Last night it was brought to my attention that actors Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher bathe themselves, and their children, sporadically.
I wasn't going to say much about this, because it's not important or interesting. And I'm tied up covering the vaccine authorizations and mask regulations. But then a news outlet asked me to comment on whether the actors' habits are "okay" or "safe." Which ... what? Yes. What?
So I looked at the internet, and saw the story was everywhere. It seemed to have quickly spiraled into a cycle of extreme judgment that's too familiar: people who've never spent a moment with Kunis and Kutcher called them gross or disgusting or other weird schoolyard insults. This happens predictably and intensely. (I've been in their position as the subject of a few rounds of news cycles about my minimalist habits.) Each time it seems to drive people into a frenzy all over again, a mix of disgust and curiosity and outrage. Sure, it's trivial to learn about any given person's bathing habits. What's not trivial are the visceral reactions people have to this sort of story.
So I traced this instance back. Earlier yesterday, in a casual podcast interview with Dax Shepard, Kunis and Kutcher agreed with their host's correct assessment that washing too often is bad for the skin. Over-washing can lead to dryness and irritation, because the explicit job of soap is to strip oils off of our skin. Those oils also help keep our skin pliable and functional, so washing is all about balance. There's no single correct way to do it; but too much can be bad, just as too little can be bad. (Kind of like everything in health/life.)
Kunis and Kutcher also said that they only wash their 4-and-6-year-old children when visibly dirty, and Kutcher said he only washes his groin and armpits. This makes sense, and is a very common practice. In the book I wrote about hygiene beliefs and the soap industry, David Bronner, head of the beloved soap company Dr. Bronner's, told me he does the same. As did dermatologist Sandy Skotnicki. The "pits and bits" are the body parts with the most apocrine glands that secrete oils that harbor the microbes that produce body odor. And avoiding said odor is, for many people, the central reason behind the belief that showering daily is necessary.
But then these offhand and reasonable remarks by Kunis and Kutcher—which came in a discussion about how they're putting lots of their money into cryptocurrency, and is actually a controversial move and interesting thing to talk about—blew up. The showering bit was subsequently reported by CNN, People, and apparently every other place in the world. I just went on a radio program to talk about it in Ireland, where the host said listeners were outraged by the news.
I agreed to do that not because I care about this specific instance at all; I care about the fascination with it. Thatactually does matter, I think. It says we have a long way to go in thinking about how and why we feel those reactions to other people's bodies, and to differences in what we think is right and good. I don't know how it's still possible that so many people feel so strongly about this sort of thing that they must comment publicly to deride such a notion and shame the offenders.
Actually I do know; it's because of centuries of relentless marketing by multinational conglomerates selling us soap by conflating its use with health and purity, wealth and status. The interesting thing is that the people who are generally sensitive to being sold puritanical ideas about their bodies are, in this case, often not at all skeptical. They jump on board without a second thought, like it's just light-hearted mockery. Which is surely how it's intended. But that's exactly the issue. The reason we feel so strongly about this subject is it's deeply tied up with forces of colonialism and xenophobia and racism and classism that rely on dividing people on the grounds of some inherent superiority; in this case, the "clean" versus the "unclean." Some ethereal notion of right and wrong; something that makes you better than someone else. If you look at it hard enough, the bath-shaming just reads as similar in nature to things like fat-shaming or slut-shaming or any of the other forms of bodily policing that have thankfully fallen out of favor in a lot of places among thinking people. But somehow the exact crowd that seems to care about those things also tends to jump right on board with calling soap-minimalists "gross" or "disgusting" or whatever other judgmental terms they feel are justified.
Obviously I don't actually think Kunis and Kutcher are suffering for this news cycle, but it's just like, let it go. If you talk about this sort of stuff openly, you learn that people have all sorts of different approaches to bathing/showering. And the minimalists are *far* more common than you'd imagine if you haven't spent years talking about this publicly and hearing from them. It's just not something a lot of people feel comfortable talking about. And they should.
Okay, of course I have more to say about this, but I'll move on. I get into all of this history and epistemology at length in CLEAN, which just came out in paperback, if you want to read more. I swear this news was not a publicity stunt! I've never met Kunis or Kutcher. (We were once on a Zoom call together as part of a big group—full disclosure/bragging—but we didn't talk at all, and they looked as kempt as anyone ever does on a Zoom call, which is to say moderately.) In any case, they haven't mentioned my book. But if you're one of the apparently millions of people who's mind is blown by the idea of someone doing something differently than you, it may be of interest.