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What The Pursuit Of Cleanliness Has To Do With Being A Woman

. 5 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
What The Pursuit Of Cleanliness Has To Do With Being A Woman

“Did you see the size of their living room?”, an aunt exclaimed as we made our way out of a relative’s new house. Everyone around us ooh’d and aah’d appreciatively. “Did you see the state of her living room?”, the same aunt whispered on the car-ride back. Everyone in the car rolled their eyes and snickered. I, at the age of 6, realised that the same living room was “theirs” when talking of its size, but belonged solely to “her” when addressing the mess in it.

At 12, a classmate got up to submit an assignment with a red stain on her white skirt, and the boy next to her let out a reflexive but decisive “Yuck!”. The sentiment was echoed in whispered waves through the classroom. The teacher offered the girl her dupatta to cover up the stain, but not before hissing at her to be more careful.  

At 18, my commute to college took over an hour and a half, and my first class was always early. Even then, I would risk being late before I risked not tediously plucking out the stray hairs around my eyebrows, and shaving my hands and legs regularly. The unfailingly body-hair-free women around me indicated that this was normal behaviour.  

Today, I marvel at how constant, ever-evolving, judged, and expected, women’s pursuit of cleanliness is. 

Do Men And Women Perceive, And Therefore Pursue, Cleanliness Differently?

Men and women are undoubtedly held to different expectations, as well as standards, of cleanliness. Where a woman’s room being messy is unforgivable, a man’s room being messy is just him “being a man”. Furthermore, though the room may belong to the man, the responsibility to take care of the mess in it, is still on his mother, wife, sister, or daughter. The judgement and shame for mess is always directed at the woman.


Why is this? Is it because women inherently perceive mess differently and must therefore be better at cleaning it? Is the joking justification that “men just cannot see dirt” or “men just don’t think things are as messy as women do” actually real?

A 2019 study by Fast Company, found this to be untrue. The researchers showed participants random photos of cluttered living spaces. The study found that “both men and women found a messy room just as messy and a tidy room just as tidy.” However, the study also found that on an average, men spend 10 minutes daily on tidying up, while women spend 1 hour 20 minutes on household chores – almost 30 minutes of which involves just cleaning.

If men and women see the same mess, why do women spend more time cleaning it?

The answer might also be found in the same study. In addition to showing the participants photos of the cluttered space, the researchers also randomly labelled them as belonging to either “John” or “Jennifer”. All the participants – both men and women – held Jennifer’s rooms to a much higher standard of cleanliness than they did John. They were also “more likely to judge Jennifer more negatively”.

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While cleanliness could be a general preference for some women, then, it also stems from a fear of prejudice for most. They must either be fussy about things not being messy, or face judgement and negative perception.

(Continue reading below.)

Women’s pursuit of cleanliness might also stem from a conditioned belief in inherent “uncleanliness”. Women’s beauty is intrinsically linked with their state of cleanliness. “You need a wax” we helpfully provide to our fuzzy-armed friends. We shave, pluck, trim, and strip our bodies bare of the hair that is perceived as unclean. We keep our “unclean” period hidden from the rest of the world. Hide the pad in the folds of our clothes, keep our emotions in check to not make others uncomfortable, sit in a way that we don’t stain, and struggle through the pain.

The Pursuit Of Cleanliness Comes At The Cost Of Pursuing Almost Anything Else In A Healthy Manner

The problem that comes with women’s constant conditioned pursuit of cleanliness, is the exceedingly limited space, time, and energy it leaves for anything else.

Women clearly spend a much larger amount of their time, money, and pain, regularly, on keeping themselves “clean” and “beautiful”, than men do – a societal conditioning around beauty that women continue to fear, follow, and feed into.

In a 2019 article, the also explored how domestic responsibilities are keeping women away from the workforce. The data they explore shows that with cleaning and housework being considered a woman’s primary responsibility, and the burden of it falling disproportionately on them, entering the paid workforce is not something women have the time or energy for.

When it comes to the women who attempt the precarious balancing act of managing a clean household and a paid job, the outcome is often complete exhaustion and lack of self-consideration or self-care. The result of balancing both, to the standards of cleanliness that is expected from them at home, and the standards of perfection that will allow them to break barriers at work, is often complete burnout. When such a need to choose between their job and their household responsibilities arises, the latter almost always wins – once again confirming that it continues to be considered women’s primary, almost original, responsibility.  

Pursuing cleanliness, then, has evolved and expanded to become an all-consuming gendered identity. It demands sacrifices in other areas of women’s life.

The solution lies not in lowering our standards of cleanliness, but in removing the gendered pursuit of it.

So, the next time you feel judged, or watch women around you be judged, for prioritising something else over these gendered expectations from women, remember, your primary pursuit as a woman is not cleanliness – not even happiness (apologies to Will Smith) – but just you, and whatever you need to be pursuing in that moment.

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