‘No-poo’, Consumer Culture and feeling good

I am now over a month into my ‘no poo’ experiment. In case you don’t know, ‘no-poo’ has nothing to do with actual shit and a lot to do with removing shampoo from your hair care routine. The ‘no-poo’ method supposedly allows your hair to return to it’s natural cycles, and causes it to start regulating it’s own sebum levels rather than shampoo and conditioner doing it for you. It doesn’t mean your hair goes completely unwashed. There are a range of ‘alternative’ techniques used amongst the ‘no-poo’ community that help keep the hair looking somewhat respectable.

This is not the first time I have stopped washing my hair conventionally. From having dreadlocks four years ago, to spending most of my time in Thailand last year without shampoo, I often use travelling as an opportunity to take a break from generic hair washing practices. Something about being on the road (or in covid-19 isolation) makes me think it is okay to look and smell a bit ‘different’.

(Back to some real ‘no-poo’ days in Manali, India)

Though my hair sometimes looked terrible and sometimes looked amazing during my ‘no-poo’ periods, it has often come out the other side with more length (unsurprisingly), more strength and more shine than when I started. Though I always start washing again at some point, normally when I have to re-enter society as a working citizen, I have saved money, reduced plastic waste and experienced many physical benefits of going for periods without putting tonnes of unknown chemicals on my hair.

So, why am I talking about my nasty unwashed, unkempt hair? Well, this current period of using the ‘no-poo’ method has left me reflecting on modern, western societies obsessive consumption of bodily cleaning products like soap, shampoo and beauty cosmetics.

When and where did our desire to be perfectly clean, perfectly beautiful, and perfectly rose smelling animals begin in Western society?

My research has revealed that ‘soap’ was first made by Babylonians as far back as 2800BC who used fats, oils and salt to make cleaning products. This soap however was not used for cleaning the hair or the body. Though there is evidence of a variety of cultures, particularly indigenous ones, using natural washing materials to clean their bodies and hair throughout history, the liquid soap and hair product we know in the West today was really only invented very recently. Believe it or not, it is well known that back in the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth 1st only washed ‘regularly’ once a month. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when ‘conventional’ soap sales began to soar (McClintock).

So how did we get from Royals taking baths just once a month, to soap and shampoo becoming part of our daily routine?

Well, the likely answer is that a grand scheme of imperial advertising as well as intensifying processes of commodity capitalism, promoted soap as the next best product that would solve all of humanities problems. It was only at this point, less than 200 years ago, that soap (as we know it) became not only a product for royals, but an essential commodity in every household. Considering humans have been around for 6 million years, we have only washed our bodies with modern, conventional ‘soap’ and ‘shampoo’ for a tiny, tiny fraction of history.

Blah, blah, blah…it is just soap, who cares?

You’re right. There are definitely more riveting topics than the history and anthropology of soap, but I feel it is essential to understanding more about our consumption of soap, shampoo and beauty products in general today.

See, not only did imperialism bring the domestic, factory-made product of soap into the homes of people across Britain and the world, it too peddled an ideological obsession with cleanliness, purity, and white-bodies as ‘ideal’ into the consciousness of humans. In exchange for money, soap would cleanse your dirty, polluted soul, lighten your skin, and shape you into the perfect imperial citizen.

(Soap to make you white…or the ‘perfect imperial citizen’. Racism is very real and deeply embedded in recent history of the UK)

Being cleansed, purified and lightened by the latest washing products was the only means to becoming an accepted member of society.

Born was the idea that bodily perfection is only achievable through consistent consumption of the wide-array of toiletries and beauty products available on the market. Born was the damaging belief that we are ‘imperfect’ in our natural state. An understanding that without soap, shampoo and make-up, we are not enough. This of course particularly affected People Of Colour who were existing in a world where the elites were literally trying to wash the pigment from their skin…

I believe not much has changed today. Even now, to be a ‘good’ human is to look and smell ‘good’ and be ‘white’, ‘clean’ and ‘pure’. It is funny to think that 200 years ago no one washed daily with factory-made soap like we do today, no one shampooed their hair with chemicals and sure as hell no one brushed their teeth with Colgate!

I suppose that is why I experiment with the ‘no poo’ method and un-brushed hair sometimes. Practicing ‘no-poo’ offers my hair time to heal, but it is also an act of resistance against the incessant consumer culture that constantly tells us to buy products we don’t need, to fix things about ourselves, that don’t need fixing.

And, no I am not promoting that we should all stop using the gifts of modern times and live like greasy, smelly hippies who don’t wash (okay with that too) . Rather, that we should be made aware of the sinister realities of advertising campaigns behind the items we all regularly purchase . The gross advertising pursuits of the biggest hair and beauty companies intentionally make us feel like we are not good enough, to ensure we come back and buy their products over and over again. These companies do not care about our health, our self-worth, our hair, or our planet.

Whilst I am unsure about my future with the ‘no-poo’ method, I am happy the process has given me time to reflect on my own consumption of toiletries and beauty products. In many ways, soap and toiletries are a gift in the modern world. Smelling and looking clean is pleasant after all.

But, we do not need to be peddlers of, and fall victim to, sinister, advertising and commerce regimes, birthed in imperial England, that consistently tell us that without purchasing products produced by multinational companies, we will not ever look, smell or be ‘good enough’.

The people who are selling you the products you think you need to ‘fix’ yourself, are the same people who made you believe you were not good enough in the first place.

Reflect on that for a moment.

(Anne McClintock’s essay on soap and imperialism provided evidence for this piece)

If you made it this far, I am surprised! I am really unsure where I am going with this blog so am just throwing anything together that I feel like getting down on paper for the moment. I understand this is rather long and serious in tone. When I finish my degree at the end of May, I will be revamping and deciding on a clearer direction to take Shanti in The Panti! 🌺🌠

Love Maya x

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#imperialism #history #anthropology #nopoo #beautystandards #race #dreadlocks #politicalresistance #resistance #capitalism #critique #marxism #soap #racism #travelling #counterculture

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