Two looks at purity

Look at this word: “Purity.”

What happened in your brain and your body when you looked at it? For me, it’s a  bit of a recoil. The word is laden with a kind of strangling Puritan sexual morality. 

This is why, when I was learning about the moral tastebuds and learned that my own morality is based strongly around purity, it was a bit uncomfy. Surely I am no Puritan! 

But purity in that moral sense is not (only) about sex. It’s about the very human reaction against the dangerous. The same urge that would make you avoid drinking a cup of water with a cockroach in it. A good urge. 

When this urge to avoid physical contamination becomes symbolic, it teaches us to avoid mental and spiritual contamination, to seek out the beautiful. Also a good urge. 

But if you look, you’ll see it metastasizing everywhere. 

First, look at food: no item is more dense with moral judgments. Think about how critical humans can get about the food choices of very different cultures. It’s not the basic anthropological curiosity that we feel about other cultures’ artistic, architectural, or sartorial choices. When the food choices are too different from our own, it’s the same level of disgust that we’d feel watching someone drinking the cockroach water. 

And think, too, about how food is marketed to us. In our weight-loss-obsessed culture, food shouts at you about guilt and innocence, indulgence and secrecy. It’s creepy, really. Lacroix is “innocent.” Dove chocolate is “indulgent.” This is not just language about how tasty the food is. This is language that understands the gut-level guilt and shame that the women trying to do the weekly shop constantly feel because of the way their bodies look and what they put in them. It twists that knife to make the sale.

This moral manipulation plays on our deep and shared human roots using food as a religious item, but turns it on its head for capitalistic ends. Sin at the table; confess on Monday when the diet begins again; do penance with various foods in scare quotes made from cauliflower (“rice,” “pizza crust,” “mashed potatoes,” “soufflé” (soon enough, I fear)). 

Finally, think about how gross you will think it is, how exercised your moral tastebuds will become, when you learn that I do not obey, respect, or even notice so-called “expiration dates!” I do not believe in them! This is probably a rant for another day, but I strongly believe that our five senses have evolved quite well to know when food spoils, and I’m not going to betray that evolutionary wisdom in favor of a little stamp on a plastic bag put there by someone who’d very much like for me to throw out their food and buy more.

Okay anyway. That’s food: one arena of moral purity. A tangled-up mess of actual physical safety overlapping with beliefs about what makes us good and bad people.

Think about another one: personal cleanliness. “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” That’s moral language. And again, think about how commonly cleaning rituals are used in religious ceremonies. Hygiene is right next door to food in terms of basic human states of being (hungry, dirty) that get moralized. It’s another way purity becomes both literal and spiritual. 

A great example of this happened on the internet last year: somehow, people on Twitter started yelling at each other about how, and how often, they washed their legs.

Now, hold your fire: I don’t wash my legs routinely. I was taught, and firmly hold, that soap isn’t necessary for expanses of skin that aren’t actively dirty (such as from sweat or, you know, dirt). I see washing-with-soap as a utilitarian endeavor: it removes dirt, germs, and other foreign substances, and it combats unpleasant odor. In other words: it purifies impurities. So unless I’ve gotten something like sunscreen or planting soil on my legs, my legs are generally neither dirty nor smelly. (At least, I’ve never had any complaints about the smell of my legs.) And, unlike my hands, I’m not in the habit of touching my legs to my face, so they don’t seem like terribly good disease vectors. Thus, I see no reason for soaping my legs daily. And I stand by this!

But I’m honestly afraid to admit this, because I know that some percentage of you, loyal readers, are currently curling up your noses and thinking about me quite differently now. You’re probably shocked, just as those people on Twitter were shocked, that you now know someone who does not wash properly. Because cleanliness is next to godliness. And if I’m less clean than you expect me to be, I’m a lot less godly too.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, this leg-washing thing became an avenue for the pro-leg-washing crowd to crow about their godliness.

Look what underlies this: I believe that my legs, uncontaminated by foreign substances, aren’t especially dirty. Conversely, a lot of these leg-washers must believe that human bodies (every inch of them) are inherently dirty and must be purified. Soap must be used even on the most innocent, flat, unsweaty expanses of skin, which sit covered by clothing all day. Still they are filthy and must be washed. What an ultimately sad view, no? It is a belief that the body itself generates filth; that this filth is invisible and undetectable but nevertheless disturbing, impure, and immoral.

Ask a leg washer: how do you know when your legs are dirty? The only answer is: when I have not washed them. This is a theory of dirt and cleanliness, and of morality and immorality, wherein the bad thing (dirt) is undetectable and arises necessarily from the self. The good thing (cleanliness) is purely external. It must be purchased from the store in the forms of soaps. And even if you have no evidence of needing to use it, you nevertheless must use it all the time. Otherwise you are a gross dirty non-leg washing person and should be ashamed.

Then, here’s the final twist, another way in which we are morally manipulated to buy things: soaping all of our skin removes its natural oils. This makes our skin drier than is comfortable. There’s a cure for that! Lotion. So you buy the soap that takes the oil away, and you buy the lotion to put a replacement oil on. You essentially return to the status quo, but with your pockets doubly lighter! It’s actually genius, if you’re Unilever. And again, it reinforces the view that your body is inherently gross; it must be replaced, bit by bit, with un-gross, morally acceptable alternatives to itself.

Now, back to first principles: what is the point of being cautious about food? What is the point of washing? To prevent disease, largely, and (when it comes to washing) to be more presentable to the community. Purity of food and of hygiene are ways that we stay healthy and stay in a community. But our brains are so concerned with keeping us safe in this way that they entangle this need for safety with the complicated morass of our morality. Then, global capitalism happily steps in to sell you the tools you may need to prove your morality. All of this goes so far beyond what is necessary to prevent disease and antisocial body odor problems.

Anyway, I look forward to my public shaming. But first, it’s time to shower.

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