“Enough with the hygiene Olympics, okay! We get it you’re clean!” urged TikTok creator Ciearra Tati last month. “Why do I have to take seven showers? Why do I have to have two pairs of panties with me at all times to change? Why is it that I am not allowed to keep my toothbrush in the bathroom…” she asked in a video that now has more than 1.4 million views. Judging by the hundreds of comments she received, many agree that there is an impossibly high standard of cleanliness and personal hygiene currently being touted across social media. Black creators in the #cleantok and beauty space are seemingly at the center of what many have dubbed the “Hygiene Olympics” where there is an undercurrent of judgment when it comes to sharing tips, advice, and rules for staying clean, hygienic and well, less musty. And the goalposts for what’s considered an acceptable level of hygiene appear to always be moving — from using three separate towels after you shower and seven wash rags to not keeping your toothbrush in the bathroom, 30-minute minimum showers, disinfecting hotel rooms from top to bottom before sleeping and excessive douching routines. Videos and social media posts by Black creators purporting these tips are regularly accused of being performative, whereas others have identified the deep-rooted role culture, traditions, and history play in the need to prove just how clean we are — spanning back to slavery and colonialism. When did hygiene tips become so competitive online? And why are Black folk winning?
What does “hygiene Olympics” actually mean?
It was way back in 2019 when social media entered one of its most heated, memorable (and hilarious) debates about personal hygiene when a seemingly innocuous question was posted to Twitter: “Do you wash your legs in the shower?” In the now-deleted Twitter poll, Twitter user @Aparna invited users to mark a simple yes or no, and more than a reported 2 million votes and responses came later. At the time many people answered “no” and others felt compelled to share why. “I don’t like [to] use soap on my whole body when I shower. And I don’t think I’m gross?” tweeted one user at the time, “I pretty much just wash my face and my armpits with soap. And I shower like once or twice a week lol. I think it’s fine.” For many Black and brown people reading the thread, the very thought of this was entirely egregious, and it was soon determined that when it comes to cleanliness, Black people don’t play. So (racially) divisive was this poll that it made international headlines, and has forever been etched in the Twitter (X) archives. You just had to be there. As one person tweeted recently, “Every time I wash my legs in the shower I think of that post about how white people don’t wash their legs in the shower.” Whereas another person tweeted, “Black Twitter said white people don’t wash their legs and I’ve been washing my legs ever since.”
Celebrities aren’t exempt from the cleanliness conversation, either. In recent years white celebrities such as Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Jake Gyllenhaal, Brad Pitt and more publicly admitted to not bathing regularly, pushing back against unspoken rules of good hygiene, meanwhile, Naomi Campbell’s “airport routine”, which includes disinfecting her seat with wipes to even wearing a hazmat suit, set a new precedent for Black hygiene regimes; If cleanliness is a virtue, Campbell is a patron saint.
From the “clean girl” aesthetic to CleanTok, there have been many hygiene and cleanliness conversations since then. Especially in the wake of the pandemic where washing your hands was of grave international importance to public health. On TikTok alone, videos tagged under the hashtag 'shower routine' have commanded more than 3 billion views, #hygieneroutine has over 600 million views, and #cleantok, videos that show people rigorously cleaning their homes, have amassed a colossal 111 billion views. Evidently, when it comes to personal hygiene there is global intrigue and a widespread desire to literally peek into each other’s bathrooms. However, Black creators and commentators in this space are often accused of “doing too much” and making hygiene their “whole personality”.
Why are so many Black creators accused of performative cleanliness online?
For American content creator Shantell Pitts, 39, who shares makeup and fragrance advice on TikTok, the subject of hygiene in the Black community goes far deeper than just the surface. Her TikTok account has become a valuable resource for anyone who didn’t grow up with firsthand advice from parents or elders on how to care for their skin, hair, and feminine hygiene. “My mother was a single mother separated from my father who lived in a different state. She was working two to three jobs at a time. She did not teach me hygiene. So, I had lots of mishaps and had to learn on my own. I was in the club musty!” she shares with Unbothered. Despite Pitts’ intention to help her audience, especially those who weren’t taught basic hygiene skills in their youth, as a Black woman who shares hygiene tips, she has been accused of participating in the performative hygiene Olympics. “I made a video where I talked about my grandmother and some of the things that she taught me regarding cleanliness. It was my first viral video, where I said that she taught me to always wear nice panties”. “One of the most liked replies to the video was someone saying, ‘We're tired of Black women in the hygiene Olympics’. And I was like, OK, let's talk about it.”
