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Personal Hygiene in Public

May 23, 2013 | by Emuna Braverman

When did it become okay to floss your teeth and clean your ears in public?

Emily Post says that it’s okay for women to “refresh” their lipstick at the dinner table – in the middle of the restaurant. It’s a socially acceptable thing to do. But I disagree. And it’s not just because it eliminates all the mystery (don’t we want to at least keep up a pretense of looking naturally beautiful?). I believe that personal grooming is a private activity – and that’s where it should stay.

I’m feeling more and more alone in this perspective as I watch people file their nails, floss their teeth and even clean their ears in public places. I don’t know if the car counts but I can certainly see those men shaving and those women applying mascara at red lights.

Even looking in the mirror seems to me an act that should remain private (I try to impress this on my children who think that their shiny knife at the Shabbos table is a good substitute – a little discretion please). Perhaps we don’t appreciate how we appear to others. We think that we’re being subtle or that no one else notices. I’m here to dispel that myth; they do.

A few weeks ago I was sitting outside with my daughter on a Friday night. We happened to glance through the glass door of the apartment building across the street as a woman came down the stairs and did an elaborate “checking herself” dance in front of the lobby mirror. “Oh my gosh!” exclaimed my daughter. “I do the same thing; I just didn’t realize that people could see in.” She’s not going to do that again soon!

Yes, people can see. And I, for one, don’t want to. When monkeys groom themselves and each other at the zoo, we chuckle in amusement. It’s sophisticated animal behavior. But it’s still animal behavior. And I think we should keep that side of ourselves under wraps. The body isn’t bad but it shouldn’t be on display. Personal hygiene should be attended to in the restroom – and not in the kind that someone I know in Los Angeles has – with a glass door!

Certainly our behavior affects how we think of ourselves. If we behave like animals, that’s how we will see ourselves and how others will see us as well. On the other hand, if we try to elevate ourselves and behave like souls, we at least have a chance of being successful.

We all want to be neat, clean and even attractive. We don’t want to sit across the dinner table from someone with lipstick on our teeth, food stuck between them or other hygiene issues. But the restroom is the place to deal with these challenges. If our dinner date suddenly started picking his nose (excuse the vulgarity) we would be a little shocked. There are some activities that are definitely not public (and perhaps not private either!) I suggest that we err on the side of including more bodily functions in that category rather than fewer.

Too much focus on the body will sink us. It robs us of our higher drive; it obscures the spiritual focus of the soul. Applying a fresh layer of lipstick at the dinner table seems innocuous enough but, like everything, there are consequences and there is slippage.

Yes, perhaps we look more attractive with that summery shade of pink on our lips. But the loss of dignity and the renewed focus on the physical are a high price to pay. Yes, the lipstick comes off when we eat. That’s okay. That’s normal. That’s human. We can preserve our dignity and our beauty better through a smile than through make-up, through paying attention to our companion and not our little mirror, through conversation about meaningful topics and not concern about appearances. I think Emily Post got it wrong this time.

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