Let’s briefly recap:
1. Plants trap their valuable minerals and nutrients in a strong web of fibres.
2. To digest those fibres, animals need the help of microbes.
3. Fibre-eating microbes need help to stay happy and healthy.
4. A healthy gut microbiome needs a healthy skin microbiome. The two are linked at either end.
5. Skin microbes need shade / hair (to block harmful UV light) and water / sweat to thrive.
In other words, we’re in BIG trouble. Here’s my view of how we got there. I may be wrong, but it makes for a good story anyhow. And no, global warming has nothing to do with it.
About half a century ago, animal furs started going out of fashion. Try wearing a mink coat in public anywhere in the West and you’re likely to get hissed at or worse.
Human fur, however, has been under the cross-hairs much longer. About a century ago, something happened that turned body hair and sweat into fashion disasters. How?
A little more than a century ago, the world first glimpsed a new technology and a new profession. The technology was called “the movies” and the profession was “acting”. For the first time in human history, it was possible to earn fame and wealth without needing much skill or hard work (at least, this was the myth that became popular).
Unlike theatre actors, who had to slave away night after night, movie actors had to do it right only once.
Unlike theatre actors, who had to exaggerate in order to be visible, movie actors were “in” the camera – very close and intimate.
As a result, heroes and heroines on-screen were cool as cucumbers even in deserts and jungles. We entered an age where looks beat substance. Movie actors are people whose job it is to look like other people.
This triumph of looks over substance came at a high cost. For centuries, Western thought held manual labour in high regard. Just look at European art to see this theme crop up again and again. The outwardly visible nobility of (not so hard working) royalty and clergy is often contrasted to the inner nobility of “the little people” – the sweaty, dirty, hard-working masses.
Suddenly, looking noble was more important than actually being noble.
The cultural shift was both sudden and immense. The “new nobility” were “little people” who merely had to look beautiful to gain an escape from daily, hard, sweaty, manual labour. Suddenly, almost everyone wanted to be like the new nobility and look like them. People looking like other people looking like other people.
Actors often looked hard-working and vaguely noble in their jeans, but their skins were smooth as peaches. Most strikingly, these actors were nearly hairless. Baby-faced actors and marble-skinned actresses. Oh, and those hands… clean, without callouses and with trimly cut and painted fingernails.
The brave new movie world had no sweat or hair, no stink or climate. And everyone who could afford to, tried to copy this make-believe world. The result? Microbiome mayhem.
Human body hair was going out of fashion at a rate of knots.
Beards went out of fashion (or were associated with unwanted characters). Interestingly, though, when DiCaprio grew a beard, he earned an Oscar – coincidence? While The Beard made regular comebacks, these were mostly short-lived and in response AGAINST the culture, not in line with it. The most recent beard-o-plosion may, however, have been inspired by the ultra-hirsute “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movies, that dominated screens with brave beardery (or is it the other way round?) for nearly a decade.
Underarm and leg hair went out the window, too. Europeans mostly ignored this one, however.
Nowadays, women all around the world feel great social pressure to have minimal body hair.
Let’s look at some of the ways we wreck our skin microbiome:
* Regular hand-washing and bathing is now the norm (except in England…).
* Regular washing and conditioning of hair.
* Anti-perspirants and deodorants kill or maim the armpit bugs on a daily basis.
* Cosmetics changed the skin’s natural microbe make-up.
* And I’m not even talking about all the fanny doctoring that has been going on.
Where does this leave us as a species?
No, no-one has died trying to look like Humphrey Bogart or Marlene Dietrich. Wiping your microbiome off your skin on a near-daily basis does not affect your health quickly.
The largest part of our microbiome (skin and gut) is established very, very early in life. So even if we fight it, at least the strongest bugs still find a way to stick with us. The problem comes when that reduced microbiome needs to be transferred to another human being – baby. Baby starts off with less, grows up wiping off the little bits of microbiome and, in turn, passes on an even further reduced microbiome to the next generation.
We are now seeing the fourth post-cleanliness generation grow up and the wheels are coming off. More of that in a future post, though.
Am I advocating a return to hirsute cave-dwelling lifestyles? Maybe and maybe not. I shave every day (to keep the peace in the house) and wash my hair often enough to avoid being called a Rasta. I use deodorants, etc. Yes, we as a family go easy on soap in general, but we’re not really bucking the trend radically.
Social norms are hard to break. We are all prisoners of our respective cultures. As such, counter-cultural moves can cost dearly. But some moves can be made to ensure the survival of a diverse microbiome.
Have a “dirty weekend” once in a while (for some reason, men love this idea). Go camping and don’t wash too much for two or three days.
Or stop shaving your body hair in places that don’t see sunlight that often.
Switch your personal care items to skin-friendly, or make your own (hundreds of DIY recipes are one Google search away – and it’s cheap, too).
Or get to a farm and spend some time working with the livestock.
Don’t wash your home-grown veggies with more than just water.
And – for heaven’s sake – stop trying to look like someone trying to look like someone else. Movies are only made about people who did not try to look like anyone else – except themselves. Who knows? Maybe, one day, a movie will be made about YOU!
Keep it shining!