Longtime readers of The Examined Life know about my deep and abiding interest in the sanitary habits of Americans. It has now come to my attention that a useful addition to the corpus of research on this subject has been made. One Katherine Ashenburg* has written an entire book on the history of personal hygiene in the West. The book is called The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. Apparently, in the West, the practice of taking a bath daily is a modern one – for much of the last millenium, a monthly bath was the norm. In this, they differed from every other civilization – and in fact, the Christians had a reputation for uncleanness among the Muslims and Jews. Ashenburg blames Christianity for this, as apparently the religion placed much less emphasis on ritual cleanness than other religions like Islam or Hinduism. I am generally sceptical of such explanations – Islam, Judaism and Hinduism developed in much warmer climates where you sweat a lot more, undressing is not a life-threatening experience and splashing cool water on yourself is actually pleasant. To check the influence of Christianity, one needs to look at the rituals of cleanliness in other civilizations in the same belt, like Tibetan Buddhism, Confucianism and Shintoism… umm.. so I guess I am wrong in my scepticism.
There is no word on whether the book discusses the strange reluctance of the Americans to use bidets.
*Yes, she is the same person who wrote this article.