Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Tyranny of Cleaner Living

I was talking to someone I hadn't seen for a while the other day. "This will give you cancer" she mentioned with an ominous forefinger referring to my perfume use. I felt like I was a 6 year old in elementary school, taught about the bad effects of picking my nose and tasting the boogers. It made no sense, though it appeared like it did. She was also misusing a lot of the words we hear brandished a lot in similar discussions: "chemicals" (hey, everything is chemical, including H2O), "nasties" (some of them do keep your products from rotting), "toxic" (well...).

I try to be an inquisitive person, rather than an argumentative one, though it often comes across like I am argumentative (all right, I might be just a bit), so instead of trying to win an argument with my long-lost friend I probed her with more questions to understand the stem of her apprehension and panic towards fragrance. Turns out she was apprehensive and panicked about a lot of  other things too, not just perfumes. Foodstuff, livestock, drugs sold at the chemist's, air pollution affecting her (nascent) asthma, whether her  skin would withstand the assaults of "chemicals" in just about anything sold over the counter, how her totally dropping the habit of the occasional fag with her infrequent drink when going out, once every three months, would result in gaining a pound or two, God forbid, how she would never again let a drop of alcohol pass her lips "because it creates fetus malformations", the fact that she had just bought a juicer to try to juice her organically grown carrots and alpha alpha sprouts, yada yada yada. My eyes would have glazed if my surprise wasn't written all over them like storm on a winter's day sky. What the hell had happened to the woman I knew?

 This modern obsession with all things "natural" and "clean" isn't necessarily modern. It does always bring on shades of psychoanalytical anal fixation all the same: The idea of one's gut being full of accumulated dirt, a need to purge, the need for control, control on ones' self at first but soon expanding to include one's surroundings. There's a heap of masochism thrown into this controlling desire, where every deviation from the ideal (i.e. an unattainable standard of "clean") is considered a moral lapse for which one must atone through elaborate ritual. Enter the macrobiotic diets, the purging via detoxifying juices and coffee enemas, the tossing of anything remotely pleasurable and its substitution with unpalatable -and when you research it highly dubious- stuff such as rice crackers (rice crackers, man, can you think of anything more cardboard-tasting?!?), the ionisers in the office and the dehumidifiers at home, the eradication of bed bugs through ultra-expensive machinery using UV-radiation (why not just bring out the matresses out in the sun every week or so?), the elimination of anything paraben-containing from the bathroom shelf, the demonization of sedantary lifestyles and the condemnation of the occasional social glass of wine. It's exhausting. No doubt obsessive people derive so much pleasure out of it. It's like taking a massive crap; leaves you light-headed and out of focus for a while, forgetting about third world famine, war waged against people's free choice, rampant unemployment and the collapse of democracy as we know it. Yes, I can well see there's an inordinate amount of pleasure involved; but that doesn't mean I condone it or agree with it.

Maybe I'm not the target audience for this "product", because it IS a product, called "clean living". I see  (on the Net, not in real life, thank goodness) T-shirts with nonsese emblazoned on it such as "A clean living room is a happy living room". Come again? Or just look at Gwyneth Paltrow. She looks incredible, but somewhat unstable too, doesn't she? I wouldn't trust her with my offspring; she might try to give them rice crackers, for Pete's sake! When I peruse titles on Amazon selling clean living tips, the people on the cover are all invariably perfectly depilated, clean-combed, routinely in some variation of white and light blue or pink garment, with just the right tan and a whiter than white smile in a frozen "cheese" grimace. They make me shake my head, get convinced they're constipated and inwardly joke they're spanking each other on the butt for fun (something's got to give, right?). What's certain is they don't make me want to emulate them, like the advertisers and the lifestyle media battle to do, know what I mean?

Perfume is just the tip of the iceberg and my rant just a budding disconnect with the (misconstrued, I suppose?) Protestant morals that have swept over Europe and possibly the world thanks to the ill effects of previous policies. It's easy to target, because it seems frivolous and morally suspect (Isn't perfume routinely associated with sexual attraction and seduction?). It's also easy to place all the shortcomings of the modern world on the back of this little scapegoat, called perfume, and think that by ousting it out of the community, burdened with all our sins, we have escaped Nemesis and can go about our lives feeling much lighter as if we have taken a massive crap. Alas, as any classicist will tell you, things don't quite work out this way. Hubris is just around the corner.


