Anthropologically Clean: A Note On Personal Hygiene

V.S. Ravi

Feb 11, 2021, 10:37 PM | Updated 10:37 PM IST

  • How different cultures and ages looked at cleanliness.
  • Nearly all of us are familiar with the fastidious and fussy housewife who seems to devote all her time and energy to cleaning the house or spends hours in the bathroom whenever she goes in to wash her hair or to take a shower.

    The sight of clothes (either her husband’s or her teenage son’s) lying in a heap in one corner of the house, or lying helter-skelter all over the drawing room, or the previous day’s dust covering the furniture like a thin film can send her into a homicidal fury.

    Indeed she would like to refer to her house as a “pig sty” and the sight of an empty can of discarded talcum powder or empty bottle of cologne on the dressing table can set off the equivalent of a minor earthquake leading to violence and the total breakdown of communication and domestic harmony.

    When it comes to cleanliness, the boundary that separates the particular from the pathological is thinly defined. Cleanliness is, after all, a question of degree but many people, particularly in advanced countries and in affluent homes even in developing countries, seem to be so obsessed with it, that their behaviour approaches mania.

    The American millionaire Howard Hughes is supposed to have had such a morbid fear of germs that he was forced to live the life of a recluse in isolation.

    There are many more persons whose behaviour would appear equally strange.

    For example, one person would brush his teeth several times a day to get them to look extra clean as can be seen in television commercials.

    Another person would perhaps rinse his fingers with soap and water in the wash basin whenever any one shakes hands with him.

    A third person would dip his cycle in a bucket filled with a disinfectant " if he suspected that someone with an infectious disease had accidentally sat on it.

    Truly, human behaviour can go to absurd lengths when it comes to a question of keeping oneself clean or keeping germs away.

    By all indications, most people, particularly in advanced nations, are gradually reaching a stage when they can only be described as soap-crazy cleanliness freaks.

    It is estimated that in the United States alone about twenty billion dollars are spent every year on cleaning and bathroom items.

    But some psychologists believe that most of the cleaning practised is meant for display and sexual attraction rather than for hygiene. The cosmetic industry would not thrive so well if it were not for such an attitude.

    The liberal use of the so called flavoured hygiene sprays is sexually motivated and reflects an intense desire on the part of the users to look or taste sweet rather than mere eagerness to remove dirt.

    Much of the hand washing is done by people more perhaps to protect their clothing and the things they handle rather than to simply clean dirt from their hands. However hand washing has now emerged as an effective protective shield against COVID-19 along with the face mask

    Every society in this world has its own idea of what it means to be clean. To some people, cleanliness would imply purification of the soul or the environment. To others it is a personal state defined by sparkling white teeth, beautiful shining skin and a lack of body odour , as glorified on the television screen.

    Some anthropologists believe that much of our concern for personal cleanliness can be traced to the so called sexual revolution which has made us more aware of or bodies. They feel that the ethnic diversity of the cities and countries, whatever be the region of the globe, has played an even larger role in this obsession.

    Hence, in their view personal cleanliness may be a largely urban phenomenon.

    Different diets and habits produce different odours and when you put them together in a city, people become more consciously aware of the odour of one another.

    Therefore, anthropologists speculate that it probably was city people who developed the notion that it was not right to give off a strong smell; so it logically follows that in order not to offend anyone, affluent people in some developed nations have adopted a common standard of cleanliness .

    Cleanliness would have to be regarded as an obsession when it begins to impair other daily functions and interferes with normal human behaviour.

    The executive who spends ten minutes every three hours washing his hands and the housewife who cleans her dressing table and wardrobe ten times every day are, in the opinion of psychiatrists, suffering from obsessive compulsive disorders i.e. anxiety conditions which can be extremely frustrating and annoying causing great discomfort to the victims.

    A commonly prevalent problem is the simple compulsion to repeatedly perform a certain cleaning ritual. People saddled with this annoying habit may be irrational but they are not psychotic. They are otherwise normal persons who are just suffering from a disorder known as “ compulsive neurosis”

    Let us examine the genesis and manifestation of the above disorder. As people think of contamination, anxiety sets in.

    As they continue to fret, the anxiety builds up until it reaches a critical point.

    Then the victims feel compelled to begin their ritual, such as hand washing.

    Once they give in to the compulsion their anxiety quickly fades and therein lies the problem.

