled people—have to be hyper aware of the way we look and smell, because we are so often perceived as unclean.
(Further to that point, conversations about celebrity hygiene are also not about people who can’t shower daily because of their physical or mental health, or because they don’t have access to clean water. But more on that later.)
In case you somehow, blessedly, missed this whole thing, the reason we’ve been talking about hygiene on the soul-sucking bird app is the July 19 episode of Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast, where he and wife Kirsten Bell chatted with Kutcher and Kunis about raising their kids, and Kunis said she “wasn’t that parent that bathed [her] newborns. Ever.” Kutcher agreed, saying, “here’s the thing. If you can see the dirt on them, clean them. Otherwise, there’s no point.”
Then, in an August 3 episode of The View, Shepard and Bell expanded on that conversation, explaining that while they used to give their kids baths every night, they stopped when their daughters started going to bed on their own. “By George, we had to start saying, ‘Hey, when’s the last time you bathed them?’” Shepard said. “Once you catch a whiff, that’s biology’s way of letting you know you need to clean it up. There’s a red flag, because honestly, it’s just bacteria. And once you get the bacteria, you gotta be like, ‘Get in the tub or the shower,’” Bell added.
Then, in an August 5 interview about his new role as the face of Prada’s Luna Rossa Ocean fragrance (the irony!!!!), Jake Gyllenhaal talked about his shower routine, which seems to be characterized, at least partially, by avoidance. “More and more I find bathing to be less necessary, at times,” he told Vanity Fair writer Laura Regensdorf. “I do believe, because Elvis Costello is wonderful, that good manners and bad breath get you nowhere. So I do that. But I do also think that there’s a whole world of not bathing that is also really helpful for skin maintenance, and we naturally clean ourselves.” To be fair, this is true of ears and vaginas, but armpits do not clean themselves, Jake, I’m sorry.
From there, other celebrities started sharing their hygiene habits, and it became an actual news cycle that doesn't seem to be slowing down. (Terry Crews is the latest to weigh in.)
Wassup with people saying they don’t shower ? 🤨 It’s giving itchy.— iamcardib (@iamcardib) August 10, 2021
This is not actually a new conversation. People have been interested in celebrities’ hygiene from time. If I recall my early 2000s women’s mag blind items correctly, there was a rumour that when Brad Pitt was filming Troy, he wouldn’t shower after shooting wrapped each day, instead opting for a steady supply of cologne and clean linen shirts. (It seems to have gotten worse since then.) And roundups of celebrities who smell bad or have poor personal hygiene have been gossip-blog gold for years. (Exhibit A, B, C, D…) Partially, this is because as a society, we are deeply curious about all aspects of celebrities’ lives. We care what they eat, we care what cars they drive, we care what coffee they drink and yes, we care about how and when they shower. We might pretend that we don’t, but if that was true, celebrity endorsements would not be so effective, so. And you know, there’s probably also an element of schadenfreude here. For all our collective interest in celebrity, there’s also something pleasing about the idea that ‘fancy’ people who have extreme wealth and privilege can be flawed, too.
Lots of groups of people can’t afford to do all these weird once a week, bird bath things you are all opining about. Black people, poor people, immigrants, fat people have all been labeled as “dirty” by society and I assure you, we can’t just skip around unwashed. But do you!— roxane gay (@rgay) August 5, 2021
And ‘flawed’ is the key word there. Physical cleanliness and moral purity have been linked forever—that’s why so many religious ceremonies or practices involve ritualistic cleansing, for example. Even as our societies became more secular, that connection didn’t disappear. In fact, a 2006 article published in Science found that when people have behaved unethically or experienced a “threat to their moral self-image,” they literally seek to wash away their sins by cleaning themselves or their environments. But it goes much further than getting up close and personal with soap, because cleanliness and purity has also become firmly intertwined with the concept of whiteness. According to a Nautilus blog on how the colour white became associated with goodness, “as European colonists encountered other groups in America and West Africa, there was ‘a new interest in whiteness both as an indicator that clothes were clean, but also a racial indicator of a kind of refinement and civility,’ says [historian Kathleen Brown, who literally wrote the book on evolving attitudes toward cleanliness]. In portraits of 17th- and 18th-century European settlers, particularly women, faces ‘start to glow like weird white ghosts,’ showing their purity as bearers of civilization. In later years, white’s symbolism was appropriated into ideas of racial purity, manifested in Nazi language like ‘racial hygiene’ and Ku Klux Klan garb.”
