The reaction to the news that not all women shower everyday is sexist and elitist.
Recently a survey published under the ‘health news’ (news indeed!) section in The Independent Online created a stir. Headlined “Majority of UK women don’t bathe or take a shower daily”, it reported results that “alarmed” Maxine Flint, owner of Flint + Flint, the cosmetics company that had conducted the survey. Naturally, social media users came out en masse to criticise the sexist nature of the survey and the manner in which a supposedly reputable newspaper had portrayed its results. Clearly the survey was sexist in only targeting women as its respondents, and demonising them for their so-called lack of hygiene; men’s grooming regimes were not even mentioned. But the more I considered the issue, the more I realised that it was revelatory in how Western society views itself.
Let’s acknowledge that it was indeed a cosmetics company that came up with the moronic idea to ask women about their hygiene habits. As comedian Sara Pascoe eloquently puts it, “everyone knows now that these [women’s] magazines are just negative propaganda towards women” and, by extension, surveys such as Flint + Flint’s. The public is – or at least should be – acutely aware of the transparency of such things; that they are intended to coerce the public into buying their products, by using beauty or hygiene ideals as a yardstick to which all self-respecting women should theoretically measure themselves against. By targeting women’s insecurities to sell products not only do these companies generate capital, but the system that allows this sort of thing to happen is keeping women insecure and by default men on top of the pecking order and in control. And I’m sure most people know that these ideals are cultural constructions and are basically all bullshit, but of course we subconsciously internalise these ideas – we are all, to some extent, products of our cultures.
This particular article was prominent in its absurdity, to me at least, because The Independent quoted the NHS’s advice on hygiene alongside these ostensibly shocking results. It seems ludicrous to validate such conspicuous evangelism of women’s beauty routines, but furthermore, it seemed to support the outdated and frankly laughable notion of women’s purity. Even today, bridal dresses are white to symbolise this aforementioned purity. This may a product of tradition, but it is demonstrative of how these ancient ‘values’ are so deeply ingrained in our culture. Historically, women were to be protected and were to stay indoors while men worked in the fields and could get as dirty as they pleased without it reflecting on them in any negative light. Remember Queen Elizabeth? (The ginger one that died a while back.) In her days, women would adorn their faces with cosmetic casseroles of egg white and lead in order to look more pale, to prove that they didn’t have to be out in the fields getting tanned and – God forbid – dirty. Now society may have changed its opinion on the bronzed, holiday-going look, but it seems little progress has been achieved with this notion that women should be clean and pristine. And it’s extremely elitist. Peasant communities wouldn’t have had this privilege of only one member of the family going to work in the fields – it’s a standard created by the economically and socially powerful.
And this idea of women’s cleanliness is almost exclusive to rich, Western societies because we have the privilege of easy access to hot, running water. Even therein, many households in Britain, my own included, try not to shower every day because of the looming burden of water bills – why waste money on something that dermatologists deem not only unnecessary but potentially damaging? Furthermore, many nations do not have the luxury of this choice. People in the world are dying because they lack access to clean water and in Britain we are told we aren’t showering enough? The hypocrisy is maddening. And that’s another thing: Western countries like to be seen as clean because it is representative of how ‘civilised’ we are, a longstanding product of colonialism. The attitude used to be, “oh look at those dirty savages. We’re so superior to them”: a sentiment echoed today in the terms “less developed” or “Third World”. That aside, I’d like to think we’ve managed to get past that sort of xenophobic crap, but surveys like Flint + Flint’s show there has been a residual effect of these colonialist attitudes that are now being propagated by capitalism to reinforce patriarchal oppression.
There’s only one solution: let’s fight back, ladies, and if we try our hardest perhaps we’ll even shock Maxine Flint enough to give her a mild aneurism. Don’t let pressure from the media make us feel as if we’re doing something wrong by not conforming to these unrealistic standards of health and beauty. Those who construct these standards are only projecting their chauvinistic, classist and racist backwardness onto us and let’s show them that it is they who are in the wrong. I personally think we should take it a step further and roll around in dirt in protest. All genders invited.