The humble bar of soap: a heady concoction of vegetable or animal fats, perfumes and alkaline salts dating back at least as far as 2,800BC and ancient Babylon. Seldom dropped into casual conversation, often dropped on shower floors (the butt of many a faintly homophobic changing-room gag), unsexy, no frills. But now it seems simple savon is being left for ever on the shelf by us the beauty-product-fickle British public.
This year’s “UK inflation basket” — the list of everyday products used as a kind of consumer barometer — has ditched the “individual bar of toilet soap” for the first time to reflect our changing spending habits. (Also gone are lipstick, replaced by lip gloss, and pitta bread, replaced by garlic bread. Here is the full list of changed items.) This is not because, in the words of the Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates at the 2008 Olympics, we Poms are a country “lacking in swimming pools and soap”. No, we’ve replaced it with liquid hand soap and shower gel instead.
How did it happen, this inexorable slippery slide towards liquidity, this throwing the soap out with the frothy bathwater? There are two reasons, I guess. The first is simply the unstoppable power of the shower: over the past few decades, all over the land, from the ex-council flat to the luxury apartment, the boring bath — white enamel, peach plastic, even the his’n’hers corner whirlpools beloved of the 1980s — have been jettisoned to make way for the gleaming upright cubicle or even the wet room. And what do we crave to accompany these designer douches? Bottle upon seductively packaged bottle of temptingly fragranced, status-symbol gelees.
Sure, you’ve got a soap rack attached to your shower, but this is more often used to balance your pink exfoliating mesh body sponge, while a rainbow of jewel-hued Original Source dangles above it. (That’s one of the things we love about shower gel — the hooks. No embarrassing bending-over retrievals in the gym showers, see? No laddish gross-out.) Likewise at kitchen sink or bathroom basin, what do you reach for to decontaminate your mitts? A pump-action dispenser of gloopy antibacterial handwash, or something pricier by Molton Brown. With matching hand lotion.
But I think the second reason is more insidious. In a slightly less cynical way than how, over the Noughties, the “probiotic” drinks Yakult and Actimel mysteriously splattered their way into the shopping trolleys, lives and guts of 60 per cent of British households with their “friendly bacteria” and sledgehammer marketing, so shower gel represents another manifestation of advanced capitalism, living in a society that will persuade consumers to buy whatever it wants to sell — despite never knowing they needed it before. People will be willing to buy anything if brands and advertisers tune in to some deep neediness in our collective psyche, repackage or reinvent something perfectly serviceable and sell it back to us at higher cost.
This, coupled with a general keeping up with the Joneses mentality, product envy at the gym and cunningly positioned displays at Boots, paves the way for a sea of seaweed and oatmeal body wash, a land of Palmolive milk and honey. One of the essays in Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, on soap powders and detergents, discusses the semiotics of foam — how the lather created by washing powder was a signifier (to use the Barthian semantics) that was more important than the cleaning itself. Similarly, our love affair with liquid soap has more to do with buying into a lifestyle than its efficacy.
I say it’s time to reclaim the bar of soap and free yourself from the tyranny of the gunge! In today’s recession-ravaged ablution landscape, it’s a no-brainer: soap is cheap, or — if it’s more of the Floris or Roger & Gallet variety than your bog-standard Lifebuoy — will still last for about ten years. (Note: exaggeration, but one bar does just keep on giving.)
Then there’s the environmental angle. With little or no packaging, soap has to be one of the greenest products there is, even more eco if you’re using a chemical-free, vegetable variety. Cheap, long-lasting and green. What more solid symbol could there be for our new age of austerity?
What do you think: are you a soap or a shower gel person? Are there any other unnecessary advanced capitalist products we have sleepwalked into using?