Friday, November 04, 2005

On Soap And Ritual Cleansing

I was talking to a soapmaker yesterday about people's attitudes toward soap and cleanliness. She and I have been doing some B2B trade in soap sacks (my soap sacks are selling much better through her than they are direct from me), and someone asked her how washing with a soap sack could possibly get you clean if you didn't wash the soap sack in the washing machine after every use. Evidently it had never occurred to the questioner that "washing" consists of "agitating with clean water and soap" and that the soap sack would be in continuous contact with water and soap, obviating the need to put it in the washing machine. All you'd have to do, my friend pointed out, is rinse the sack a bit when you're done. Somehow, a bar of soap is "clean" no matter how many times you've stuck it underneath your arms, but wrap it in a textile and suddenly it's a hotbed of germs, waiting to sicken you at any moment.

Still, though, it brings to light the notions that people have regarding cleanliness and germs. I would say about half of our ideas about personal hygiene have anything to do with actual germs, and the other half have to do more with ritual cleanliness. For example, we wash our hands after we use the bathroom. But how many of us actually wash them long enough to be effective? How many of us wash the backs of our hands or the webs between our fingers? And how many of us use our newly cleaned hands to grab the doorknob on the way out of the bathroom-- the very same doorknob we grabbed with our germy, pre-washed hand just a few short minutes before? Hand-washing may actually kill some germs, but part of it is a sort of ritual, a talisman against germs.

There are some basic hygiene ideas that do save lives-- washing hands after cooking or using the toilet or before doing germ-sensitive things; covering the mouth when you sneeze; and countless others. But we also cling to peculiar notions, such as the idea that hand-washed clothes just aren't as clean as machine-washed clothes, or that food that has loitered, delinquent, outside the fridge longer than the FDA guidelines will allow has automatically been rendered poisonous. We won't use a washcloth previously used by another, even if that person is someone with whom we've just shared physical intimacy; and we don't like the thought that others use the same toilet as we do (although, as a matter of convenience, we will overlook it whenever they are not visible using it). In a sense, we still believe, as we used to so long ago in grade school, in the existence of "cooties."

Archaeologists of a future date may indeed find our bathrooms and conclude, rightly, that they were chambers of ritual cleansing, where daily rites took place in every home.