  1. patriciaC12:44

    It's all futile! After i got my first skin cancer i did the whole sun block cream,hats and long sleeves and basically looked like a vampire i practically glowed in the dark i was so pale. I got skin cancer again in an area behind my shoulder that never saw the light of day. I said to myself- you need the vitamin D that the sun gives you to fight cancer-DUH! Now i'm on the beach,no sun block or stupid looking hats. Being afraid to lose your life is not living at all.I am thankful i'm alive,thats why i try to enjoy.

  2. Obsession/compulsion is a horrible condition. It manifests itself in different ways. An older female relative of mine has it, and no speck of dust or "germ" is safe. I've never heard her belly-laugh, or even relax. She is miserable, as is everyone so afflicted, as is everyone forced to spend time with them. Imho your friend isn't superior; she's ill, and unfortunately there are enough product-pushing "clean living gurus" around to support her view.

  3. Patricia,

    I didn't know you had got skin cancer, and twice at that! Wow, a survivor in every sense of the word.
    Most recent biologist research suggests that most cancers are hereditary in recessive form in the genes. So it all depends on finding out the right information at the right time and making the most of it.

    And spoken with immense, hard-earned wisdom, "being afraid to lose your life is not living at all". So true!

  4. Jackie b14:01

    The worst thing is when people like this try to impose their values on you...surely we can exercise common sense and enjoy the pleasures of life, including all food groups and perfume.
    I also agree with Patricia C that we cannot live in fear of what may may anyway.

  5. P,

    hi there, how are things? Hope you're well and creatively busy.

    You know, the more I think of it, the more I believe she got ill. She didn't use to be like that. She was a bit the noli me tocare type but never that full blown. I suppose living like that is misery, only they probably derive some pleasure from this misery and can't escape the cycle. It doesn't help that there is a whole industry selling this notion of "clean living" to people weak enough to get influenced.

  6. Jackie b,

    indeed...It reminds me of some formerly obese people who lost a lot of weight and are all they're talking about now is how to keep off the pounds, how to keep fit etc. As if it validates their effort if other people follow suit or something.
    Common sense goes a long way in lots of things. :-)
    Thanks for commenting!

  7. Ellen16:16

    Is this perhaps, as you suggest, merely the tip of the iceberg? Your fellow countryman said moderation in all things. Isn't part of what we are experiencing a flight from moderation to some rigid terribly circumscribed place where there is no freedom and no joy? A place where beauty is defined by the plastic sanitized images which you mentioned, not the real?
    If people want to live that way, I pity them, but what I do not want is the imposition of their narrow lifestyle onto me. It is their zealous need to convert everyone else to their point of view which bothers and worries me.
    Is there danger in the world? Yes. Can we control all of it? Of course not. I agree wholeheartedly with you and PatriciaC.
    Bring on the perfume!!

  8. I have some wise perfumista friends, yes i do. OCD is a mind stuck in fear. Somthing scared her and she felt helpless to
    adequatly control her circumstances. So she over compensates to try and gain an upperhand, so what she greatly fears won't happen.It's sad and i hope she will be able to get over it.She may have to get sick to realize that she needs to build up immunity by allowing her system to do its job. If it was insect or creature she was afraid of it's desensitization therapy.I really do hate phsychology it makes my head hurt :)

  9. I think that things seemed to really get going with the obsessive cleaning, diet, vaccines, after that doctor came out and unleashed that report on how vaccines cause autism. Then everyone seemed to get on the bandwagon of not vaccinating their kids and somehow got the idea that not eating hormone free meats and organic foods cure them. Then it shifted to the mass hysteria of wearing perfume and if you don't eat organic, you will get cancer.

  10. annemariec23:27

    Hmmm. There's a lot in this.

    I hate cleaning the shower recess: it's my most loathed domestic task. But of course after I finally do it I feel great. I get pleasure out of the task well done. But the thing is: the shower recess has to get fairly grotty before I can face the task of cleaning it. Not hideous - I don't let it get that bad - but visibly grotty.

