• Tiye Naeemah Cort

#GetOut: Y'all Don't Use Washcloths?

People always compliment me on how soft my skin is, and it usually happens to be wypipo who say so. It’s always the same type of encounter: I shake a hand or accidentally graze arms with someone who is standing too close. All of a sudden, a too-long handshake or lingering touch turns a bit uncomfortable. Following a compliment, once I overcome the awkwardness of having my hand or arm stroked, I usually thank them and keep it moving.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had soft skin. Growing up, we moisturized with Vaseline after a bath or shower, and that gave us a shiny glow that communicated a black neighborhood-wide message that somebody at home loved me and cared that no part of me was ever dry or appeared ashy.

Once I was old enough, I made the switch to different types of lotions. I tried the ones that smelled great, but their moisturizing qualities were in vain as my skin sucked up the product following a hot shower. I loved the nutty cherry smell of Jergens, but depending on how dry the air was outside, there were times when it could do little more than moisturize the fleshy space between my thumb and pointer (there’s gotta be a scientific term for that weird area). My elbows and knees always seemed impervious to lotion.

As a teenager, I found my solace in (very overpriced) Palmer’s cocoa butter- both the lotion and solid versions. And though the oil from the solid butter sometimes stained my clothes, I could rest assured that I would not have to worry about reapplying lotion for at least half the day. So, yes, my soft skin may be a result of something naturally melanin-related, “the butters”, lotions, or other moisturizers that most black people and I use on a daily basis, but I’m theorizing something a bit deeper as the reason people who look like me tend to have such smooth silky skin.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the washcloth. Some call them towels, Caribbean people say "rags", others say washcloths, Dominicans say "pañitos". A washcloth is a small square towel, usually about the width of two hands, used for bathing. Once wet, they are very absorbent and are used to work soap into a lather to be rubbed and scrubbed all over the body for cleaning purposes.

I was watching a Dove soap commercial the other night and, while I appreciated the diversity of the women included, I couldn't help but wonder if, between takes, a producer ran up to the black women with washcloths in hand like "Here you go girl, I know you need this. We gotchu!", because how else was she expected to try this soap?

The commercial showed someone presenting the women with a tray that held what looked like two washcloths and a bottle of the body wash, yet it later showed a white woman massaging the product onto her arm with her hands, sans towel. "What a waste of soap." was the first thing that came to mind. This woman looked like she had used about half the bottle on one arm alone. Then I thought, "See, if she had used a washcloth...", but I caught myself because I had never heard of a white person, and especially not one on TV, ever bathing with a washcloth.

I was in the shower this morning and I had an epiphany (Sidenote: why do epiphanies always come at the most inopportune times like at, say, 4:30 a.m. as I’m barely awake and just trying to remember whether or not I fed the dog).  As I wrung out my towel, I listened to the sound of water heavily cascading to the shower floor, a sound that I am used to hearing every day. As I was debating whether or not I would shower at SoulCycle after a morning ride, I thought about the fact that I never hear this sound in their showers. I literally never hear the sound of a washcloth being wrung out in the shower stalls next to mine, and this thought bothered me.

There is a stereotype that certain racial groups don’t use washcloths, and I thought back to all of the white spaces I have showered in and in none of them could I recall ever hearing the sound of sudsy water splattering on the floor from a wrung-out washcloth. Never.

Following a 45-minute ride, I usually shower at Soulcycle, one of the whitest spaces I know (No, the place is literally and figuratively all white- the furniture, fixtures, most of the people who pay for the classes…), and as I wrung out my towel once again at home in MY shower, I became stunned as I started to really think through why I never hear that same sound coming from any other shower stall beside my own. 

Think about it. Most black people use washcloths to scrub away the day. We literally exfoliate every single day- all of the sweat, leftover butters that we use to moisturize, and the residue from living and moving through the city every day- scrubbed away with a soapy towel. And then I got to thinking- I know of a lot of people who don't use towels in the shower. I once had a friend take a shower at my house, so I laid out a large towel for drying and a washcloth. Following a shower, they emerged from the bathroom in the large towel. It wasn't until later that I found the washcloth, bone dry, still in its folded position by the sink. It was never used.

So, people who don't use wash cloths... they use... their hands, I guess? Or is it their norm to rub a bar of soap against their skin? And in the case of a bath, without a washcloth, do you just sit and soak, and then hop out and dry off? Bathing is such a personal habit, but I just…  the hygiene and sanitary concerns this thought brought on literally made me pause (and wring out my towel) because it reoccurred to me that I was supposed to be taking a “quick” shower before heading to the gym. I had already gone over my intended time limit.

So I finally got extremely real with myself.  As a female, I just couldn't imagine washing away all of the leftover deodorant residue from my armpits, and whatever other crazy things my body emits from private parts with just... my hands. There's no way I could ever feel 100% clean without using some terry cloth to lather and scrub clean at least the areas that get the most sweaty and smelly. And as a woman, especially… I simply do not understand how I could bathe without using something to lather and scrub to get clean.

And yet, all fitness centers that I’ve frequented- even the poshest of Equinoxes and SoulCycles- provide plenty of hand towels to douse sweat during a workout, endless large towels to dry off after a long hot shower, but no washcloths to gently scrub away natural dirt. In both spaces, I’ve had to use a handtowel as a makeshift washcloth, which is inconvenient because it is just so huge and impossible to get all of the soap out of, but I make do.

And this got me thinking about whom spaces like those are actually designed for. In providing all of the amenities one (the intended customer base) could imagine, none of them are formulated specifically with (black) people who regularly use washcloths in mind. If I ever open a fitness center, I'll provide washcloths.

I’m not judging people who choose to bathe differently, but I don’t understand showering without washcloths, and I don’t think that I ever will. Stay at MY house, and you’ll be sure to find a neatly folded washcloth and large towel waiting for you before you shower. I never have to worry about asking my Dominican or Grenadian besties for a pañito or a rag . But I guess I’ll have to continue providing my own washcloths when I’m not in the company of brown people.


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