Every time I travel, I always get into the trouble of overpacking toiletries.
No matter how I try to limit my personal hygiene products, I end up convincing myself that I needed this sunblock, this eau de toilette, or this hair serum, and trying to squeeze all my liquids and gels in a tiny Ziploc bag.
It’s not just because I’m female. Yes, women already need a lot of toiletries — but being a Filipino female, the stash of products increases twofold.
Roommates always wonder loudly how the household’s water bill has increased substantially since I moved in their quarters.
But I’m sure the fellow Filipinos understand me? We are known to love bathing. And as frequently as possible, once or twice a day, and some as much as thrice daily during the summers! We have more shampoo and soap products and commercials than any other culture that I know of. We love being clean and smelling good; and can easily smell body odor from a mile away.
We even have exact words to describe how we ‘wash’ our body parts. In Cebuano, we have the general term ‘hugas’. And then we have a term for washing the face (hilam-os), both hands (hunaw), one hand (hinaw), feet (himasa), calves (himatiis), inside the mouth (limugmog) and around the mouth (dam-ot)—all referring to the same bodily function of washing!
This bathing habit can be attributed to our humid climate and abundant sources of water. Historical records show that even our ancestors from centuries ago have long been sticklers for good personal hygiene. When the Spanish colonizers came to the Philippines in 1521, the foreigners were aghast at ‘how often we bathed’. The Europeans believed bathing provides an open opportunity to take off clothes, and in turn can lead to immorality, promiscuous sex, disease, and sin.
Because of this creed, our European colonizers rarely bathed during the Middle Ages up until the late 1800s. Hygiene is only restricted to washing hands and parts of the face. Still, washing the face was done as infrequently as possible for they believed it could lead to blindness.
The European royalty were worse off than common peasants. Today I found out on the ‘Today I Found Out’ website that a Russian ambassador who visited France described that King Louis XIV “stunk like a wild animal.” The Sun King is said to find the act of bathing “disturbing,” and has only bathed twice in his lifetime. Another royalty, Queen Isabela of Spain, boasted that she had bathed only twice in her life: first, when she was born; and second, when she got married.
Russia wasn’t as finicky when it came to bathing and their royalty did it far regularly – relatively speaking, once a month. Because of this, Europeans thought Russians were perverts. Historical records show that our ancestors thought the European colonizers stank. And we weren’t the only ones who thought so, too.
The Spanish explorers under Hernan Cortes first arrived in Mexico in 1519 under the Aztec Empire. It felt for Aztecs as if they had encountered an alien race: the Spanish appeared like fellow humans, but looked different: they had white skin, hair like the sun, tons of facial hair… and they also stank horribly. According to Harari’s ‘Sapiens’, Aztec natives had to assign incense burners to follow the visitors around wherever they went to hide the stench. The Spaniards thought this was a mark of divine honor, but now we know from their records that the natives just really found the foreigners’ smell unbearable.
At the least, the western colonizers tried to change our local customs and beliefs — but they never took away our love for good personal hygiene.
Read more about my weekly travel column at Sunstar Weekend at The Column
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