A Guide to Health/Part 1/Chapter 8

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A Guide to Health  (1921) 
Mohandas K. Gandhi, translated by A. Rama Iyer
Dress
S. Ganesan pages 64-69

Chapter VIII

DRESS

Dress is also a matter of health to a certain extent. European ladies, for instance, have such queer notions of beauty that their dress is contrived with a view to straitening the waist and the feet, which, in its turn, leads to several diseases. The feet of Chinese women are deliberately straitened to such an extent that they are smaller even than the feet of our little children, and, as a result, their health is injured. These two instances show how the health may be affected by the nature of the dress. But the choice of our dress does not rest always in our hands, for we have perforce to adopt the manners of our elders. The chief object of dress has been forgotten, and it has come to be regarded as indicative of a man's religion, country, race and profession. In this state of things, it is very difficult to discuss the question of dress strictly from the point of view of health, but such a discussion must necessarily do us good. Under the term dress, we include all such things as boots and shoes, as well as jewellery and the like.

What is the chief object of dress? Man in his primitive state had no dress at all; he went about naked, and exposing almost the whole body. His skin was firm and strong, he was able to stand sun and shower, and never once suffered from cold and kindred ailments. As has already been explained, we inhale the air not only through the nostrils, but also through the numberless pores of the skin. So when we cover the body with clothing, we are preventing this natural function of the skin. But when the people of the colder countries grew more and more indolent, they began to feel the need to cover their bodies. They were no longer able to stand the cold, and the use of dress came into being, until at length it came to be looked upon not merely as a necessity, but as an ornament. Subsequently it has also come to be regarded as an indication of country, race etc.

In fact, Nature herself has provided an excellent covering for us in our skin. The idea that the body looks unseemly in undress is absurd, for the very best pictures are those that display the naked body. When we cover up the most ordinary parts of our body, it is as though we felt ashamed of them in their natural condition, and as though we found fault with Nature's own arrangement. We think it a duty to go on multiplying the trappings and ornaments for our body, as we grow richer and richer. We 'adorn' our body in all sorts of hideous ways, and admire ourselves on our handsomeness! If our eyes were not blinded by foolish habit, we should see that the body looks most handsome only in its nakedness, as it enjoys its best health only in that condition. Dress, indeed, detracts from the natural beauty of the body. But, not content with dress alone, man began to wear jewels also. This is mere madness, for it is hard to understand how these jewels can add an iota to the body's natural beauty. But women have gone beyond all bounds of sense or decency in this matter. They are not ashamed to wear anklets which are so heavy that they can hardly lift their feet, or to pierce their nose and ears hideously for putting on rings, or to stud their wrists and fingers with rings and bracelets of several kinds. These ornaments only serve to help the accumulation of dirt in the body; there is indeed no limit to the dirt on the nose and ears. We mistake this filthiness for beauty, and throw money away to secure it; and we do not even shrink from putting our lives at the mercy of thieves. There is no limit to the pains we take to satisfy the silly notions of vanity that we have so sedulously cultivated. Women, indeed, have become so infatuated that they are not prepared to remove the ear-ring even if the ears are diseased; even if the hand is swollen and suffering from frightful pain, they would not remove the bracelets; and they are unwilling to remove the ring from a swollen finger, since they imagine that their beauty would suffer by so doing!

A thorough reform in dress is by no means an easy matter, but it is surely possible for all of us to renounce our jewels and all superfluous clothing. We may keep some few things for the sake of convention, and throw off all the rest. Those who are free from the superstition that dress is an ornament can surely effect many changes in their dress, and keep themselves in good health.

Now-a-days the notion has gained ground that European dress is necessary for maintaining our decency and prestige! This is not the place to discuss this question in detail. Here it will be enough to point out that, although the dress of Europeans might be good enough for the cold countries of Europe, it is hopelessly unsuited to India. Indian dress, alone, can be good for Indians, whether they be Hindu or Musalman. Our dress being loose and open, air is not shut out; and being white for the most part, it does not absorb the heat. Black dress feels hot, since all the sun's rays are absorbed into it, and, in its turn, into the body.

The practice of covering the head with the turban has become quite common with us. Nevertheless we should try to keep the head bare as far as possible. To grow the hair, and to dress it by combing and brushing, parting in the middle and so on, is nothing short of barbarous. Dust and dirt, as well as nits and lice, accumulate in the hair, and if a boil were to arise on the head, it cannot be properly treated. Especially for those who use a turban, it would be stupid to grow the hair. The feet also are common agents of disease. The feet of those who wear boots and shoes grow dirty, and begin to exude a lot of stinking perspiration. So great is the stink that those who are sensitive to smells will hardly be able to stand by the side of one who is removing his shoes and socks. Our common names for the shoe speak of it as the "protector of the feet" and the "enemy of the thorn" showing that shoes should be worn only when we have to walk along a thorny path, or over very cold or hot ground, and that only the soles should be covered, and not the entire feet. And this purpose is served excellently well by the sandal. Some people who are accustomed to the use of shoes often suffer from headaches, or pain in the feet, or weakness of the body. Let them try the experiment of walking with bare feet, and then they will at once find out the benefit of keeping the feet bare, and free from sweat by exposure to the air.