    If I cleaned it obsessively every second day, it wouldn't LOOK grotty before it was cleaned, and I would not get that 'ah hah' of satisfaction at looking at the results of my efforts. It would always look the same an I would just be tired and grumpy afterwards.

    So I guess what I'm saying is obvious really: it is normal and healthy to let things get a bit grotty and grimy, or to eat a bag of hot chips,or whatever. You clean up, you go for a run etc, and you feel that much better afterwards knowing what was there before. Does that make sense?

    I guess for the person obsessed with cleanliness the problem is that s/he believes in dirt and and germs that can't be seen, and which the rest of us are able to cheerfully ignore. So s/he HAS to clean the shower recess every other day. The added stress would be that s/he would wnat to clean only with the most environmentally friendly, chemical and cruelty free products. And so they feed their obsession in all directions

  11. Ariadne23:35

    Is that Mary Quant in the photo with her master perfecto Sassoon haircut? You had to be pretty OCD to keep that haircut looking like that.

  12. You know Helg , you can stop eating this, stop doing that and stop putting on perfume and that BUS can STILL RUN YOU OVER!!!! lol

    Enjoy everyday --- you can be gone tomorrow .... I am looking both ways as I cross the street while spraying on my Eau du Ciel by Goutal today! LOL

  13. Miss Heliotrope01:30

    My oncologists have only ever asked about family history. My current one (a professor & all) just checks I eat at least the minimum fruit & veg, get out for walks, and spend time enjoying myself...

    But then she's sane.

  14. Ellen,

    there is the danger of wanting to homogenise everything into one "model" which finds me opposed so vehemently. A sort of "plastic living" which is no living at all, IMHO.
    Glad we agree!

  15. Patricia,

    possibly it is as you say exactly. The thing is I found myself paralysed to actually help in any way and at the same time defensive as to my own habits! A lose-lose situation.
    I'm sure something scared her, but unless she realises that and forces herself to slowly desensitise how can anyone change her mind?

  16. Merlin09:36

    There's a really funny, and interesting, book I read recently called Drop Dead Healthy by A.J.Jacobs. In it he takes a whole variety of health fads and implements them for a certain period to try evaluate it all. He contends that it is only by going to extremes that one can truly tell where the middle is. A good, enjoyable read!

  17. Eld,

    that's a good timeline there! Very clever of you!
    I have passed through this "vaccines=poison" panic (who hasn't doubted for a minute?) but in the end it transpired the research provided to support this panic was a bogus study in the first place. It's most fascinating to see however that a falsity gained so much popularity and spread like wildfire, while the truth re-established passed into the "small letters" in the newspapers and online if at all.

    As to organic, there's organic and then there's organic. When we're talking about organic sold at spic-spac high tech stores with food in plastic wrappers (and the business plan to match) I tend to go all skeptical....When it's from the aunt's garden in the village, I'm all for it! ;-)

  18. solanace09:40

    These folks are like that official in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, who could think of nothing but his bodly fluids and their imminent contamination!

    By the way, my mom had cancer two years ago and her perfume habit was very uplifting during the hard times of surgeries, chemo and radio. She is doing great now, and wearing loads of Mitsouko.

  19. AMC,

    that's actually a logical stream of thoughts, makes perfect sense.
    But there's one weak point and I guess this is where it can get obsessive with those who take things too "to the letter": supposedly if you don't do it constantly (clean living, I mean) but only in spots here and there, you're (supposedly) not doing much for your well-being.

    BTW, your excellent example reminded me of this supremely funny (and clever!) commercial.

  20. Ariadne,

    not sure (the styling is all mod Quant), but it's supposed to be an actual advertisement for detergent? Not sure if it's not a collage. It's very eye catching though, isn't it?

    Agree on the hairstyle; I could never keep that hair plastered down like that with my voluminous hair.

  21. M,

    excellent analogy, there are things we can't darn control! Letting go a bit is good for the soul. :-)

  22. MH,

    aaaah, there. Enjoying life. So simple, so self-evident and yet.

