To bathe, or not to bathe?

The Sunday school class I teach each week is a curious, entertaining, and often enlightening affair, for me as well as (hopefully) for the seven or eight mostly middle school students who attend it on a regular basis. Long ago, I abandoned “curriculum” or even planned lessons in favor of an open, rambling, tangential discussion of whatever happens to be of interest to us at the moment. 60% of the time I’m able to channel/relate the discussion to something with redeeming spiritual or social value, and the remaining 40% of the time, I chock up to building relationships and a safe forum for discussion.

A few weeks ago, the topic of bathing habits came up (I have no idea what led to that point). One of the boys in the class volunteered the fact that he only bathes once every three days, whereupon several of the other kids (especially the girls) chimed in with a chorus of “ewwww!” and “gross!”, etc. I instantly jumped into protector-of-young-boy’s-ego-and-self-esteem mode, which led me to a critique of our American hyper-obsessive antibacterialism and almost complete disregard for water and environmental conservation. Daily showers, for example, are mostly a one-country rarity not shared by the rest of the world.

What most of the kids in the class also didn’t know was that the boy who made the comment is a leukemia survivor and an only child — a combination that has (rightfully) made his parents very educated and conscious of his diet and anything health related (that and the fact that his mother immigrated here from Eastern Europe). They have doubtless discovered much of the medical research that links allergies and a variety of other immuno-deficiencies to our suburban germ-phobia. Farm children don’t get allergies. In fact, they rarely get sick at all.

The problem with all of this becomes one of practicing what I preach. Was I merely defending a child under attack, or do I really believe what I was saying? I would like to think of myself as an advocate for the diligent care of God’s creation. I certainly owe no allegiance to mass-produced, commercially-driven American culture. And yet, for the entirety of my adult life, I have taken a shower every day.

My opportunity came quickly — on our trip to NJ the next week, we stayed with friends who were in the process of remodeling their one bathroom (beautiful small house built in the 1930s). The shower was useable, but still not quite finished, so I decided to put myself to the test: instead of a shower, I used a washcloth, warm water from the sink, and soap to do the job.

Surprisingly, the world didn’t come crashing down. No one even seemed to notice or care. People didn’t shrink away from me in revulsion. Later on our trip, when we stayed with Grady Walker, I used the bathtub upstairs instead of the shower downstairs, and took a bath (which uses much less water than a shower).

So far, these are all just short, timid forays into a “new philosophy of bathing.” The only thing I’ve committed to on a regular basis is washing my hair with shampoo every third shower. It all reminds me of when I first started to embrace the open-source movement. I tried jumping in feet first, abandoning Microsoft and all proprietary software in one fell swoop, but ended up retreating, frustrated each time. Eventually, it was baby-steps that worked — replacing one program at a time. Perhaps this is the direction I’m headed with personal hygiene. I’ve bought into a philosophy; may the rest come along steadily and surely, in good time.

As an epilogue, one of the students in my Sunday school class took my words to heart, and began evangelizing his family. His mother was less than enthusiastic, but happy that her son was standing for something. When I next saw him, we had a talk about how this wasn’t just a way to get out of taking a bath, or abandoning personal hygiene altogether. I shared with him the idea that often, doing the “right” thing for the “right” reasons is even harder and more time-consuming than the convenience of the way “everyone else is doing it,” but more rewarding in deeper, meaningful ways. For his sake and mine, I hope I’m right.

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4 Responses to To bathe, or not to bathe?

  1. anniem says:

    We’re not big bathers in our family. I shower maybe as often as twice a week, the kids take a bath together and/or with one of us maybe twice a month. Nobody smells, everybody’s healthy. Over the years, John’s gone from a shower-a-day guy to a guy who often skips showers–that’s love.

    I think small children (older infants and toddlers) can get a lot of limbic stimulation out of baths, but it’s so much effort that I advise many parent friends to just skip bathing for the first year. Spot clean and spend more time resting and enjoying the little one. Somewhere around 11 or 12 those hormones will start smelling and they’ll need it every week, but why rush that? Like you said, the oils and good bacteria (which, if you don’t bathe, can outnumber and outfight the bad 10:1) are very healthful.

  2. Emily says:

    I aggree that our society is over-hyped on this germ and hygiene topic. As a result, we do seem to harm ourselves by not allowing our bodies to co-exist with the environment or develop our own immune systems naturally.

    Maybe taking shorter (quicker) showers would be a good “baby step.” You made a comment that struck me as odd. You wrote that baths take less water than showers. That immediately tells me you use a very small bath tube and fill it very little, you spend way too long in the shower, or there is some other source of water loss during your shower.

    Though perhaps I am driven by different motives, I believe in conserving water (especially when I am paying for the bill). Many times I have purposely left the stopper in the tube while showering because I was curious about how much water I really was using and how that would compare to the quantity of water for a bath. The water never came quite up to my ankles. That is much less than I would use for a bath. Unless you have several people who are going to bathe in the same bath tube (simultaneously or consecutively), filling a bath tube uses more water than a quick shower. (If you are only washing your hair every 3rd time, then your shower time should be pretty quick.) Have you considered all the other indirect gains you will also have? Less time in the shower= less water used/wasted, less time cleaning the soap scum build-up in the shower, less money for shampoo, more time with your family, and more time to help out around the house.

    The only catch is to see what the time and resources trade off would be for now having to wash the sheets on your bed more.

  3. Neal Locke says:

    To my sister, Emily:

    Since you grew up in the same house with me, you should remember that (even way back then) I have a tendency toward long showers. It’s part of my wake-up mechanism (which makes skipping it altogether a difficult thing to do…). With a bath, I can take as long as I want, and use a fixed amount of water.

    Also, when you did your shower experiment, did you turn the shower on and wait until the water got warm before getting in? Did you count that toward the water spent?

    All that said, the main point I was trying to make wasn’t shower vs. bath. It was shower vs. no shower, or at least some-other-alternative, of which I have yet to figure out what works best. I’m just trying new things.

    And yes, you and I do approach things from completely different angles (saving the world vs. saving $$$), but if water conservation can yield both results, perhaps we’ve found some common ground?

    And finally, no matter how old and how smart you get, I’m still your big brother. So there.

  4. Amber says:

    Hi! I just wanted to let you know that I quoted you on my blog and I totally agree with what you’re doing. I have been taking only one real shower a week and basically “spongebathe” (with a sink of water and washcloth) every evening. I wash my hair whenever it’s needed in the bathtub.

    I’ve not been doing it long enough to see how much it lowers the water bill, but I know it’s pretty significant. Thanks so much for your post! 🙂

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