When I logged onto social media the other day, I couldn’t help but stumble over and over on articles about celebrities sharing whether they do and do not bathe regularly.
Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher did a recent appearance on the Armchair Expert podcast (with Monica Padman and Dax Shepard) where the conversation went to bathing; both admitted that they do not bathe daily and that they only bathe their children if they see dirt on them. Kutcher went on to add that he washes his “armpits and crotch daily and nothing else ever.” The couple continued the conversation on Kutcher’s Instagram. Other celebs like Jake Gyllenhaal, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Cardi B later weighed in on the bathing debate.
While the inner clean freak in me shuddered, I also know that taking long showers and using harsh soaps has been proven to dry out your skin. Yet I couldn’t help but think about how holding BIPOC persons to different hygiene standards has been around for ages.
Exploring the History of “Cleanliness”
Marginalized people have been stereotyped as dirty and even smelly for a long time. Western countries have colonized nations and perpetuated the stereotype of needing white saviors to help “civilize” natives. And the divide continued when the working class had limited access to bathe depending on the availability of running water. These prejudices have become part of our daily lives.
When People of Color, especially those of us who are immigrants, are faced with the pressure to assimilate to Western standards, there are a lot of challenges that go into being “presentable” to fit in. These stereotypes persist and are shown through things like being judged as smelly if we bring a traditional meal to school, being judged for wearing natural Black hair to school or work, or even the recent backlash from a Ohio lawmaker who suggested the reason Black Americans had higher rates of COVID-19 was because of an implied “lack of hygiene.”
Feeling the Double Standard
Many BIPOC have moments growing up where our parents put pressure on us to look and smell presentable enough when going out in public for fear of what others may think. How we are perceived at school, at work, and while running errands weighs on us because others will treat us vastly differently depending on our appearance.
As a multiracial woman, I feel the weight of this double standard everytime I go out and run errands without dressing nicely or throwing my hair in a bun. In those moments, I am reminded that while I grew up in a white family, the world perceives me very differently. I’ve experienced moments when I am treated with less respect and patience than white customers in the same relaxed outfits. It is with this knowledge that I have to remind my husband (who is white passing) to take extra care of our brown sons because the way the world perceives them will impact how they are treated the rest of their lives.
For a long time, I felt like these were double standards I had manifested because of my own anxiety, but after many conversations with other BIPOC friends, especially those who are parents, I feel less alone. A lot of us feel an extended pressure for the public to see us as perfect parents, appearing clean and put together. And it can be frustrating to see famous couples so flippantly disregard the norms without realizing the implications it can mean for BIPOC fans who may listen to their advice.
White Privilege and “Cleanliness”
Many may not realize the privilege of being able to go about their lives and agree with celebrities about not bathing their kids without the worry that someone is judging their ability to parent—even to the extreme of taking their kids away. According to a study by Washington University in St. Louis, Black children are disproportionally the subject of investigated child neglect and abuse reports (53 percent of Black children vs. 37 percent of all children). And Families of Color are disproportionately represented in the welfare system and are more likely to experience a negative outcome than white families.
This is why I think it is essential that we have discussions about the implications of celebrity behavior and the double standards there may be for BIPOC. While we cannot fix the world in one day, we can learn from these moments and open our eyes to help advocate for less prejudiced practices against People of Color in school, at work, and in our communities.
Of course, when it comes to bathing, everyone can choose what’s best for their family, but it’s important to know that not everyone can do so without implications.