  23. Oh, I tend to live in a bubble (I made for myself I should say) because all this you mentioned should seem like an exaggeration of our world. Unfortunately though, I know you are right. :(
    I'm all for clean living, but by that I mean more about having a smaller carbon imprint on our world, not making our environment completely devoid of things that bring happiness. Hell, I enjoy a glass of wine every day. I feel healthy and happy for it.
    Obsessive behavior (with anything, not just clean living) does not constitute happiness. That is a much harder road to travel and I think these people are scared of doing it.

  24. To Ellen (and everyone),

    I wanted to stress another thing: indeed ancient Greeks were purveyors of the "everything in moderation" axiom (really, the basis of their civilization).
    But the thing is our modern world has shifted ENTIRELY off this golden rule: we're reaping the effects of not keeping moderation in whatever we do. We do things excessively and with an (emotionally manipulated) fervor that obliterates all logical and critical response. In a way this is the shift away from the classical idea and the invasion of the cruelty of the free market where people are treated like cattle, living in increasingly worse conditions and with less of their intellect respected. It's sad...tragic really!

  25. Ines,

    thanks for chiming in!

    You know, there's one thing, about being a conscientious individual wanting to be ecologically sound (to the degree that it is feasible) and there's another, going to elaborate rituals to ensure you're "clean". It's the ritualistic part which shifts the whole thing into masochism. I applaud your bubble, it's hard-earned and precious. As you say, if more people (and I'm not exempting myself) had the guts to really LIVE.

  26. Anonymous10:29

    Oh, E, what a brilliant blow for common sense! I agree with you and everyone else here, and find the desire of others to impose their obsessions/beliefs on all so frustrating. As Lady Jicky says, no matter what you do, that bus can still come and get you, so why not enjoy your life?!

    There seems to be something very strange going on in the world right now with the fanatical puritans trying to ban everything that gives joy to human beings and using "science" as evidence.

    As for those who insist you should only ever use natural products, the lovely Octavian Coiffan wrote a great piece about preservatives and "organic" cosmetics; without anything to combat bacteria, those supposedly toxic-free creams are going off before you even start using them (that's the reason why so many have that slightly rancid smell - they are no longer fresh).

    So I will continue to enjoy my wine, food, perfume and toiletries, and not listen to the ever-growing chorus of disapproval!


  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. Solanace so glad your mom is doing better, she gives us all hope and inspiration!
    Faith or fear? it's the individuals motivation.Whats the driving force behind your thinking and actions?
    Helg- you had the right responce of defensivness, she was installing her personal fears on you.Your friend would say she has faith,she believes what she is doing will prevent cancer. Really? Stress reaks havock on the body. Jillie summed it up for me-moderation,common sence and some happyness in your life is best.

  29. One of your best articles yet- love it and I couldn't agree more.

    We eat "clean" at my house (my husband's obsession) but we burn candles and spray lots of perfume!!! We even drink wine and smoke an occasional delicious Dominican cigar. As my friend says, YOLO- you only live once- so try to enjoy yourself!!

  30. Well, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that the reason autoimmune conditions - allergies, athsma etc - are on the rise in Western cultures is because things are *too* clean, so your friend might not be doing herself as much good as she thinks by living in a bubble.

    Personally, I like to enjoy life. My grandfather died of Alzheimer's last year. I don't see the point in doing everything possible to get as old as possible when something like that could be waiting for me... I'd rather wear my perfume and have a glass of wine and go a bit earlier.

  31. Anonymous19:49

    Pedantry comes from all sides! Once you actually have cancer (or in my case my little boy has cancer) hold on, as you are buffeted about by an equally confident chorus of, "what doesn't kill you will make you stronger; This happened to you because you are strong enough to take it; God chose you to be his parents because he knows you can handle it..." Some people just have all the answers. Me? Naw… I just sip my third cup of coffee (or cocktail) with what I hope is a sage look, know that I smell fabulous (of course!), and hug my kids often--hoping against hope that they won't ever let fear rule their lives.

