Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity by Virginia Smith

I am a picker. I run my hands over my body all day feeling for lumps, bumps and zits to prod and scratch. Ingrown hairs get me excited and the release of pus in any form is a high priority. If I happen to love you, or at least like you enough, it is very possible I’ll want to grab my tweezers and crawl all over you too.

Don’t be alarmed; it’s natural according to Virginia Smith. Her examination of cleanliness, hygiene and purity begins with our buddies the chimps. Turns out that all that bug picking creates alliances, soothes over tensions and keeps simian relationships strong, besides keeping the skin and body healthy. And it is no surprise—only when humans come into the picture things get weird.

From Neolitithic body painting to Christian mystics’ radically foul stench to Locke’s 18th century cold bathing plan for kids (“Plenty of exercise and sleep, plain diet, no wine or strong drink, very little or no physick, not too warm or straight clothing, especially the head and feet kept cold, and the feet often used to cold water, and exposed to wet”. Whoa!), Smith tells us how arrived at today’s constant worry about pollution, contamination and age.

I was most attracted to the early stuff, Aztec tooth art, an ancient Roman physician’s mostly-lost 4-volume work on cosmetics (including entries on tongue scraping and false hair) and those ever influential Greeks—from the goddess of hygiene to the use of slaves to maintain “white armed” female beauty, but found that as the time line unwound, there was much to be found in the stinky and plague-ridden arms of Europe, including America’s damply stern momma—England on which the latter part of the book focuses. Another subject that appeared over and over in the book, public baths, are revealed to have an extensive and fascinating history. Who knew? Thanks to the extensive chapter notes and adequate index, even the tantalizing one sentence examples could lead to a world of reading guaranteed to stop any casual conversation in its tracks.

For a non-academic, non-nonfiction-lover a book like Clean could have ended up being intimidating or at worst, boring. Instead, I read it twice. The only thing not to like is the stupid cover image of a white lady's almost-boob, where the publisher uses the same techniques to draw readers to the book that the author half-heartedly decries in the final chapter. To me, the cover looks like an Ivy League anorexia n' booze memoir-- incredibly unappealing.


Only 2 more novels to review to complete 2007. What? Gonna slap me with a tardy?


Amanda said...

I pick too! We are a team that was destined to meet!

amy said...

This book sounds so interesting. Thanks for this review! Now excuse me while I pick at various body parts.

Carrie said...

Amanda: yes. Perhaps, in order to bond, we can have a grooming hour when you first arrive.

Amy: want to borrow it? Let me know.

I really enjoyed reading it and found myself really thinking about beauty and ritual while doing so. Totally interesting!

Amanda said...

I sure do wish you were secretly blogging on office time today!

: )