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The Devil Wears (No) Deodorant: On the Western Ideal of Hygiene

Simone Bélanger

Arts & Culture Editor

You pass someone in the halls and get a whiff of a perfectly natural smell: human body odour (a combination of sweat and bacteria by definition), which enters your nostrils sourly. As you walk into this intrusive, unpleasant waft, you wonder if this person is aware of the existence of a wonderful hygiene essential: deodorant. You may even reach the conclusion that this individual lacks basic hygiene. Unsurprisingly, this conjecture is the consequence of a collectively shared bias rooted in Western consumerism.

This innate prejudice towards natural body odours feels, to a certain extent, instinctive. Others’ body odours are deemed repulsive in most cases. Yet, our conception of hygiene is learned, practised, rewarded, then thoroughly enforced, advertised, and showcased. Objectively, when it comes to hygiene and cleanliness, can we claim to be anything more than the by-products of our capitalist system and Western education? Is detachment from this indoctrinated mentality possible? Even the word hygiene is inherently ambiguous: is it about health, through the avoidance of germs and pathogens, or simply about being clean? Hygiene being such an intricate concept, a single answer would be absurd or rather impossible.

The need for hygiene first stemmed from the flowering of animal life. Animals were (and still are) subjected to constant assaults by diverse organisms fulfilling their most ancient purpose: species’ survival. Smaller, less complex forms of life adapted in order to exploit multicellular organisms’ biological environments. Valerie Curtis, British scientist and Environmental Health Group Director who conducted behavioural research on hygiene and sanitation, sums it up perfectly: “As soon as the first thieving parasites evolved, the arms race began.” As every animal species restlessly led an ongoing war against the invisible, hygiene became fundamental to life.

Emerged purification rituals are a common feature of most religions. The Hebrew word “Kippur” refers to cleansing, Hinduism advocates for the avoidance of the 12 impurities, the Koran correlates God’s love with maintaining oneself clean, and Christian doctrines are obviously inextricable from purity. We owe the term hygiene to the Greeks, as the goddess of health Hygieia’s worship resulted in the hasty spreading of healing cults in times of plagues. Throughout the following centuries, hygiene remained at the heart of societal values and norms until a major scientific breakthrough turned past assumptions upside down. Microbial agents of disease had at last become visible through the work of Koch and Pastor, the architects of microbiology.

If Western hygiene’s starting point is survivalism within the animal kingdom, how did an essential evolutionary mechanism become so swiftly rooted in capitalism, obsession, and Western centrism? Through unnatural, unattainable ideals, a highly specific perception of hygiene has been used to indoctrinate society into endless consumerism in the name of health. The average adult is exposed daily to alarming concentrations of toxins, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and allergens through products advertised as healthy. The hygiene industry’s lobbies deploy hypocritical advertising strategies in order to deceive society into believing that not only is all this consumption beneficial to our health, but it is also necessary. Truth is, a virtually unregulated abundance of chemicals is found in most personal care products. Regardless of these corporations’ evilness, the influence of such propaganda would not be this pervading if it weren’t for our very gaze upon hygiene.

Recurrent use of cosmetics and personal care products proved to be potentially as harmful as tobacco smoking (which, let’s not forget, was once widely advertised as healthy and even prescribed by doctors for sore throats). The pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, owner of numerous brands such as Band-Aid, Aveeno, Neutrogena, Tylenol, and many more, has paid billions of dollars in compensation to plaintiffs across the U.S. who suffered from the use of their talc-based baby powder. Thousands of women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer (sometimes resulting in death) due to talc, yet Johnson & Johnson maintains under oath that “talc is safe.” According to the American Cancer Society, the usage of aluminum-based deodorants could be “a risk factor for the development of breast cancer.” The vast majority of exfoliants and whitening toothpastes, as well as many facial cleansers, body wash, cosmetics and sunscreens, employ microbeads (extremely tiny pieces of plastic) as abrasive agents. Anonymously, a chemist working for one of the most influential designer cosmetic brands stated in an interview with Vogue that “the cosmetic industry is destroying women’s cells.” And these limited examples are only the tip of a massive iceberg.

On a lighter note, the fight against the Western ideal of hygiene and the consumerism that ensues is a very tangible, ongoing one. Thousands of people have now transitioned from toxic, widespread brands to plant-based, local hygiene products. Some even make their own at home using organic ingredients. As natural and sustainable ways to cherish our bodies have drastically fallen off following the Industrial Revolution, the resurgence of a holistic approach to hygiene centred on nature and sustainability lies in our power to exert our free will, and to see beyond the lobbyist brainwashing we believe to be healthy.

Even if privilege is integral to each person’s range of actions, we can all act concretely. So, next time you encounter someone who does not smell of shea butter, freshly picked apricots, or Old Spice’s “Swagger” (whatever men’s deodorant names might even mean), please think twice before assuming that this person is unhygienic.



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