Ew La La! New Poll Sullies French Reputation for Personal Hygiene

An new poll indicates nearly a quarter of all French people bathe every other day--or even once per week. Though the minority, those grubby few may suffice to reinforce Anglo-American stereotypes of an ill-scrubbed France.

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image: Woman having shower, close-up of hand and sponge on shoulder
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It isn’t news likely to upend enduring Anglo-Saxon stereotypes regarding the French. According to a new poll, nearly one fifth of all French people say they don’t wash every day, with 3.5% avoiding soap and water more than once a week. So much for obliterating the decades-old Anglais claim that “the French don’t bathe”.

The study also found about 20% of French people surveyed admitted they don’t wash their hands before dining, and more than 12% forego the trip to the sink after using les toilettes. By contrast, over 86% said they do wash their hands as a prerequisite to preparing a meal.

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Findings in the BVA poll for hygiene product manufacturer Tork won’t do much to undermine the enduring — and outdated — American and English preconceptions of the French as being a tad nonchalant when it comes to the old corporal sponge-down. That malodorous reputation took root in the ancient French preference for dousing themselves with perfume or cologne rather than with soap and water when body smell began putting a hurt on the nose.

That notorious hygienic reputation was more recently reinforced by the post-war combination of cramped spaces and slowed urban reconstruction that forstalled the arrival of full-service bathrooms in private dwellings until well after they’d become an integral part of domestic life in the U.S. and U.K.  That differing evolution — and the abundant use of garlic in cooking  — produced a generation of midcentury American and British tourists who’d return home from their otherwise glorious continental visits to report that the French were particularly malodrous.

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They don’t any longer — or at least no more or less than members of any other modern society. Yet that won’t prevent eyebrows abroad from arching haughtily in response to the BVA study. Though nearly 75% of its respondents say they bathe every day, what’ll be remembered are the 20% who reported hitting the tiles every other day, and the 3.5% who only do so but once every week. Despite their efforts to save national pride, the 11.5% who said they wash more than once daily will scarcely make a dent on prevailing global prejudices.

The same is true regarding manual hygiene. Though 21.4% of French respondents told pollsters they wash their hands at least 10 times per day, 20% of people admitted failing to do so before eating. Another 55% said they neglect such ablutions after taking public transport (despite 45% of people who described riding in subways and buses “the dirtiest part of daily life”). Fully 12.5% admitted they fail to wash up after using the toilet — even ickier considering that 30% of people said they scrub their toilets once per day.

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But if the rest of the world may continue holding its nose at the supposedly soiled French, les Français may soon be returning the favor. Some French reports on the survey note that France still scores higher in hygiene than all other European nations — including the meticulous Germans. Similarly, a 2011 study indicated French men and women spend more time in the bathroom each morning in preparation for the day than their European neighbors. The problem is, that survey didn’t confirm that time in the bathroom was spent lathering up.

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