A Few Thoughts on Hygiene

One of the aspects of the pubic-hair-removal question that I’m particularly interested in is the question of hygiene. It’s an issue that has come up again and again in both my reading and in conversations with women.

I know we’re a cleanliness-obsessed culture, but when people tell me this issue isn’t worth getting worked up about because it’s merely a question of ‘hygiene’ (ie. it’s not a ‘feminist’ issue), I can’t help but think twice. Because I definitely think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

I spent part of yesterday flipping through a book by Elizabeth Shove called Comfort, Cleanliness + Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality. While the bulk of the book is devoted to issues of consumption and convenience as they relate to homes, cleaning practices (think laundry and housework), and the rise of the bathroom, she does spend some time considering body practices — particularly as they relate to bathing and showering. It definitely got me thinking.

Obviously, there is an easy connection to be drawn between cleanliness and morality in contemporary culture. After all, ‘dirty’ is a loaded word, implying all sorts of social ills that have nothing to do with being unclean. We are a dirt and germ-obsessed culture. We can beckon squirts of antibacterial hand sanitizer from dispensers in public places. We douse our floors and countertops with chemicals in a bid to banish microscopic bits of grime. We wonder about people who don’t take daily showers.

But as Shove writes, “moral regimes are to some extent commodified, scripted and embedded in the tools and infrastructures on which we rely.” (p.84). She continues, writing:

“Whatever the beliefs and technologies of the day, doing what people think of as cleaning, whether of the person or of clothing, generally requires a rather high level of active participation. Cleaning consequently involves the routine reproduction not just of classificatory schemes of delicacy, propriety and gender, but also of performance.”  (p.85)

And there’s this:

“It is the every day activity of laundering or showering that convinces people there is dirt to remove.” (p.85)

After all, as Shove explains so well, views on cleanliness change. In the 16th Century, people believe the body was porous and so didn’t encourage frequent washing lest you should fill up with water. In the 17th and 18th Century, people believed that stench — from nearby cemeteries and cesspools — could penetrate the body, so the priority became in removing smell, not dirt. Perfume was thought to be an effective protection against disease.

As Shove writes, “If smell spelt danger then the best indication of hygiene was the lack, rather than the presence of overwhelming scent.” They are, as she points out, “ideas that still inform contemporary bathing and laundry practices.” (p.87)

Since one of my questions is around how we got to this place where pubic hair removal on women is becoming the dominant body practice, I think it’s important that we think about this question of how we understand hygiene — especially in terms of how it relates to women’s intimate bits.

The short answer is that it’s all constructed, people: how we view our bodies, each other, the world. It’s never just about, say, hygiene.

If you’ve been following along, you probably know where I’m going with this…stay tuned for more…


(Work Cited: Shove, E. Comfort. Cleanliness and Convenience: the Social Organization of Normality. Oxford ; New York : BERG, 2003)


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  • If there were really a legitimate question to be raised about hygiene and body hair, the practice of hair removal would be distributed between the sexes with the same ratio as daily showers or use of antibacterial soap. The fact that it isn’t is telling.