  32. Hhhmmm. I am all for "everything in moderation," but we cannot ignore the fact that many ingredients that are in cleaning products, personal care products, cosmetics, and yes, perfume, are toxic - and avoidable. The US still uses several ingredients in beauty products that are banned in Canada and Europe.

    I have been in the cosmetics industry for 12 years, and in the world of natural cosmetics for 5. I have read every book, article, and angle of the battle. Sadly, many people don't even realize that the FDA doesn't regulate cosmetics and body products. And yes, there are many ingredients (not just the plastics in the packaging) that disrupt the function of the endocrine system, are carcinogenic, and toxic for the environment when washed off and down the drain. (Triclosan, I'm looking at you...) Most people think that they can just trust whatever they find at the store. If it's made by a major brand, it's "good." If it says "natural," it's better. If it has one of those little green stickers, it's safer and more natural. Companies can label anything just about any way they want - they can call a product "organic" if it has one organic ingredient!

    Ironically, many of the companies that donate large amounts of money to, say, breast cancer, hawk the very products that have hormone-disrupting and carcinogenic ingredients that contribute to the cancers in the first place!

    Yes, I know there are the same problems in the food supply - i.e. the soy and estrogen connection. But just like our food, we have choices. It's relatively easy to avoid the dirty ingredients in our products, and to find alternatives.

    Yes, people go overboard with the "clean living." But to each his own. I have done cleanses, juiced, and meditated, all in my own quest to feel good and soothe what ails me. I think we are all just trying to do our best, prevent disease, stay healthy. As long as no one judges my attempts at doing so, I don't judge theirs.

    All of that being said, I am a big fan of living life. My food, skin care, hair care, cleaning products, children's products are all as close to "pure" as possible. I don't obsess, I just choose differently. I do not spend a lot of time cleaning - my house definitely has a wonderful level of immune-system challenging grime and germs. BUT I adore my Chanel makeup and yes, I am an avid perfumista!! I drink, I sit in the sun, and I love sweets. I practice the art of moderation.

  33. Elena, I think I'm developing a severe allergic reaction to all that "clean", "all-natural", etc. BS, so thank you, it was nice to read something sane for a change.

  34. Like Aninna, I think there is a third way. It is possible to stay informed and critical about what products are being sold to you and make your choices based upon personal ethics and still enjoy the miriad sensory pleasures the world has to offer. Lately I've been trying to be more conscious of how arguments polarise into an 'us' and a 'them' - it can happen so quickly once an extreme, like your friend, comes into your orbit. What I love about perfume is that it focusses me on the here and now, and in that space there's no room for fear. It sounds like your friend is on the run from herself.

  35. Patricia,

    I'm sure she didn't mean ill. She was really convinced that she was communicating some important news to me (a tsk tsk like we'd say to a chimney smoker, for instance, though surely one can't compare the two, but for argument's sake).
    I was a bit defensive, I guess, though I usually don't enter arguments where I know the other isn't really listening; I'm too tired to do that these days.

  36. Ricky,

    YOLO will become my favorite acronym from now on! Thanks!!

    I suppose one thing has to give, as you wisely say yourself. We try not to eat junk food as well (we do indulge in some souvlaki from time to time) but more because I find the pleasure and taste are not that good quality-wise, than because I'm scared of what will happen to my body. It helps that I can cook and cook well, of course. I don't smoke and only socially drink. So I gather I might indulge some other things. ;-)

  37. Mim,

    yeah, what you're saying...

    You know, I have had a really sad case concerning a potentially fatal disease on someone I know and I wonder whether battling with it is going to be good in the end or whether the doctors are just ruining his last years on earth in order to advance their science (hey, that's one reason doctors continue to "try" stuff, right?). I have kept my mouth totally shut of course, but I do wonder.

  38. Annina,

    I do not disagree with you and you seem to have carved out a nicely moderated path yourself, with a lean onto the avoidance of at least known carcinogens.

