A series of polls and studies has dished up some real dirt on the French: Fewer than half take a bath or shower each day.
What’s more, 40% of French men, and 25% of women, do not change their underwear daily. Fully 50% of the men, and 30% of women, do not use deodorant.
Why is this so, in a nation that has done so much to set modern Western standards for polite behavior?
It is not for want of means--almost every French household is equipped with a shower or bathtub. Some experts look to history for the explanation.
“In the court of Louis XIV, people doused themselves with perfume to chase away bad smells, but they didn’t wash themselves, while in other European courts of the same period, baths were raised to the level of an institution,” noted Edouard Zarifian, professor of psychiatry at the University of Caen. “In this, there is a certain national continuity, not to say a certain French specificity.”
Gerard Mermet, author of the yearbook “Francoscopie,” a richly detailed X-ray of French behavior, believes that many of his fellow citizens draw a distinction between what is visible to others and what is not. Hygiene, “the hidden face of beauty,” is not a priority for some, he hypothesizes.
In this supposed epoch of globalization, France appears to remain so different in matters of hygiene from many of its European neighbors that the newspaper Le Figaro recently devoted an entire page to the subject. It found that:
* While the average Briton uses 3 pounds of soap annually and the average German 2.9 pounds, the average Frenchman uses 1.3 pounds--meaning four to five cakes of soap are made to stretch out over an entire year.
* Across all age groups and socioeconomic categories, French women are cleaner than French men: 49% of females bathe or shower daily, versus 45% of males.
* In surveys, 67% of those questioned say they brush their teeth twice a day. If that were true, Le Figaro noted skeptically, sales of toothpaste should be more than 240 million tubes a year, and not the current 198.5 million.
“More than one French person in two does not respect elementary rules of body hygiene,” the newspaper quoted specialists in the field as concluding.
Medical personnel, it turns out, are especially aware of the problem. At Paris hospitals, not counting vagrants and the indigent, one patient in three who is admitted is not clean or is wearing dirty undergarments.
“Deodorant spray for a number of us is a professional tool at least as important as the stethoscope,” a general practitioner in the well-to-do Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud reported.
“One is struck to see that even in well-to-do or relatively well-to-do social strata, corporal hygiene often leaves something to be desired,” a gastroenterologist in Nice said.
The data, gathered by the Sofres polling agency, the Committee on Health Education, the Federation of Perfume Industries and the Organization for Oral and Dental Health, did find that the share of French households with a shower or bathtub has risen from 29% in 1962 to 94% now.
At the beginning of the ‘80s, 36% of the French bathed daily. Now it’s 47%. That’s a significant increase but far from the 80% rate in Denmark and the Netherlands and more than 70% in Britain and Germany.
Unchanged from Louis XIV’s day is the love of perfume. According to “Francoscopie,” the French are Europe’s biggest purchasers of perfumes, beauty aids and related products, buying $5.6 billion worth in 1997, an increase of more than 50% since 1989.