2007.12.05 Let's talk dirt

Written by David Green.


We weren’t in the air too long on our flight back home recently when the guy in the seat next to me got out a little package of hand sanitizer and started rubbing it around.

That’s when I began feeling as though someone was rubbing my stomach around. Certain odors make me feel sick and I had two hours of smelling the stuff. It never really went away.

I suppose I should have just leaned over and asked: Would it be inconvenient for you to just put your hands in your pockets until we land? Or maybe we could place each hand in an airline vomit bag and cinch them up tight.

Three or four hundred years ago, he wouldn’t have worried about his hands. It would have been his cologne that was making me sick. He would have been wearing it because he didn’t like the way I smelled.

I learned a lot of interesting facts about dirt and smell from a Salon.com interview with Katherine Ashenburg about her book “The Dirt on Clean: An unsanitized history.”

Ashenburg says that in 17th century Europe—what she calls the dirtiest century in Western history—perfume was worn not to make you smell interesting, but rather to mask the smell of your neighbors. Everybody smelled and some worse than others.

Everybody smelled. An interesting concept and one that must describe all but a tiny fleck of human history.

I have some friends who don’t use deodorant and of course their odor is noticeable because it’s different from most everybody else.

Ashenburg has an interesting observation about this. She quotes St. Bernard of 11th Century France: “We all stink. No one smells.” It was the odor of the day and perhaps no one really noticed it as anything but normal life.

Twenty years ago, Ashenburg says, people in general had a great tolerance for cigarette smoke. You’d walk into a room with smoke and not really be bothered by the smell, even if you weren’t a smoker.

Now, I actually checked into a hotel room on a smoking floor by mistake last week in Montréal, and I thought it was the worst thing ever. But 20 years ago, I wouldn't have even noticed it.

So who knows what will be unbearable in another couple of decades. Maybe the smell of hand sanitizer will be offensive.

I think it’s agreed that everyone smells; the disagreement arises on whether or not this is good. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s interesting. But it’s also pretty hard to discern these days.

No one wants to smell like a human. They want to smell like a mango or a papaya or something very unhuman. I think perhaps the back of the neck is the best place to find the real person. Of course I’m not in a position to explore this supposition. I’ll have to depend on others to do the research.

As Ashenburg says, contemporary cleanliness has much more to do with appearances than hygiene. People don’t work up much of a sweat in their jobs anymore, yet efforts to get clean continue to grow.

One hundred and fifty years ago, only the rich used soap. Look in a shower stall today and you might wonder if anyone uses soap. Instead, there’s a large variety of body washes and shampoos for every need and season.

Ashenburg also notes that our fear of dirt may be making us sick. I wrote a column a few years ago about the need for more dirt in our lives. Our world is so clean that a part of our immune system doesn’t have the opportunity to “flex its muscles” and instead another part of the system is taking over. Hence, the skyrocketing rates of asthma and allergies.

Ashenburg says the number of doctors and researchers accepting this theory continues to grow. “Now the hypothesis is that we are oversanitized to the point of making our children sick,” she said.

For many people, one shower a day is no longer enough. A pair of pants is tossed into the dirty pile after they’re worn for only a few hours.

Ashenburg has studied human behavior over a long enough time that she’s convinced things will change. Our hypercleanliness will seem “beyond the bounds of sense” in the future.

A slight twist to a song by Frank Zappa: “What’s the dirtiest part of your body? I think it’s your mind.”

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