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The Hygiene Culture Wars That Started on Social Media
Beyond the jokes, this viral conversation is making for some insightful cultural observations
In May, a tweet by a White woman started a debate about washing your legs in the shower. “i don’t like use soap on my whole body when i shower? and i don’t think i’m gross? I pretty much just wash my face and my armpits with soap,” she wrote. “And I shower like once or twice a week lol. I think it’s fine.”
A myriad of people of color responded to the thread, horrified at the idea of A) not washing your legs in the shower and B) only showering once or twice a week. The offending tweet was ratioed to death, with 500 retweets and 1,500 replies that varied from disgusted to shocked to relating lack of hygiene to White people specifically. The website Very Smart Brothas later published a video called “The Case for Washcloths: Why White People Need to Wash Their Damn Legs,” while Latinx people responded by tweeting “Lavate las piernas!!” (“Wash your legs!!”). In response, the original poster characterized cleanliness as “weird classist bullshit”.
It’s impossible to count how many indirect responses were posted as the incredulity and disgust soon turned into a meme. Journalist Yashar Ali tweeted “Everytime I wash my legs I say a prayer for all the white folks who don’t.” After yet another White woman confessed to never washing her feet, Black feminist writer and activist Feminista Jones changed her display name to “FJ the Hygenic, Washer of Legs & Feet.”
From physical obstacles, like an inaccessible bathroom to mental illnesses that complicate the ability to do simple tasks like showering, hygiene can be tricky for many people.
I see variations of these jokes every few days pop-up on my timeline. But despite the mockery, the topic keeps popping up again and again. Last week, Stella McCartney said we should stop washing our clothes because of global warming. This week, White people were arguing that a pool is a bath, and no further cleansing is necessary after swimming. While we are being told not to wash by privileged White people, other intersections that affect this topic are being willfully ignored.
Is hygiene about race or about class? The claim that class and hygiene intersect isn’t all the way bogus, but it is incomplete as an explanation for poor hygiene. In an academic article that explores the relationship between middle class identity and disgust of the working class, sociologist Steph Lawler has argued that the feeling of disgust is part of how the middle class sets itself apart from the working class. This is a subjectivity that has no real grounding in reality — what is disgusting to the upper classes is the lower classes themselves rather than their practices. In short, disgust for lower classes comes before any actual pressures to wash, and the disgust is distributed across gender, race, class, and disability.
In late stage capitalism, access to hygiene is fraught; even if someone can afford hygiene products, many disabilities can make it difficult for one to shower regularly. From physical obstacles, like an inaccessible bathroom to mental illnesses that complicate the ability to do simple tasks like showering, hygiene can be tricky for many people.
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. Ideas of “dirty” and “smelly” have marginalized many minority groups. Though many immigrants rally around their home country’s usually fragrant food, bringing them into public spaces can result in racist sentiments causing immigrants and first-generation Americans to dread the “lunchbox moment” at work or at school.
The myth that Black hair is “dirty” and “unprofessional” has resulted in workplace and school bans, as well as societal pressure for Black people to relax their hair and forego naturally protective styles like dreadlocks. A mixture of ignorance and homophobia further marginalized the LGBTQ population during the AIDS/HIV crisis, with many people and authorities avoiding touching or being around AIDS patients. Being understood as dirty or clean can be the line between violence and survival for minorities.
Take another Twitter controversy where a White woman wrote a thread about how she was challenged by a stranger in a public bathroom because she did not wash her hands after using the toilet. She said she would wash her hands later, which begs the question — will she also be scrubbing everything she touches until she actually washes her hands? Again, this was not about access (the water and soap were right there) but about choosing a filthy hill and dying on it.
Almost ritualistically now, people of color respond in disgust in what I sometimes read as a visceral reaction to being stereotyped as dirty and recognizing the oppressors who stigmatized us this way aren’t actually that much cleaner than us — if at all. It is not that the under classes are filthy and are pressured to wash more — they are perceived as polluting society just by existing. An example of this is how society treats homeless people by creating hostile architecture to sanitize public spaces instead of the simple, evidence-based solution of giving them homes.
The tensions around this topic have revealed who is allowed to live comfortably unwashed, and whose survival depends on hygienic practices. It’s a commentary on who the gatekeepers of “clean” are.
Statistically, minority groups experience higher rates of homelessness, with African Americans making up 40% of the homeless population in the U.S. A 2016 study investigating the intersection of homelessness and race showed that the criminalization of homelessness has a disparate impact on communities of color, and that this is heavily impacted by biased policing.
What this bad-hygiene-posturing-as-class-analysis usually ignores is the humanizing potential of hygiene practices themselves. If stereotyping people of color and immigrants as unkempt has power, so does proving White people wrong on all accounts. The generational trauma of being seen as dirty can go deep. As @dopegirlfresh said on Twitter, “I really cannot stress enough how ‘poor but clean’ is a thing. across race and immigration status. ppl who’re half or one generation removed from poverty carry this with us. you wash your ass. your clothes are clean and NEVER wrinkled. we don’t get those liberties!”
Heartbreakingly, while this Hygiene Race Wars installments pop-up every few weeks, the dehumanizing conditions of the concentration camps at the U.S. border are being exposed. Perhaps relatedly, one of the ways ICE is dehumanizing the detained migrants is by denying them basic hygiene. Reports reveal that detained migrant children are not given toothbrushes or soap for personal cleansing and hundreds of male immigrants have not been able to shower for at least 40 days.
Immigrants detained at the border are being treated like they don’t need to wash because the authoritarian government believes they are animals, not humans. This is a dehumanization tactic used often in incarceration. Incarcerated women report making their own makeup to keep their humanity and dignity in a horrific system designed to break them. Poor standards of hygiene and lack of toiletries can often result in health crisis across prisons. Although federal prisons are required to provide feminine hygiene products, many prisons fail to do so. In a piece for the now defunct Racked, Monica Cosby, a previously incarcerated woman, said: “The more you dehumanize someone, the less human they become. We struggle to just stay human and maintain whatever kind of dignity we can there.”
If you don’t want to wash yourself, you don’t need to tweet about it or pretend it’s some political crusade when there are people who are incarcerated that are being denied basic hygiene every day.
During the Holocaust, part of the dehumanization of the Jewish people was in the denial of basic hygiene. This caused health problems — a lice comb could be the difference between life and death — and it stripped people of their personalities, thus helping the stigmatization. In Auschwitz, staying clean or having a change of clothes was impossible but many prisoners tried to clean without soap or water: “we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets…. …for dignity… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet… …to remain alive, not to begin to die.’”
The tensions around this topic have revealed who is allowed to live comfortably unwashed, and whose survival depends on hygienic practices. It’s a commentary on who the gatekeepers of “clean” are — both in terms of its meaning and its practice.
Not all White people who post about their quirky personal hygiene habits are racist, but to couch their admissions with a flimsy class analysis or rhetoric around freedom is disingenuous. If you don’t want to wash yourself, you don’t need to tweet about it or pretend it’s some political crusade when there are people who are incarcerated that are being denied basic hygiene every day.
It’s no use to classify basic hygiene as classist when its practices are so dependent on culture, race, ethnicity, and (dis)ability. Having the ability to practice basic hygiene is a human right that should be equally distributed across the board. Taking a shower once a week, or not washing your feet, does not abolish norms that have been drilled into the fabric of our society for generations. Those who don’t have access to hygiene, should have access to it — whatever this might mean in terms of capital, accessibility, care, or incarceration.
And to those of you who already have access to water and soap: Please, for the love of God, wash your legs.