In part 1 of “Good Hygiene Is Not Always What You Think It Is”, I began the story of how I changed from the constantly-compulsively-cleaning agent of mainstream synthetic hygiene I grew up as, to the crunchy, hairy, au natural, only mildly dirty hippie you smell before you.
In part 2 of “Good Hygiene Is Not Always What You Think It Is”, I brought you through my process of giving up soap and shampoo and daily showering.
In the third installment, I have a wonderfully enlightening conversation with one of my BFFs, Chenoa Siegenthaler (try saying that 5 times fast).
Chenoa on the left, me on the right. And that’s our buddy Bryn in the middle.
Chenoa and I have been good friends for more than 10 years. We met at Antioch College, an infamously radical school.
Unofficially known as “boot camp for the revolution,” studies and student life on campus have an overwhelmingly anti-establishment tinge to them. You learn to question norms and develop your own. Politically, socially, and personally, Antioch is great for folks like Chenoa and me—it gives us a comfort with our deviant selves that extends beyond leaving the school.
I can’t speak for her, but it’s where I got my chops. I was always going in that direction, but without the rigor of the Antioch experience, I’d probably still be an awkward, out-of-place, miserable social misfit.
(We intentionally and self-referentially use the word “hippie” to refer to alternative, naturally-minded folk like ourselves.)
The “hygiene culture” we were raised in
Vanessa: What was the “hygiene culture” you grew up in, the standards in your household and your area?
Chenoa: I was pretty oblivious to that stuff until I was in high school. I don’t know if my parents didn’t really try to teach me about it, or what. I definitely didn’t care about hygiene as a kid, and hated taking showers. I think when I started to think about it I was taking a shower once a week.
I went to Waldorf schools, where a lot of hippies went, so it could be that they didn’t care as much either. But when I was in high school I started to be horrified about my own body odor, and would shower pretty often and use conventional strong-smelling soap and shampoo and other products. I even shaved my legs and armpits lol.
Vanessa: Had you not shaved at all prior to that?
Oh, one thing is that my mom grew up on a farm as a Mennonite. They didn’t care so much about smelling pretty. And they considered it sinful to care about your appearance. My mom never wore makeup or shaved and didn’t teach me to do those things.
Vanessa: What was it about high school, peer pressure?
Chenoa: Kind of, yeah. I was trying to conform. People were nice enough at my high school that no one made fun of me in a mean way, but you know how high school boys would make fun of each other all the time, they’d be like “You stink dude!” And I’d think, maybe I stink too and they’re too nice to say it. And I was getting to the point where I was having crushes on people and I started to worry about being acceptable, physically.
Vanessa: Damn those hormones!
Chenoa: I know! They screw everything up.
What was your experience with hygiene practices as you grew up?
Vanessa: Very mainstream. I don’t remember my mom specifically teaching me anything about that, really… but she was a sort of “hands off” mom. 😉 (Love you, Mom!)
When I went through puberty, I was deeply under the influence of my mom’s boyfriend’s daughter, who was a 14-year-old Barbie doll. It was horrible.
Vanessa: I could never live up to that, but it was seductive… all the sprays and cleanliness ideals of a synthetic adolescence. So I shaved as soon as I could. I’d looked forward to it. I bathed—well maybe not daily (though I certainly wouldn’t admit that)—but pretty close. I was bullied a lot, so I was terrifieid of being made fun of from being stinky. I spent my teen years incredibly self-conscious about underarm sweat and stink, acne, oily hair and dandruff (great time of life to have that lol)…
Weening off commercial hygiene products
Vanessa: One issue a lot of people face is, when they come OFF of using commercial hygiene products, their bodies often revolt—that is, are revolting—for a while… you know, the body getting used to using its own cleaning processes again, after being subdued into submission by chemicals (and even “natural” products)… Did you ever have anything like that, when you stopped? Was it uncomfortable? Or did it really just not matter?
Chenoa: I don’t think it was too bad. Maybe hiking and exerting myself a lot made it easier when I started. I mainly experienced feeling gross and itchy.
Vanessa: Were there positive body or health changes, as a result of not using external cleaning stuff?
Chenoa: I actually think that my acne going away was a result of that. I had harsh stuff that a doctor prescribed for me, which may have helped a bit, but I remember still having acne when I went to Germany and had stopped using it by then.
In Germany I rode my bike everywhere and got lots of exercise, and I remember not having much money so not really buying soap. I’d take a shower and not use soap most of the time. I think people weren’t as concerned with smelling bad there, either…
I don’t remember ever thinking about having acne after that. I mean sometimes I would have pimples but not many at once anymore.
Vanessa: Did you consciously put that together at the time?
Chenoa: I didn’t until later. Not until I was working in the backcountry in Yosemite when I was 20, right before going to Antioch.
In the backcountry, I didn’t use soap most of the time (there was some for emergencies). It’s toxic to wildlife so you’re not supposed to dump it in water or even on the ground. I would clean off in whatever water was nearby at the end of the day, just by scrubbing myself with a bandanna and water. My skin felt better than it ever had before!
We’d spend 4–8 days in the backcountry at a time, with 3 or 6 days off. So I’d take a shower on the weekend.
Vanessa: After being a filthy hippie all week.
Chenoa: Yeah! I remember not feeling the need to shower more than once for the 3-day weekends… probably twice for the 6-day weekends.
Then when I went to Antioch I came in contact with people who rarely, if ever, used soap on their bodies, and I think because of that backcountry experience, it made a lot of sense to me that our skin can take care of itself, better probably if we don’t throw off the balance with all sorts of products.
I like what you said about how your co-worker couldn’t go to work that one day because she couldn’t shower… and how that brought up for you the thought that “cleanliness” is kind of an attachment, something that can hold us back from life, if I’m understanding correctly.
Vanessa: Hah, right? Yeah, that’s what I meant.
More fun facts about pheromones
Chenoa: The whole thing about pheromones is really interesting. I was just reading about them in a book for a class! What I read was that some researcher had people sleep in the same t-shirt for 5 nights in a row, after having washed on the first day with unscented soap and then not washing again.
Then people smelled the t-shirts without knowing who had worn them. Men were attracted to the smells of women, and gay men were attracted to the smells of other gay men! Isn’t that crazy? I mean, it is crazy but it’s not at the same time.
Vanessa: That’s awesome!
Chenoa: I know!!!
Vanessa: I love it when science validates me, lol.
Chenoa: Me too! I totally agree that smelling peoples’ real pheromones is way hotter than smelling some fake scent on them.
Vanessa: If they are healthy of course. 😉
Vanessa: Some people are really disgusting. But others are really hot.
Chenoa: Yes, that is true! I’ve noticed myself smelling worse when I’m more stressed-out. Even my feet. They generally don’t smell when I’m happy and not under too much stress.
Vanessa: Definitely. That’s such a fun thing to notice. I remember you saying once, you could smell the curry you’d eaten by what your underarms spelled like, lol. Our scent is so directly related to what we do with our bodies. Versus what we want to project, which is what we use product for—to mask what we’re actually about.
So our natural scent is like a map to us—and we’re culturally so damn unhealthy. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is disgusting. So we mask it. But those of us who break free—we often break free in multiple ways. We treat our bodies differently, both inside and out.
Vanessa: So while someone eating a Standard American Diet would probably smell bad, no matter what they gave up, hygiene-product-wise. Whereas maybe, someone who ate better, could get away with more.
…and that abruptly concludes the conversation.
Chenoa kept losing her Internet connection, so there’s no real closure there. And I’m not gonna make up something. 🙂
Anyway, you get the point. We could go on and on about this stuff!
And there’s even more to come… stay tuned!
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