The Clean Body

A Modern History

Non-Fiction - Cultural
336 Pages
Reviewed on 03/16/2020
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Jaycee Allen for Readers' Favorite

The Clean Body by Peter Ward charts the history of personal cleanliness in the western world from the seventeenth century on, and it takes us through the homes and bathhouses of France, Germany, Italy, England, Austria, and North America. We know that today’s often excessive attention to personal grooming is the result of gradual change over the centuries, but in this fascinating book, we follow this evolution through the last four centuries, starting from the time when water was seen as dangerous, and nude bathing was a taboo — France’s Louis the XIV only bathed twice in his lifetime — when vaginal disorders, scabies, skin infections, a profusion of lice, and fleas were accepted as minor annoyances, and clean clothing was a refinement separating the middle classes from the lower ranks.

The nineteenth century’s cholera pandemics and the discovery (despite the blatant resistance of the medical corps) that by washing one's hands mortality could be reduced in hospitals did help to change attitudes. But, as Peter Ward points out, most influential were the newly-created soap companies. Soon, aggressive advertising techniques were being used to sell cosmetics, washing powders, deodorants, and to instill a fear of social rejection if these new grooming products were not used. The Clean Body by Peter Ward is not only beautifully written and minutely researched, but it is also easily an easily accessible and fascinating study and a most excellent reference book. And today when the influence of commercial products for cleanliness is finally being questioned — albeit by a marginal few — this very important book gives us all the perspective we need to see the modern obsession with grooming in its proper light.