For the past twelve years I’ve been working with teenagers and tweens (as a teacher and/or tutor and/or orthodontic assistant), and something that never ceases to amaze and horrify me is the personal hygiene (or lack thereof) of many adolescents.
There was Bobby*, a sixth grade boy who couldn’t be bothered with showers but liked to douse himself in choking quantities of Axe body spray. Or Aaron*, a high school kid who was so stinky that he was brought up more than once in faculty meetings, and his homeroom teacher reluctantly agreed to give the poor kid a talk about deodorant. There was the girl who moseyed around at 3pm with her lunchtime sandwich still stuck in her braces, plus the many kids I’ve seen over the years who have fuzzy, white plaque visibly coating their teeth. I always have the overwhelming desire to shove a toothbrush into these kids’ hands and point them towards the nearest sink and mirror. (As an orthodontic assistant, you can actually do that. As a teacher or tutor, you really shouldn’t.)
*Names changed to protect the smelly.
Hygiene is a fascinating subject to me, especially when I start comparing the hygiene of today to that of yesteryear. I’ve written two novels set in the middle ages, and so I often find myself considering the particulars of life in a time when once-a-month baths and literally flea-bitten clothing was commonplace. How, I wonder, could anyone ever be considered attractive when he or she had greasy hair, rotting teeth, and terrible acne? And yet you only have to read stories of fair maidens and handsome prices to know it must have been possible. I, on the other hand, feel gross when I go without a shower for more than a day and a half.
But not everyone in the modern world is as fastidiously clean as I am. In fact, my college boyfriend was on the opposite end of the spectrum when it came to personal hygiene. I often found myself begging him to brush his teeth, and in the entire two years that we were together, he never once washed his hair.
He showered, mind you, and got his hair wet, and every now and then he might sort of wash it with bar soap. But he never used shampoo because, according to him, it made his hair “too fluffy.” And the thing is, he did have nice hair. Sure, sometimes left a bad-smelling greasy spot on my pillow case, but his hair actually looked good.
I always read articles about how we wash our hair too much and it’s bad. Shampooing strips the hair of its natural oils, which makes the scalp overcompensate and produce more oil, which is why my hair feels greasy after one day and I have to wash it again, thus perpetuating the cycle.
I’m sort of obsessed with the idea that perhaps we shouldn’t be washing our hair at all. I recently read the article “I Haven’t Shampooed My Hair in 6 Years,” and there’s a part of me that really wants to try it, although the practical me knows I couldn’t handle the six-plus weeks of dandruffy, greasy, disgustingness before my scalp stopped overproducing oil and my hair started looking somewhat normal.
It’s interesting to me, though, that some of our personal hygiene routines might be unnecessary, maybe even harmful. Taking showers every day dries out your skin (causing you to have to use more creams and lotions). Brushing your teeth too hard or too often can wear away the enamel and damage the gums. There are even those (like Cameron Diaz) who advocate not wearing deodorant, although I’m not one of those people. In fact, I’m not suggesting that anyone stop showering or tooth-brushing, but it is something to think about: that sometimes less is more. That maybe, sometimes, our bodies already have what they need to succeed and we’re scrubbing a pot that’s already clean (is that even a saying?).
And all this makes me wonder. Do I, in general, already have what I need to succeed… in my writing, in my life? Am I scrubbing a pot that’s already clean? If I stop trying quite so aggressively and start accepting what I naturally have, will I find a balance inside myself?
It’s a stretch, I know, to jump from “no-poo” (the name for the anti-shampoo movement) to thoughts about my writing life, but I think there might be a connection. I’m always looking for “solutions” to my writing career — if I do this daily regimen, if I follow these plotting rules, if I read this book on craft — just as I’m always looking for the new miracle shampoo or mousse that will transform my hair into the luscious mane of a Hollywood star. In fact, I’ve even had the thought that if I do the “no-poo” thing it might transform my hair into something amazing, the likes of which I’ve never seen.
But the truth is, I’m never going to have a luscious Hollywood mane; I’m always going to have my own fine, fly-away hair. And there’s no miracle writing routine or hair-washing regimen that will turn me into something I’m not. More helpful, perhaps, is to accept what I have naturally and try to enhance it. Maybe this means shampooing, or maybe not (for now, I think I’ll stick with the shampoo.) The important thing is to work with what you have instead of trying to scrub it all away.
And, as my grandmother used to say, “you can’t help what grows on you; you can only keep it clean.”