"What I’ve come to learn is that [hygienic practices] were more so to circumvent racism and sexism and have a better experience when you're out and about.”
shantell pitts, content creator
Like Pitts, from an early age, I was taught to have immense pride in my appearance and to maintain a high level of cleanliness in and outside my home. At my Pentecostal Sunday school, we were taught the bible verse ‘cleanliness is close to godliness’ and at my Caribbean grandmother's house, a Dettol bath before getting into bed was never up for debate. To this day I refuse to leave my house without a heavy coating of lotion, because, to be spotted with ashy ankles, elbows and or hands would bring me (and every Black person who knows me) extreme shame. This shame seems to have followed many of us into the digital age because let’s be real, when it comes to discussing personal hygiene (or a lack thereof) Black Twitter is not typically a safe space to share openly.
“There’s a lot that comes with the Hygiene Olympics conversation,” suggests Pitts. “On one hand, Black women are mostly seen as doing it on a performative basis, to show their eligibility to a man, ‘I can clean, I can keep a clean house etc’. Whereas, what I’ve come to learn is that [hygienic practices] were more so to circumvent racism and sexism and have a better experience when you're out and about,” she explains. The content creator acknowledges that some while some of the hygiene conversations are used to “put people down” or “one-up one another,” she believes the discussions can reveal a lot about how Black people see themselves. “This is a lot deeper than some may think.”
It’s about more than just hygiene
As more of these discussions about hygiene go viral, Black commentators such as Xtina Brown (@thatbrowngurrrl) and Elizabeth Booker Houston (@bookersquared), have made valid connections between performative cleanliness within the Black community and the lasting impact of slavery and white supremacy. “That’s why I won’t engage in the wash rag wars. It’s all rooted in the racist practice of trying to convince us that our Black bodies are somehow dirtier and nastier than white peoples,” says Houston in a recent TikTok video. “When you think about how hygiene products were marketed to Black women specifically it’s even more insidious.”
In a 2018 report, it claimed “Black women were more likely than white or Latina women to use scented feminine hygiene products, such as douches or feminine sprays.” In 2022, journalist Paige Curtis investigated in an article for the Guardian how vaginal cleansing products and brands were often marketed to Black women despite the health risks associated with douching. In the article, she referenced how Lysol (an American bleaching agent) was once touted as suitable for vaginal douching and marketed to Black women as such. What’s more, CBS reported in 2022, a group of ‘Black women filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, claiming the company marketed its baby powder to Black women for decades despite knowing it had ingredients that could cause ovarian cancer’(Johnson & Johnson stopped selling its talc-based baby powder in the US and Canada in 2020.) As a result of scandals like these, many Black women from across the diaspora have been reevaluating some of the hygienic practices that have made up a huge part of their, as well as their mothers and grandmothers, lives.
“For Black Americans, a lot of the hygiene practices that were passed down to us were as a result of post-slavery practices and in the aftermath of slavery and racism, sexism,” says Pitts. “And so my grandmother would teach me things about how to present yourself, which goes right into respectability politics. But it was done to circumvent, what she believed, was that white people thought Black people were dirty.” “That was her experience,” Pitts clarified, “that how you presented yourself on the outside, as far as your cleanliness, is how you will be treated.”
Many historians and critical race theorists have examined how white supremacy, and the insidious correlation between whiteness and ‘purity’, have led to racist ideas about cleanliness throughout history. As writer and journalist Tayo Bero wrote for Best Health, “During slavery, the association between dirtiness and Blackness was prevalent throughout the British Empire, including Canada.” Enslaved Black people were often prevented from using soap, and forced to live in unhygienic conditions, yet the stigma that Black people are somehow inherently dirty prevailed. Bero also cited how racist imagery and soap advertisements in the 1800s, including the notorious Pears’ Soap advertisements, depicted Black people as being dirty or unclean. In the essay, 'Tidy Whiteness: A Genealogy of Race, Purity, and Hygiene', written by Dana Berthold, the author writes that “in the early US, cleanliness was associated explicitly with civility, high class, and whiteness.” Berthold wrote, “In the early US, not only was it the case that upper-class whites could afford an exaggerated aesthetic of cleanliness, but high-class purity (and moral propriety) became increasingly tied to the color white in general.”
Many Black people have pushed back against corrosive ideas about hygiene and race by becoming the most hygienic. As the late D. Parke Gibson, founder of the first Black PR firm wrote in his 1969 book, $70 billion in the black: America's black consumers.’ “Undoubtedly, much of the desire for cleanliness is to overcome the prejudicial old wives’ tale that ‘all Negroes smell bad’.” In 2024, as far as the internet is concerned, it is very common to associate Black people with extremely high standards for cleanliness (which if I’m honest, I often subscribe to). The problem with these virtuous standards is that it doesn’t always leave room for the messiness of real life — the Black people who are depressed, time-poor, tired, and who just can’t be arsed. Right now, we’re winning the Hygiene Olympics. But aren’t we tired?