Hygiene, self-respect and public appearance

by seangljacobs

Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.

By Sean Jacobs

I’ve always thought it’s strange that ‘hygiene’ rates a mention in many older self-help books.

‘I sometimes feel that almost the most valuable lesson I got at the Hampton Institute,’ reflected the former slave and American educator Booker T Washington, ‘was in the use and value of the bath.’ Thus basic hygiene, clean teeth, a good haircut, and general presentation, became core themes of Washington’s education to ex-slaves at his infamous Tuskegee Institute.

‘Hygiene’ itself certainly seems like an odd topic today. But public health, of course, is nothing like it was in the late 1800s. Polio, Tuberculosis and other diseases cut through entire populations in the then-developed world.

While diseases have abated, however, the appearance aspect of ‘hygiene’ remains incredibly important. ‘In order to get a job in today’s tight economy,’ says one writer in the Tuskegee Observer, ‘a healthy smile and a professional appearance can mean the difference between being hired and being passed over for another candidate.’

One thing any young person will notice is that the majority of successful people dress well or spend a great deal of time on how they look. It was recently revealed, for example, that the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher underwent a staggering 118 hair appointments in just 12 months. Underneath her no-nonsense public demeanour existed a deliberate and exquisite care of appearance. ‘See her,’ to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘and you will know as easily why she succeeds, as, if you see Napoleon, you would comprehend her fortune.’

As a young man I’ve often heard that it doesn’t matter what you look like – it’s what’s on the inside that counts. I agreed with this thinking for a while, especially in my first years out of school, but I slowly sensed it wasn’t quite right. Eventually I stumbled upon the British writer Theodore Dalrymple’s own observation. ‘If profound and clever men did not care for their appearance,’ he wrote, ‘then not caring for one’s appearance meant that one was profound and clever. It took me quite a time to appreciate the fallaciousness of this so-called reasoning.’

Being well dressed, therefore, evokes self-regard. ‘Looking good,’ says the former Olympic sprinter Linford Christie, ‘means feeling good.’

It’s interesting to note that, regardless of how much money you have, a good public appearance is not beyond reach. It tugged on my heart strings reading that Neville Bonner, Australia’s first black federal parliamentarian, had his mother cut up a flour bag and make it into a shirt on his first day of school. Feelings of self-decency, and not circumstance, drove this desire.

In those days – 1930s Australia – even the simplest public tasks had to be performed with a highly decent appearance. My own late grandfather, for example, used to always wear a suit into town – a widely practiced social routine he carried with him his whole life. ‘I have been deeply moved to see the old men of deeply-depressed towns,’ says Dalrymple of his days in Southern Britain, ‘who themselves lived very hard lives, and who were the most working of the working class, dress smartly in ties, jackets and highly-polished shoes merely to go to the pub for a pint of beer or to do a bit of shopping.’

Having spent a great deal of time in Papua New Guinea and Fiji I’ve also seen very poor people in these places, regardless of their circumstances, taking an equal measure in their appearance. ‘Having lived among really poor people in Africa and elsewhere,’ adds Dalrymple, ‘I know that to present a good appearance to others is for them a triumph of the human spirit and not just a manifestation of vanity or superficiality.’ Such efforts are a strong testament to doing the best you can do, even without having much.

So if young people are to present well, then, what are they supposed to wear? Without delving too much into fashion advice I can’t help but notice that the greats tend to emphasise a sense of modesty over being too ‘loud’ or tacky. ‘Avoid bright colours,’ counsels Booker T Washington. One of the most pivotal figures in world history, Martin Luther King Jnr, apparently owned six suits – four black and two grey. ‘Conservative at best,’ writes Dennis Kimbro. Indeed, I feel there’s something commanding about being smart but not too eye-catching or pretentious.

I would also suggest dressing ‘up’ rather than ‘down’ for most occasions. It’s easy to tone it down, of course, if you’ve overdone it. And as Condoleezza Rice, the former US Secretary of State, recalls in advice from her mother, ‘Condoleezza, if you are overdressed, it is a comment on them. If you are underdressed, it is a comment on you.’

My advice to young people is to present well but also agonise over building character. Character, ultimately, is reflected in your presentation. ‘Do not be content to wear silks and diamonds on the body,’ said Orson Swett Marsen, ‘to tide around in your limousine, and to dress the mind in calico and character in rags. Let self-improvement, self-culture, a healthy mind, a fine personality be your richest dress.’