Dog shit, dirty nappies, vomit, bad breath, stained towels, lice,
nasal mucous, half-eaten food, saliva, worms, rotten meat, maggots,
sores, urine, rats, sweat.
What do all these things have in common? The answer is that we find
them disgusting. And surprisingly enough, people everywhere seem
to find them disgusting too. In Africa, India and Europe people
say such things turn their stomach and make them recoil. Touching
excreta, mucous or maggots is hard for most of us, and we go to
great lengths to remove unhygienic, revolting and yucky stuff from
Though disgust has been recognised as one of the six basic emotions
since the days of Darwin, it has been very little studied. So much
so, that one researcher called it 'the forgotten emotion of psychiatry'.
Nevertheless, disgust is something we are all familiar with. We
easily recognise the facial expression: a wrinkled nose and the
corners of the mouth pulled down. We know the feeling of nausea,
the shudder, the urge to drop whatever it is that is disgusting,
and the way we almost automatically say 'Yuck!'.
Hygiene is what we do to avoid being disgusted. We scrub at the
stains that might be evidence of bodily secretions, we scrape the
food leftovers from the plate, we scour our toilets, soap away smells
from our bodies and cast waste from our homes. But why do we do
this? Why, for example is food on a plate enticing, but not the
leftovers? Why is the boy disgusted by lipstick on a glass, but
not the same lipstick on his lovers lips. And why do we fear
worms, bugs and nits? We seem to be driven by primitive phobias,
devoid of rationality.
Asked to explain their hygiene practices, educated people explain
that they are avoiding germs. Yet germs are largely a figment of
the twentieth century imagination. Hygiene has been around a lot
longer. Six millennia ago toilets were constructed in the Indus
valley. The Greeks prescribed hygiene for balance, harmony and order.
Christians insisted on it so as not to offend their God. The sacred
Vedas set out hygiene rules for Hindu society, placing pure Brahmins
at the top of the hierarchy and dirty polluting Untouchables
at the bottom. Jews and Muslims alike make hygienic separations
between sacred and profane. Clearly hygiene is not just about avoiding
Disgust is the key to understanding hygiene. Those of our ancestors
who were repulsed by contact with bodily excretions, suppurating
wounds, signs of illness and cues to contamination would have had
more success staying healthy and passing on their genes. They were
avoiding disease and doing it by an instinctual mechanism that didnt
require the invention of microscopes or the germ theory of disease
transmission 2. Evolution designed our brains to repulse us from
that which might make us sick.
If disgust explains much of our hygiene behaviour, how come hygiene
is so deeply embroiled in the rules of our society? Why are paedophiles
dirty old men? Why is pornography known as dirty
books and illegal wealth dirty money? The civilising
mission of the Christian church overseas included teaching that
immorality, ignorance, laziness, vice and dirt were inseparable.
Expansion and dominion were thus legitimised and control established
over indigenous peoples. In Indonesia, the Dutch colonial administration
destroyed a great number of indigenous settlements because they
were unhygienic. Nazi Germany gave birth to the science
of Eugenics, which supported the idea of racial hygiene, and set
out to destroy the group they designated filthy Jews.
Pre-civil rights USA had a hygiene doctrine of racial segregation
for those they labelled Dirty Niggers who suffered appalling
deprivation and discrimination. Scientists collaborated with the
apartheid system in South Africa by accepting that a transfusion
of black blood would contaminate white recipients.
Hygiene was also roped in for social control in Europe. In the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, industrialisation and urbanisation brought
fears that population concentrations were the breeding grounds for
filth, epidemic and vice, all of which threatened the social order.
As social unrest grew among the poor, England, France and the USA
enacted public health legislation to maintain the social order in
the interest of the élites. But views differed on explanation
of disease. The masses saw their disease as a consequence of their
poverty and the high price of corn. The élite used new theories
about disease to justify their fear of the poor. Medical science
in the mid 20th Century in the UK and its colonies focused on social
medicine and the need for sexual hygiene and the prevention
of the venereal diseases. Even today, the rich and powerful harangue
the poor in developing countries about their culpability in the
death of their children. If only you had washed your hands
they say. Disgust is a powerful emotion and one that the powerful
have learnt to manipulate for their own ends.
Dirt transgresses body boundaries, threatening sickness, disorder,
decay and death. By accusing the poor, the marginalised or the refugee
of being dirty; fear of transgression of the body politic is raised.
Disgust and fear of disease and disorder are engendered. This is
the dangerous side of hygiene; a side that needs to be understood
and cast out before our societies can become healthy in all senses
of the word.
1. Phillips, M.L.; Senior, C.; Fahy,
T. and David, A.S. Disgust- the forgotten emotion of psychiatry.
British Journal of Psychiatry. 172:373-375, 1998.
2. Curtis, V.A. & Biran, A. Dirt, disgust and disease: is hygiene
in our genes? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 44 (1): 17-31
Dr Valerie Curtis
Environmental Health Group
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
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