Confession time. I do not now, nor have I ever worn deodorant. I’ve always disliked its smell, and the vague rumours that its aluminium content might be unhealthy. And I don’t use antiperspirant, since it seems perverse to do so in our hot climate, where sweat serves the serious purpose of keeping our bodies cool.
I’m lucky. I live in a society with ample hot water, and I can bathe or shower daily – twice a day in hot weather – and wear fresh clothing every day. This seems quite adequate – or at least, my nearest and dearest have yet to tell me otherwise.
But I never knew before that my personal habits made me un-Australian.
In this morning’s Australian, the opposition citizenship spokeswoman Teresa Gambaro has called for mandatory ‘cultural awareness training’ for immigrants, so that they can learn how to fit into Australian culture on issues such as health, hygiene and lifestyle. “Without trying to be offensive, we are talking about hygiene and what is an acceptable norm in this country when you are working closely with other co-workers,” Ms Gambaro told The Australian. She said practices such as wearing deodorant … were “about teaching what are norms in Australia… You hear reports of people using public transport (without deodorant) and I think Australian residents are guilty of this too,” she said.
I’d raise my arm to this too – but then again, perhaps I’d better not.
Like ‘in my humble opinion’, which is never humble, so ‘without trying to be offensive’ nearly always gives offence – much more, probably, than merely standing beside a smelly body on the train.
Concerns about ‘the Great Unwashed’ get raised in every society in every age. Sometimes this is just code for the hoi polloi – the riff raff of society. But when it does relate to matters of cleanliness, as it clearly does in Teresa Gambaro’s statement, we are faced with the fact that every society has different ideas about what constitutes cleanliness – and whether or not it is next to godliness.
In some times and places quite the opposite has been true. Under some circumstances medieval Christians positively delighted in filth. The Archbishop Thomas á Becket wore a hair shirt swarming with vermin, which much impressed the monks who examined his corpse after he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. The vermin probably gave him a leg up to early sainthood.
Okay, we’ve come a long way since the 12th century, but even in the 19th century, people like my immigrant ancestors were advised to pack enough clothes for the voyage so that they could change their underwear once a week. It makes me scratchy just to think of it.
The issue is access to enough fresh hot water. It wasn’t available on an immigrant ship, just as it’s not available to the homeless today, which is why charities that deal with homelessness spend a lot of time and money on providing showers and shampoo and laundry facilities, without which people remain isolated and unemployable. But the issue is access, not education.
We tend to assume that the road to cleanliness has always been onwards and upwards, since the technology of hot and cold running water has made washing so much easier. But it’s not necessarily so.
Wherever they went, the Romans introduced public baths that would not be matched in most of Europe for a thousand years. The real inheritors of the Roman system of baths were the Arabs and then the Turks. Muslims and Jews had a much better record of general cleanliness than Christians, who often tended, as in the case of St Thomas, to gloat over grime.
When the Spanish Christians conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in 1492, one of their first acts was to shut down the bathhouses because they might be used for seditious gatherings. Since the Christians didn’t often bathe, they had no idea what a privation this might be to people who did.
Europeans only gradually started to keep clean. To people’s amazement, in the late 16th century Queen Elizabeth I took a bath regularly, once a month, ‘whether she need it or not’.
The habit of cleanliness, like so much else during the British Empire, was largely imported from the non-European world. The Bengali entrepreneur Shekh Din Muhammad introduced shampoo – a Hindi word – when he set up a ‘shampooing bath’ in fashionable Brighton in 1814. Turkish baths became popular during the Victorian era, but few working class homes had a dedicated bathroom before the Second World War. Australians used to joke about the English keeping their coal in the bath, but bathrooms were pretty primitive here, too.
There are still differences between us in the way we keep clean. Woman are more likely to bathe than men, who prefer to shower – and who stand facing the shower nozzle, while women stand with their backs to the water flow (or so I have read. Who on earth collects these statistics? And how can they possibly know for sure?)
Class plays a role too. White-collar workers tend to shower before they go to work, while manual workers, for obvious reasons, are more likely to wash at the end of the working day. But we are still taught to respect ‘honest sweat’ – though fewer and fewer of us raise any.
Raising hackles is much easier.
Note: Teresa Gambaro has since issued an apology here.