I think about hygiene a lot, I think about how we live in a sterile world where to get dirty is a spectacle; every competitor of Tough Mudder has a power stance on as they smile showing off just how much mud they have on their bodies, boot camps make a point of making you crawl around in the dirt to allow you to pretend you are in the army, we schedule in our dirty time and take photos of it, but dirty outside those narrow contexts is seen as unhealthy or shameful.
Dirt stops a lot of senses being used: we don’t like to touch something dirty, we don’t like to smell something dirty, to even look at something dirty is often difficult. Cycling and travelling through Asia, my dirtiness has brought people closer to me, meeting someone grubby has given me new perspectives and feeling dirty has given me confidence. Bike messengering started a long process of me giving up that same overly clean idea, which suits me fine because at heart I am a bit of a slob.
When I was young, maybe around 10, my mum was still coming into the bathroom to wash my hair. I was dressed and smartened by adults. I did however brush my own teeth and wash my own body, both of which I did with laziness. I would brush my front teeth not bothering about the backs and when I showered I would just stand there lost in imagination thinking that the water would do it’s job without soap – even now I am more of a stander than a scrubber and when showering with Dan, who lathers himself into a cloud, I look like I am just there for the conversation.
I remember in primary school a friend telling me that the part in my hair wasn’t centered like it was something she had been watching for weeks.
I have never been able to perfect the groomed look even during the years of high-leveled self grooming and 2 showers a day. My hair too thin, skin too blotchy; in photos of me as a child I always had a sweaty fringe – I am just a natural grub. I wasn’t made for the airbrushed look women have on the streets of the western world. I was made to sweat!
Western bodies are so clean that some women’s nails are filed down to remove the faint grooves that naturally appear there. A hair out of place in our eyebrows is forcibly and painfully removed. Even if it’s your mother telling you there is something in your teeth there are still hints of shame and embarrassment. But as I cycle around the world there is nothing to apologise for. I see women working the fields, in fabrics dusty and well worn like mine; people are not trying to escape the earth, they are working with it. I connect with women because I am not stepping off a tourist bus with vibrant harem pants to take a picture. A woman will warmly hold my hand in friendship and mutual respect.
Sweat, when worn appropriately makes your body glow, you can see the pulsing of your muscles in the refections and ripples of light, it is slippery and salty, it is texture, it leaves a glow, a minty freshness when the wind blows, a sense of volume on your skin, it makes colour more vibrant and hair windblown like you have just come back from the beach. After sweating all day on my bike couriering and then going to the pub I felt energized, hard working, cool, relaxed, and worn like a working class man. Being dirty and sweaty was only occasionally a problem, I would see someone from school who worked in an office and feel the need to apologise for being so sweaty or feel like I should have brought a change of clothes if I met someone other than a courier after work.
I stopped shaving my armpits about a year ago, my mother hates it, I cut my hair short because I don’t want to have to manage it, when I wash my clothes in sinks the water runs brown for minutes, clothes are worn for so long they double in weight from sweat drying and dirt embedded within the fabric. I have begun to learn what is important and what is unnecessary in grooming.
Dan and I sit in our campsite, as we cook our meals sitting on the ground, our sweat still drying, trucks and cars kicking dirt into our faces all day, it rests into our wrinkles and sticks to the sweat on our shirts. We pour a bottle of undrinkable water over our heads and our feet and brush our teeth before we roll into our increasingly used tent, if there is a stream we wash our clothes and leave them to dry over the frames of our bike, we strap our clothes to the backs of our bikes to let the sun freshen them up.
I receive more compliments than ever out here and I receive them while I wear sweat-stained shirts, and my hair swept into an accidental perm, when I have a mono-brow made of dust and my fingernails are clogged with dirt. I had a phase when I showered long and expected to sparkle but never did. Now I shower rarely and quick and I have never felt more beautiful.
Not one person has being bothered by our appearance, it is only something we manage because we like to, not because we are expected to.