That's why there were coloured-only bathrooms, water fountains and swimming pools during America's Jim Crow era—and make no mistake, those rules were explicitly about protecting white people from 'contamination.' In an American Radioworks documentary about Jim Crow, a New Mexico man talked about the pool his grandfather owned during the 50s, saying, "the sign on the outside of the pool read: Hours 10am to 6pm Tuesday— Sat. Colored: Sunday from 1pm-5pm. After 5pm on Sunday, my grandfather would drain the pool (125,000 gal.) and on Monday everyone would grab buckets of liquid chlorine and scrub the entire pool. I asked my grandfather why we did this, and he said that the colored people were unclean and this would kill any bacteria that they would bring in."
So, no wonder a lot of the criticism being levied against celebrities who don’t bathe is coming from people who don’t have that luxury. Have you noticed which stars tend to disclose their disinterest in personal hygiene? It’s not a coincidence that the people who are able to not only neglect this social norm, but also talk about that neglect with zero personal or professional consequences are, well, white. Or, for that matter, that celebrities like Jason Momoa, Jodie Turner-Smith, Cardi B, Rihanna and The Rock took pains to emphasize their cleanliness. Racialized people are constantly surrounded by messages about our fundamental dirtiness—see: every advertising campaign for a skin lightening product, plus some that are supposedly just about getting clean, like a 2017 body wash ad that showed a ‘dirty’ Black woman turning into a ‘clean’ white one. And it’s not just race—fat and disabled people receive very similar messages.
It’s already super annoying when people position what they do as normal, as if bathing every day isn’t also normal to some people. I was born in the Caribbean, where showering multiple times a day isn’t just normal, it’s necessary. But it’s way worse when the same people who taught us that we were unclean, prompting us to become hyper aware of the way our bodies, clothing and even lunches look and smell, also tell us that it's weird to care so much about hygiene.
Don’t say “most” when this clearly a cultural practice and needs to be acknowledged as such. People of Color from America to India and on are rabid about bathing.— PreOrder FOR ALL TIME !!! Shanna Miles (@srmilesauthor) August 4, 2021
All of that being said, there are obviously lots of reasons why someone might opt not to shower every day. Maybe you’re not a sweaty person (in which case: I am jealous). Maybe you have a mental or physical health problem that prevents it. Or maybe you literally don’t have clean water at your house. In Canada, there are 50 long-term drinking water advisories in effect in 31 Indigenous communities across the country, some of which have been in place for decades. There are also many reserves that don’t have boil water advisories, but also lack the infrastructure to get clean water to every home, as Alicia Elliott pointed out in a powerful 2019 essay about growing up on a reserve without running water.
“My hair would get shiny with grease within 24 hours of showering, so I would throw my hair in a ponytail to hide it,” she wrote. “My skin frequently broke out, as it was difficult to wash my face properly. I told myself I was too feminist to care about my appearance, disappearing into baggy sweaters and jeans that I could re-wear multiple times before we could get to the laundromat. But I wanted to care. I wanted to be beautiful, or at least clean. I wanted to have friends over without having to give them a tutorial on how to go to the bathroom and wash their hands at my house.”
There are many people that would love to take a bath/shower but because of mental, physical, or financial reasons they cannot. So I really cannot stand that every 4 months a rich white celebrity is like— shantilly 🍇🌻 (@shantilly_t) August 7, 2021
✨I don’t wash myself hehe I’m so quirky✨
there’s an eviction crisis.
I know we’re mostly kidding when we chirp anonymous Twitter strangers for not washing their legs or celebrities for letting their children go the better part of a week without slathering them in soap, but as with so many things, underneath the joke, there’s something thorny and difficult to grapple with: some people can skip a shower and it’s a funny trending topic that they can even leverage into their own click-worthy social media content. And some people skip a shower and feed into stereotypes about their community being dirty, disgusting and less-than.
As Nicole Froio pointed out in Zora back in 2019, “these quirky confessions of bad personal hygiene are seldom about access or the dehumanization of being seen as dirty. They’re about a choice that is made by an individual white person, expressed through some kind of personal freedom rhetoric. Not washing your legs or not taking a shower every day is not class rebellion, but a display of which bodies are allowed to be unwashed without stigma attached. The most marginalized people in society are stereotyped as dirty or smelly, but the privilege to wash once or twice a week, at most, is hardly afforded to those who live outside the margins.”
In conclusion: yes, I can write almost 2,000 words on anything, and you will pry my daily showers out of my cold dead hands.
Wired’s fascinating history of Black Twitter.
This thought-provoking feature about grief, forgiveness and Jaskirat Sidhu, the driver of the truck that plowed into the school bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos hockey team.
The reason this year is going by so quickly.
This singular 9/11 tribute, which is partially about grief and partially about early misinformation campaigns.
What’s missing from the ongoing conversation about cultural appropriation in food.
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