    What I find practically unfeasible is cutting out totally all the products that contain questionable ingredients. Triclosan I can do without (plain rubbing alcohol is fine for my hands), but I can't find a mass market shampoo without either SLS or tiethazolinone for instance. I decided that the potential "nerve damage" risk is negligible for me personally, as I don't wash my hair every day anyway and I don't use tons of shampoo at any rate.
    I do place a higher value on what I eat, but that is not easy to have on the clear either; so many things advertised as "healthy" and "without X or Y" are in reality not as advertised/marketed, as you point out yourself! "Green" sells right now and this has complicated the market quest, it seems!
    Some days I'm just too drained to do all the research and fall back on tried & tested.

    These days I'm mostly concerned with not finding my previous "staples" though in the supermarket though, due to the crisis; stores have simply dropped anything that didn't sell well enough or didn't have a price beneath a certain point.

    Meditation is cool stuff though!! (And I can vouch it works)

  39. Undina,

    I can feel you. :-)
    Thanks for dropping by and saying so!

  40. Gorgonzola,

    you're absolutely right.
    I wouldn't want my post to be construed as suggesting we need to dive headlong into not checking anything and indulging in anything, but sometimes the overzealousness is blinding me.

    Love your perfume description as freedom from fear! That's very beautiful :-)

  41. I too have worried that people have too neatly divided the world into "natural" and "unnatural", which corresponds so perfectly with "good" and "evil", the worst part is that the religiousness of it is lost on most of these people, who, as already stated, see this divide as being upheld by science (“studies”). Anyway, I thought about it and realized it is a manifestation of G. E. Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy and the “fallacious appeal to nature”.

  42. Maria06:00

    What a timely read.
    I had a mole removed in August and was diagnosed with basalioma. Immediately I thought of possible causes of that, which really is looking for something to blame. Naturally, as a woman who reads a lot online, I thought of all the "toxic chemicals" I contacted. Was it nail polish? Perfume? Skin care? Cleaning products? Synthetic dyes in fabrics?
    It took me almost a week to realize how ridiculous this is. I don't put nail polish on moles, no do I rub them with perfumes. So it must be Yves Rocher body care. What am I, [expletive] stupid?! ...Fear does that to a person, even me, an ardent supporter of ideas you express in this post.
    But fear is a foul base to build a life on. Take reasonable care of what's most important and let go of the rest - there's a limit to our effort. If I googled all the ingredients in our products I'd spend 24/7 online. There are better ways to live a life. Living in modern Russia makes it meaningless anyway - you can't trust labels. Am I to buy detergent from Europe? I know a hell of better ways to spend my money :)
    Now I can better understand why people freak out, but it still doesn't make sense. Also, "keep thy religion to thyself". I have yet to meet a perfume / wine / dirt lover who would try to impose their passion on 'non-believers'.
    But I have to admit, staying sane requires an effort!

  43. Xenia,

    Science is the religion of nowadays. You encapsulated this perfectly. And yes, fallacious appeal to nature seems to express it very well. A symptom of our own disassociating with nature for so long, I guess. It had to come out somewhere...

    Thanks for commenting (and better late than never in replying I suppose)

  44. Maria,

    first of all, sorry about the diagnosis. I hope there is some way it can heal and you can find something that appeases your inner torment on what caused it (I find that this guilt trip that we're sent on when taken ill is the most devastating thing of all: as if we're to blame for what has befallen us, why do doctors continue to let this happen??)

    Secondly, it might not even be the YR skincare, you know. The thing is, with modern living, scientists still don't hold the answer to everything and still reverse theories that have been propounded for years and years on end. See for instance what happens with Anthropology and the "new" skull discovery (as broadcasted in Nature etc).; it sort of ambushes at least 40 years' of elementary and high school learning. And yet...this is science by its very nature. Always reinventing itself. :-)

    So, rest easy, have faith and don't fret the guilt-trip triggers too much, because you know, in the end, it's not what we do, it's what we live through that matters.

    My very very best wishes to you!!

  45. Maria08:02

    Thank you for your kind words and wishes, I really appreciate!
    But it looks like I'm still too nervous to express myself clearly :) I didn't blame myself, I blamed products and companies! Which was totally stupid. Of course YR has nothing to do with it, nor any other brand. Shit happens, as the movie said, you just hope you don't get into that part of statistics.
    As to the rest, I'm as ardent follower of ideas in your post as I've ever been. It takes a bigger effort now, but dude abides!


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