America, why do you scrub away your natural scent? Why do you douse yourself in chemicals each morning? Why do you waste so much water? Why do you equate a lack of odor with an absence of filth? Is it your cleanliness-next-to-godliness delusions? Do you really need to spend 15 minutes each morning under a scalding stream of water?
America, get out of the shower.
It's hard to think of another nation so narrowly obsessed with so narrow a definition of cleanliness—namely, the American conviction that one must shower each day if one is to avoid becoming a social outcast. We may wear sandals with socks to the beach, yoga pants to work and T-shirts with witticisms such as “Who farted?” and “Female Body Inspector.” But sorry is the person who does not shower each morning.
Yet there is a crucial difference between being clean and being antiseptic, with the daily shower tugging us toward the latter hygienic pole. If you work in an abattoir, then by all means, shower away. Coal mine? I have no qualms about your monthly water bill. But does a cubicle cowboy need to scrub himself each morning? Are you really so sweaty after 18 minutes at the gym?
The world smells. Sometimes it stinks like New York in August. Sometimes the fragrance is lovely: a bakery in Paris, the ocean in winter. Among the most pleasing smells is after the earth takes a shower in the rain, a loamy perfume lingering in the air for hours afterward. The earth is never without smell. Why should we be? What is there to fear?
I am happy to report that there is a nascent backlash against the daily shower. Glee star Naya Rivera said earlier this year that “showering more than once a day or every day is such a white people thing.” Rivera, who is black and Puerto Rican, then apologized. Why? You were right, Naya. You could be the face of a humanitarian campaign. You could change lives.
Several months after Rivera-gate, a writer for New York magazine went a whole month without showering more than once a week. “No one seemed to think I stunk,” she wrote, “not even my boyfriend. On the Friday of the second week, I Gchatted him to ask how he honestly felt about the way I was looking and smelling. He hadn’t even realized that the experiment had started.”
There are even potential health benefits to showering less. “Researchers have discovered that just as the gut contains good bacteria that help it run more efficiently, so does our skin brim with beneficial germs that we might not want to wash down the drain,” noted The New York Times back in 2010. The article also pointed out that daily showering dries out the skin, potentially leading to eczema.
But I am always hesitant to advocate for a behavior on the basis of scientific studies alone, for there will always be other studies that find the opposite. My suspicions of the shower, at least, are primarily philosophical. Smell is part of our animal selves, our personalities. It announces where we’ve been, what we’ve done, who we are. After touch, it seems to me the most mundane of the senses, the one that most thoroughly reveals our material presence on this planet, our common fate as biological beings in constant negotiation with forces both internal and external. To scrub away smell is to scrub away some trace of your identity, some slight glimpse into who you are and what you’ve been. The shower renders us all antiseptic, anonymous, one nation under Dove.