Shaving, nail clipping and beyond — What are the limits of public hygiene?

After Giuliani got called out for public shaving, I wondered: What is okay any more?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 29, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Rudolph Giuliani, attorney for President Donald Trump, conducts a news conference at the Republican National Committee, on lawsuits regarding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election on Thursday, November 19, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Rudolph Giuliani, attorney for President Donald Trump, conducts a news conference at the Republican National Committee, on lawsuits regarding the outcome of the 2020 presidential election on Thursday, November 19, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

"You nasty, filthy, sloppy, disgusting, filthy f**king animal. You f**king pig, you should be ashamed of yourself." That was the response from actor and podcaster Michael Rapaport — and plenty of other similarly repulsed viewers — earlier this month when a video appeared to show former New York City mayor and self professed "normal" drinker Rudy Giuliani openly shaving his face in the dining area of the Delta One lounge at Kennedy Airport. Not that any sane person should take their grooming cues from a man who has been known to ooze dark fluid, but out here in the civilization we're attempting to maintain, personal grooming is generally expected to be confined to private spaces. What constitutes private activity, who has the privilege of said privacy and why these taboos exist at all, however, are incredibly subjective.

In 2018, a New Jersey Transit rider went viral after a fellow passenger filmed him giving his face a full Barbasol smeared shave during a commute. The clip was undeniably hypnotic, with the man casually flicking his foam onto the floor of the train. But after over 2.4 million views on Twitter and commenters calling him a "slob," the passenger came forward to reveal he had been traveling from a homeless shelter to see his brother, and wanted to look "presentable" for his family. "My life is all screwed up," he told the Associated Press. "That's the reason I was shaving on the train." 

There is not a single personal activity that I haven't seen someone conducting in a public space. Yet despite years of eyewitness experience, I doubt I could tell the difference between a presidential cybersecurity adviser and a down-on-his-luck person just coming out of a homeless shelter. So while I'm firmly against recording and publicly shaming everyone who isn't Rudy Giuliani for their idiosyncratic personal upkeep rituals, I also would like to make a case for those of us who can to abide by some common sense etiquette. Basically, if it can leave behind debris from your body or creates an intrusive scent (like nail polish), try to do it somewhere else.

The least disputed versions of this rule of thumb include tooth flossing, hair plucking, earwax cleaning, pimple popping, shaving, spitting, nose picking and the classic — nail clipping. As artist Jason Shelowitz pleaded in his 2010 guerrilla New York City subway poster campaign, "Under no circumstance is the subway the right place for this. The sound is incredibly annoying and the little nail bits go flying all over the place. Keep it at home please. It's crazy that this even needs to be mentioned."

While the health risks are not comparable to those from sneezing or coughing, it's just logical to limit all potential exposure to infection. This means that things that might make you bleed — clipping, cutting — are best done in clean, controlled environments. British Columbia's HealthLink guide advises, "Blood and body fluids, such as saliva, semen and vaginal fluid, can contain viruses that can be passed on to other people." And though "The risk is low… body fluids, such as sweat, tears, vomit or urine may contain and pass on these viruses." (This is also another argument for wiping down your sweaty gym equipment, I beg of you.)

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Let's say I have a fresh cut on my elbow, and then I sit down at a restaurant table where the previous patron just nicked his face shaving. In an "ER or Not?" Interview for University of Utah Health, Dr. Troy Madsen noted that "Anything where the skin is not completely intact, if it's blood from a person where you don't know they could potentially have HIV or hepatitis, err on the side of caution."

Of course, the odds of getting hepatitis from the guy attending to his five o'clock shadow next to you at JFK are infinitesimal. But reasonable cleanliness and courtesy dictate that if you wouldn't sneeze on a stranger, maybe don't shave around them either. The lines get a little blurrier around less intimate — and more clearly gendered — acts of maintenance. Hair brushing and combing, with their obvious and inevitable leftovers of hair and dandruff, seem like no-brainers. A 2015 MTA campaign depicted subway riding figures attending to their nails and hair and advised, "Clipping? Primping? Everybody wants to look their best, but it's a subway car, not a restroom." Yet clipping is a far more clearcut action than "primping." I don't want anybody to go full DryBar on my commute, but I also know that no one with hair past their shoulders can avoid getting either in or out of a ponytail over the course of a day. I mean, my wrists exist to hold my Goody bands.

And what about makeup application, a seemingly victimless crime? In 2018, English journalist Nina Myskow sparked a fierce backlash for calling women "selfish" for doing their makeup on their commutes, demanding they "Get up earlier." Yet as Aditi Shrikant responded in Vox, "Expecting a person to groom before commuting is assuming they have time to do so, but time to yourself is a privilege." Courtesy is a dynamic process. We can endeavor to take care of our personal business before leaving the house for the sake of everybody who didn't sign up to be part of that process, and we can grant some space and kindness for others who don't have the same advantages. Which does not let the Guilianis of the world off the hook.

Offering the hottest possible take on all of this, The Independent's senior commissioning editor Rupert Hawksley this week cheekily defended Guiliani's bizarre shaving performance, observing, "Airports are hard enough without people judging your weird behavior. Things happen at airports that don't happen anywhere else. Normal rules do not apply…. Christ, if Rudy Giuliani wants to have a quick shave over his lobster bisque, let the poor man get on with it." I too have done things while traveling that can only be interpreted as a cry for help, but I'd like to think I was in those instances only hurting myself with that airport sushi.

We are living through a moment of unprecedented, reckless selfishness. We are confronted daily with evidence of our fellow humans disregarding the most basic of boundaries, refusing to consider the comfort and safety of others for the greater good. Why be thoughtful? Why be decent? The world is your spittoon and hygiene is unpatriotic! That's why the sight of a prominent, privileged man treating an airport dining area like it's his private bathroom feels uniquely insulting right now. It's stubble as symbolism, a declaration of a certain class of individuals of their utter indifference to whatever mess they create and leave behind, for the rest of us to clean up.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Commentary Hygiene Michael Rappaport Public Transportation Rudy Giuliani