Why do we even care which celebrities bathe? An investigation

The better question is, why do celebrities want us to care?

Published August 17, 2021 8:00PM (EDT)

Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Jake Gyllenhal (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Jake Gyllenhal (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

From juice cleanses to keto diets, and more recently, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, it seems wealthy celebrities always have something to say about how we, the humble poors and normies, should be living our best, healthiest lives. This sort of out-of-touch prescriptivism is, after all, the stuff of multi-million dollar celebrity lifestyle brands, from Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop to Kourtney Kardashian's Poosh. If we try this life hack or that, our lives will supposedly become like those of the celebrities we're taught to worship. 

Enter: the celebrity bath debate, that's split up an entire roster of A-listers into Team Shower vs. Team Anti-Shower. Somewhere in the shuffle between noting the shower statuses of Chris Evans and Cardi B, one has to take a step back and ask themselves, what does any of this really mean? Why do we, as a culture, even care? And is anyone really all that shocked that Jake Gyllenhal doesn't bathe? To answer these and other questions requires us to go back to the start, when the controversy first emerged earlier this summer.

Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis got us started in July when they opened up about only bathing their children when they start to smell, and fellow celeb parents Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard co-signed. What followed was a symphony of celebrity confessions and rebuffs. 

Gyllenhal admitted to Vanity Fair that "more and more [he finds] bathing to be less necessary, at times." Meanwhile, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" star Terry Crews brought some nuance to the conversation in an interview with Access Hollywood, proclaiming for all the world to know that he "[loves] to shower, because [he] spends so much time sweating," but conceding, "If you ain't been sweating, you don't need to shower, but I spend all day sweating." 

For other celebrities, it's simple. Jason Momoa, Evans, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, Jodie Turner-Smith, and Cardi B, the Queen of Twitter herself, are all decidedly Team Shower, and they want you to know it. "Before you lot even ask: in this house, we bathe," Turner-Smith tweeted, shortly after the celebrity shower debate first launched. As for Momoa, he says his status as Aquaman speaks for itself: "I shower. Trust me. I'm Aquaman," he told Access Hollywood.

One could do a deep dive into the science of all of this (in fact, Salon has), and pore over the many opinions of doctors and health experts about how often children and adults should be showering. To Ashton and Mila's credit, there are pediatricians who don't recommend bathing children too often to preserve the natural skin oils that are meant to protect them. But on the other hand, adults who very much sweat like adults should consider showering like adults, too.

Health and hygiene aside for a moment, none of this answers the question of why celebrity bathing has become such a spectacle to begin with. Beyond our usual, morbid fascination with the inner lives of the wealthy, beautiful, otherworldly being that is the celebrity, why do we care? Maybe the better question is, why do celebrities want us to? After all, none of us would be having this conversation in the first place if it weren't for information they willingly volunteered.

The politics of bathing

The personal is the political, and there's almost nothing more personal than how often we shower. However silly and overblown the celebrity bathing debate might seem, on the surface, there are layers to this — yes, including a political layer. 

Let's be clear: Being beautiful, wealthy, and powerful icons of culture, and declaring to the world that you do not bathe, is an act of dominance, a flex of one's power, period. Just as the dystopian government of George Orwell's "1984" was able to declare that 2+2=5, when you reach a certain level of clout and celebrity, when you are the ones who dictate what is and isn't a la mode, and what is and isn't trendy, you can declare that not bathing is the new bathing, and probably get away with it. 

This entire conversation is arguably rooted in power — specifically, who has the power to be above society's rules and standards for presentability, respectability, cleanliness, attractiveness. This conversation is also about who makes these rules, and who gets to decide these things, in the first place. Spoiler alert: It isn't us, the ordinary people, no matter how much we may outrage-tweet our reactions. It's the Ashtons and Milas.

It's nothing if not ironic that wealthy white elites can gloat about not showering, and even present this behavior as the next, trendy Health Thing, while across the country and around the world, people of color, immigrants, and the working poor, including service and agricultural workers, are stereotyped and treated as dirty, lazy and gross. From the reaction to children of immigrants who brought their cultural foods to school for lunch, to the white supremacist myth of Black hair as dirty and unprofessional, race, class and even immigration status have always shaped who is seen as clean and presentable in society.

Even prior to the ongoing, cringe-inducing celebrity bathing dialogues, the internet has been ablaze over hygiene controversies before. These controversies have primarily been started by white people who shared on social media that they saw swimming in local pools as a sufficient bath, and of course, the ongoing Twitter joke that white people don't wash their legs, inspired by real-life anecdotes. Long before Ashton and Mila, middle-class white people have often been at the center of bathing-related social media debates. 

Of course, this is ironic, considering the class and varying identity-based barriers to hygiene products. Many essential hygiene products can be expensive, perhaps even out of reach for a low-income family forced to choose between deodorant and body wash, or groceries. For low-income women, there's the added dimension of the pink tax, which makes products that are needlessly gendered female more expensive than their male counterparts. For years, stores like Walmart and CVS literally locked up Black beauty and hygiene products.

It's a privilege to be able to afford a thorough wash, to be able to adequately groom oneself and be deemed an acceptable member of society. And, as of this summer, more and more celebrities are merely shrugging in the face of this privilege. 

The trap of the "relatable" celebrity

Why are celebrities who come forward about their bathing facing so much backlash and ridicule this summer? If we were in 2014, at the height of the internet's lovefest with the "relatable" celebrity, and in particular, Jennifer Lawrence, Tumblr and Twitter might have swooned in response to a plucky, just-like-you, it-girl like Lawrence confessing to infrequent showering. You can almost picture the "So relatable! <3" retweets. 

But alas, it is no longer 2014, and the age of the relatable celebrity is decisively over. In the last decade, we've experienced Donald Trump, a pandemic, mass death, near economic collapse, the deepening of the crisis of late-stage capitalism, and irreversible climate catastrophe disproportionately devastating poor communities of color. Today, the same teens who once celebrated anything an unreasonably wealthy and attractive famous person did that was mildly human are probably drowning in student loan debt, struggling to pay rent, and being chastised for ordering avocado toast or using plastic straws, while Jeff Bezos has a yacht for his yacht.

All of this is to say, while society has more recently caught on to the reality that there's no such thing as a relatable celebrity, there are some celebrities who still remain desperate to play the part, or do what historians looking back at this particular cultural era will call, "pulling a Chrissy Teigen." If you think about it, every celebrity who's confessed to not bathing in recent weeks could have instead simply gone on some luxury vacation, rather than rush to publicly humiliate themselves.

At the end of the day, one can only guess why Ashton and Mila, Kristen and Dax, Jake Gyllenhal, or any of the others would volunteer their lack of glowing hygiene to a public that's understandably champing at the bit to find the next out-of-touch celeb to tear apart. It seems entirely possible an ill-informed PR consultant might have advised that doing so would make them seem more relatable, more humble, human, down-to-earth. Only, too bad for celebrities that exist on their own orbit of wealth and privilege, but down here on Earth, we normal people bathe.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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Ashton Kutcher Cardi B Commentary Dax Shepard Dwayne Johnson Jake Gyllenhal Kristen Bell Mila Kunis