    Before long any anxiety whether associated with a contaminant or not, can once again trigger the cleaning ritual and so the endless cycle begins.

    Traditional forms of treatment like psychoanalysis have had little success in treating such disorders. But a form of behaviour therapy which is known as “flooding” has yielded some positive results.

    “Flooding”, which is performed on patients hypnotised means that the doctor does not allow people to engage in the compulsion, e.g. the compulsion to wash. The patient first complains almost like a drug addict who is not given his usual dose but the anxiety gradually dies down. It is not as quick a decline as it would be if the patient is allowed to wash, but it yields positive results in the long run.

    If this therapy also fails, the psychiatrists take more drastic action such as hospitalising the patient, allowing him to wash his hand in the morning and then completely preventing access to the wash basin or a tap during the rest of the day.

    A brief review of the history of cleanliness provides an insight into the genesis of our current mania.

    The ancient Greeks used baths more for health reasons than for removal of dirt and, in Rome, bath was a social duty to be performed in the company of others. India has been since ancient times on a different footing.

    In India, for a variety of reasons (medical, hygienic and religious) a bath was considered an essential activity a person had to perform before starting the day and also on returning home after a day’s work.

    Some historians feel that in Europe by the middle ages, people who had not bathed for a long time perhaps due to the cold weather, were inclined to hold conversations through handkerchiefs soaked in perfumes or aromatic herbs. According to them, the cold weather also contributed to this reluctance to take bath .

    In their view bathing, a matter of private cleanliness became fashionable only in the middle of the nineteenth century.

    Bathing is the cornerstone of the present day Western notion of cleanliness but its psychology is no simple matter.

    One scientist who analysed the bathing behaviour of people came to the conclusion that those who depended on the shower to wake them up in the morning were almost addicted to the habit. They reported that without it their whole day “went wrong”.

    For others, it seemed that the bathing ritual helped generate the hope that the day in question would be better than the last. Still others savoured the sensuous self-discovery involved in bathing.

    The lathering of one’s body with soap getting all of it covered and then washing it off, comes close to narcissism i.e. worshipping one’s own body- a theme repeated over and again in television commercials employing nubile maidens to perform the ritual before millions of adoring viewers.

    Many bathers seem to take literally the dictum that cleanliness is next to Godliness. Some people perhaps subconsciously associate bathing with baptism and absolution, and other soul- cleaning rites.

    Some even see in bathing a hint of immortality perhaps because cleanliness suggests smooth healthy skin as opposed to the wrinkles of old age that Gerard Manley Hopkins described in The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo.

    Indeed some psychologists believe that the person who is obsessively preoccupied with cleanliness is trying to get rid of some subconscious guilt feelings. Hence, the compulsive urge to clean, to wash several times a day!

    There are, however, a few drawbacks to our mania for cleanliness. Worrisome to clean nature lovers is that the perfume in many soaps, lotions and deodorants can even attract insects including mosquitoes. But while attracting insects, fastidiousness can repel spouses; unless both mates hold compatible standards of cleanliness, a marriage probably will not be happy or long lasting.

    Perhaps, the most distressing side-effect of cleanliness is that it masks our natural body odours, in effect throwing a blanket over our pheromones, the body’s natural aphrodisiacs, intended by biological laws for attracting opposite sexes.

    History records humorous anecdotes with a sexual slant, such as the ones concerning Napoleon and Louis XIV both of whom had an instinctive awareness of the role of the body’s odours.

    Napoleon is said to have sent a special message to Josephine not to have a bath before approaching him, following a long separation.

    Similarly, Louis the XIV would never permit a lady into his bed if she had taken a bath within the previous month.

    Both of them apparently did not need any text book or doctor to convince them that no cologne spray or perfume can rival the human body’s natural odours, the intoxicating fragrance of the loved one’s silken hair and the aphrodisiacal scent of her honeyed sweat.

    We would, therefore, have to conclude that while the desire to keep things clean and keep oneself clean is to a certain extent to be admired, cleanliness beyond a certain degree is not only next to impossible but is also a waste of time and perhaps even undesirable and contrary to nature.

    In its extreme form, it can become a pathological obsession destroying sexual attraction, that forms the foundation of the ancient mating ritual, sanctioned by the laws of evolution for the perpetuation of the species.

    V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons.) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.

    V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.

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