Celebrities like Jake Gyllenhaal have spoken out about how little they bathe. That's easier to say if you're white, says a culture studies professor.
- Jake Gyllenhaal is the latest celebrity to say he finds regular showers "less necessary."
- Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, and Dax Shepard also recently spoke about their infrequent bathing.
- A professor of cultural studies told Insider there is a complex racial component to the history of who has the freedom to bathe less.
When Jake Gyllenhaal mentioned to Vanity Fair that, increasingly, he finds bathing to be "less necessary," the internet soaked it up - news outlets, including Insider, covered it and criticized it, and Twitter users made memes about it.
How often to shower, what to shower with, and where to wash when you do shower has been a cultural debate for years, with largely white celebrities erring on the side of less is more.
Experts say there's some benefit to limiting bathing, but too little bathing can, of course, backfire.
The issue isn't just about dermatology; it's also about race. Hypercleanliness has long been pushed on people of color, who some say do not have the same privilege to dial back as their white peers.
"This notion that white is somehow purer and cleaner is dominant in beauty products and hygiene products in ways that are remarkably corrosive," Carl Zimring, Pratt Institute professor of social science and cultural studies, told Insider.
Celebrities from Bradley Cooper to Ashton Kutcher have taken a 'natural' approach to hygiene
Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis also recently said they don't bathe their children every day, and limit soap themselves. They were responding to a hygiene question posed by actor and podcast host Dax Shepherd, who said people "should not be getting rid of the natural oil on your skin with a bar of soap every day."
The racial history of who is allowed to wash less
Zimring told Insider the notion that darker skin is dirtier, or less clean, was used to justify slavery and colonization in the 1700 and 1800s.
Soap ads featured images of Black, indigenous, and Chinese children turning white after taking a bath to sell their products.
As a result, he said, Black intellectual leaders like Booker T. Washington pushed a strong sense of hygiene as a way to earn respect and push back on racialized stereotypes in the late 1800s.
While our scientific ideas on hygiene may have changed, the legacy of these stereotypes remains present today, Zimring said, citing 2017 Dove soap ads and the 2008 US Presidential election, when Joe Biden complimented Barack Obama as "clean."
The fact that white people aren't burdened by stereotypes that they smell came to a head in 2019, when a white writer said she showers her face and armpits a few times a week and thinks "it's fine." People of color responded with social media head-shaking and even a video called "The Case for Washcloths: Why White People Need to Wash Their Damn Legs."
More recently - following the comments from Gyllenhaal, Kunis, and Kutcher - Indian-American comedian and writer Abby Govindan tweeted she's not amused by white celebrities shunning bathing since she was "terrorized" in school by the stereotype that "Indian people are smelly and don't shower."
-abby govindan (@abbygov) August 7, 2021
Journalist Evette Dionne wrote on Twitter that, as a fat, Black woman her "obsession with cleanliness, smelling great, and always being dressed to kill is tied up in the idea that BS hyper-femininity will save me."
-Evette Dionne (@freeblackgirl) May 10, 2019
Bathing less can be good for the skin, but bathing too little can lead to smell and infections
There's some truth behind the theory that bathing less is better for the skin. Like the gut, the skin has its own ecosystem of bacteria, good and bad. Too much scrubbing and foaming can eat away at the good bacteria, while taking a more moderate cleansing approach can help it do its job to maintain a healthy balance.
Over-bathing and shampooing can also strip away natural oils that help protect hair and skin, Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, previously told Insider.
Too few showers, though, and you'll wind up with body odor, if not more significant consequences like acne and skin infections. Some people need more frequent baths, like people with diabetes who are susceptible to skin infections and people with obesity, who can develop infections between skin folds.
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