click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Personal Hygiene in Public
Mom with a View

Personal Hygiene in Public

When did it become okay to floss your teeth and clean your ears in public?


Emily Post says that it’s okay for women to “refresh” their lipstick at the dinner table – in the middle of the restaurant. It’s a socially acceptable thing to do. But I disagree. And it’s not just because it eliminates all the mystery (don’t we want to at least keep up a pretense of looking naturally beautiful?). I believe that personal grooming is a private activity – and that’s where it should stay.

I’m feeling more and more alone in this perspective as I watch people file their nails, floss their teeth and even clean their ears in public places. I don’t know if the car counts but I can certainly see those men shaving and those women applying mascara at red lights.

Even looking in the mirror seems to me an act that should remain private (I try to impress this on my children who think that their shiny knife at the Shabbos table is a good substitute – a little discretion please). Perhaps we don’t appreciate how we appear to others. We think that we’re being subtle or that no one else notices. I’m here to dispel that myth; they do.

A few weeks ago I was sitting outside with my daughter on a Friday night. We happened to glance through the glass door of the apartment building across the street as a woman came down the stairs and did an elaborate “checking herself” dance in front of the lobby mirror. “Oh my gosh!” exclaimed my daughter. “I do the same thing; I just didn’t realize that people could see in.” She’s not going to do that again soon!

Yes, people can see. And I, for one, don’t want to. When monkeys groom themselves and each other at the zoo, we chuckle in amusement. It’s sophisticated animal behavior. But it’s still animal behavior. And I think we should keep that side of ourselves under wraps. The body isn’t bad but it shouldn’t be on display. Personal hygiene should be attended to in the restroom – and not in the kind that someone I know in Los Angeles has – with a glass door!

Certainly our behavior affects how we think of ourselves. If we behave like animals, that’s how we will see ourselves and how others will see us as well. On the other hand, if we try to elevate ourselves and behave like souls, we at least have a chance of being successful.

We all want to be neat, clean and even attractive. We don’t want to sit across the dinner table from someone with lipstick on our teeth, food stuck between them or other hygiene issues. But the restroom is the place to deal with these challenges. If our dinner date suddenly started picking his nose (excuse the vulgarity) we would be a little shocked. There are some activities that are definitely not public (and perhaps not private either!) I suggest that we err on the side of including more bodily functions in that category rather than fewer.

Too much focus on the body will sink us. It robs us of our higher drive; it obscures the spiritual focus of the soul. Applying a fresh layer of lipstick at the dinner table seems innocuous enough but, like everything, there are consequences and there is slippage.

Yes, perhaps we look more attractive with that summery shade of pink on our lips. But the loss of dignity and the renewed focus on the physical are a high price to pay. Yes, the lipstick comes off when we eat. That’s okay. That’s normal. That’s human. We can preserve our dignity and our beauty better through a smile than through make-up, through paying attention to our companion and not our little mirror, through conversation about meaningful topics and not concern about appearances. I think Emily Post got it wrong this time.

May 25, 2013

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 19

(18) Anonymous, September 14, 2014 4:28 PM

Thanks for the article. Could you also please include girls fixing their hair on the bus and inShul?

Anonymous, October 30, 2017 1:25 AM

What else are they supposed to do??

In those cases, these girls many times have two options:
1. Leave the hair messed up, causing them to look awful
2. Simply adjust the pins in their hair / place their hair in a pony / braid it. None of these things seem offensive to me, especially if the alternative is #1.

(17) Anonymous, June 3, 2013 9:41 AM

make-up is one thing....

I dont think theres anything so wrong abt fixing lipstick. But we ahve a guest for shabbos who actually flosses her teeth, toothpick, and all, at our table and it really makes me sick. So totally not appropriate. But more than any of htese, Id love to hear more articles on people showing all kinds of intimacy in public. ISnt that supposed to be Private, hence being called intimate????

(16) Dena, June 2, 2013 12:14 PM

Spot on

I totally agree with this article! (BTW many years ago I was on a date in New York with a guy who did pick his nose at the table and deposit his findings into his plastic cup. Ewwwwww). I have a friend who often cleans out her ear with her glasses and examines her findings and it drives me nuts. Ok, it's not in a public place but why do I have to witness this? And to think that she finds the pigeons my son raises disgusting. I guess we all define "disgusting" differently!

(15) yehudit, June 2, 2013 5:36 AM

lipstick has other connotations

I am in general in agreement with you Emuna. As for lipstick, although it can be done discreetly etc, there is another aspect that can be troubling, especially when dining with other married couples. Applying lipstick is a very sensual act and can be very attractive to the opposite sex. I would not reapply my gloss in front of other men, only if I were out with girlfriends, and even then, very discreetly, with my head down: certainly not with a mirror!!!
An important point for all married couples.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment