On Bathing


Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.
When I read that passage in White Teeth, I thought two things: This is cheesy and this works. Sometimes that happens. There’s a general sentiment, in greeting cards, but also from nice parents and nurturing elementary schools, that there is an equality to love, and that in the end, all people love and are loved equally. And what Zadie Smith is saying, and said to greater effect in On Beauty, is that’s false. Some people are loved more than others. Smith is English, but the economy of love is very American. We believe things are equal, but only the elite benefit from that equality. I think everyone remembers the first time their parents told them life isn’t fair. As I recall, it had something to do with my bath and I said to my mom, “That’s not fair.” Even as a person incapable of bathing herself, I was struck by how true and unfair her response was. In fact, it was true and unfair in that very moment. My objections were valid, but ultimately irrelevant. I was given a bath. Life isn’t fair. A lot of people don’t have potable water while others are forced to bathe in it.