Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Should we or Shouldn't we Say "You Stink!"?

"Why can we never seem to smell ourselves? This has to be one of the greatest mysteries known to man. Back in the day, long before progress jammed us all into metal boxes on tracks and wheels and ferried us to work to spend our days in air-conditioned cubicles, the smell of fresh sweat, the perfume of cowboys and construction workers, was regarded as a signature of hard work and manly labour. Back then, when perfumes and colognes were saved for state occasions and holidays, we took the time to check. We were masters at masking a quick sniff of the armpit; experts at exhaling into a cupped hand; and adept when it came to frustrating our own flatulence." "More than a hundred years ago, American author Elbert Hubbard defined perfume as any smell used to drown a worse one. How little things have changed. Spraying deodorant or perfume or cologne on an unwashed body is about as effective as trying to collect water in a colander. It simply doesn’t work. If, as I firmly believe, we cannot smell ourselves, then we need to rely on our friends and family or even complete strangers to set us straight. But we think it rude to point out the obvious and instead suffer in silence, distancing ourselves from them, cutting conversation short. And so we become complicit in the great unwashed. [...] To tell or not to tell... that is really the question."

Thus concedes Mary Murphy on The Budapest Times. Which brings us of course full circle on many issues pertaining to personal hygiene, the perception of that hygiene based on fragrances/products used and whether there is a sound reason of letting anyone know their personal smell is foul or whether it is an absolute social no-no. Perfume, after all, was since the height of the Versailles used to mask unpleasant odours when no other solution would do in exterminating them. We have progressed from the times when George Orwell famously quipped that the social distinction in the West can be summarized in "four frightful words...the lower classes smell" (in The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937, chapter 8). He nuanced it by saying that "here, curiously enough, the Socialist and the sentimental democratic Catholic of the type of Chesterton [ed.note: seeing dirtiness as self-mortification] join hands; both will tell you that dirtiness is healthy and 'natural' and cleanliness is a mere fad or at best a uxury". Even Murphy insists "As I was growing up, the neighbouring farmer, even starched to within an inch of his life in his Sunday best, always smelled of cow manure and boiled bacon. "

Of course such social stigmata today in developed countries at least are taken to be the absolute peak of racism and bias towards specific groups and no doubt they are. After all, there is no one more insistent in deodorising the stench of manual labour by using heaps of soap or in bringing their shoes to an impeccable shine than the laborer, eager to shed the "image". The rise of "clean" fragrances (so on trend since the 1990s) could be also interpreted in the social climb-up-the-ladder in the last three decades, at least in affluent parts of the Western world, of people who would otherwise face a life on a rural environment that would involve the smellscapes they are now eschewing in favour of the exhaust, the rained upon concrete and the cubicle farm. The American urban landscape (excluding specific exceptions) in particular is not only more egalitarian, but -perhaps in accordance- more sanitized in what concerns olfactory miasmata as well. It's probably no coincidence that some of the sexiest ads on TV concern deodorants!

But is it only social attributes which present their own challenges smell-wise? In Popular Music From Vittula by Swedish author Mikael Niemi, the narrator, Matti, reminiscences about his Arctic-circle upbringing offering vignettes from his youth, for instance when he and a friend sneak into an old gym in which middle-aged women are exercising doing aerobics: "Bum sweat cascaded over blubbery backs, the air was alive with a whiff of pussy. … Women fell like two-ton bombs, lay slithering in the pools of sweat on the varnished floorboards before scrambling up on their feet again, indomitable. The room stank of marshy swamps and menopause." I can just see the sour face you're making right now, oh dear menopaused reader! And why should something so natural, so unavoidable, so -darn it!- feminine, like menopause, be linked to olfactory impressions that are of a less than pleasant or appealing nature? you ask. It shouldn't. But there you have it.

Sometimes despite our best efforts and despite every possible stigma or lack thereof, we are oblivious to the scents emanating from our own body. Both our physical smells and our added-upon scents which are largely relying on tastes, odour preferences and accumulated empirical data received through positive and negative associations from our entourage. Sometimes, we just plainly stink for whatever reason. Objectively or subjectively, assuming we're not dealing with a drama queen being irritated by our very own presence, rather than smell.... The question is: Do you tell? In polite or covert ways? And would you want to be told? In polite or covert ways? Or anything in between?

The podium is up to you!

Painting Haunting by Brian Despain.


  1. Anonymous17:05

    This made me smile. It made me remember the awful situation we found ourselves in when a female member of our department regularly smelt less than pleasant. The male managers tried to make us girls take her aside to tackle the issue, but we were far too embarrassed to broach the matter with her. And so it continued for a long time. I wonder what other people do in the same circumstances? Jillie

  2. Tamara*J17:48

    What a amazing article! You are so talented on how you write!
    I enjoyed this very much.
    As for how do you tell someone, do you even attempt?
    My gut answer is no. I would be too embarrassed to mention how bad they smell to me.
    What if they knew and didn't care? What if they didn't and it hurt their feelings?
    This goes for strangers and friends alike. I've been in both situations.
    That's not to say that I haven't been told that I smell of a horrible perfume(my great sister everybody :P ) but it never bothers me because I love perfume and she hates scent of all kinds.
    Plus I love to annoy her-but that's another story. :) I work-out and run in a forest almost everyday. I don't mind sweating and being smelly at the time. But when I'm done I can't wait to get cleaned up. Although all my of daughters(17,14,12,7) joke and tease saying "Mama sweats perfume!" and assure me I never stink. They tell me no matter what I smell so good. And that is what every lover of fragrance wants to hear.

  3. Anonymous21:53

    years ago i worked with an obese young man who stank horribly of old, decayed skin and b.o. he would tell people that he had overactive sweat glands, and perhaps he did, but i wasn't convinced that his hygiene was particularly strong, especially given the sweat glands (dirty, oily hair). it was honestly hard to be around him. not much could be said, as his odor appeared to have a medical origin, but no one suggested he try a different hygiene routine.

    i recently met an attractive businessman who was well-put-together and decently groomed, but he had horrible breath. it nearly ruined the visual effect and his charm. but in a social situation, you can't say anything about something like bad breath. offering a breath mint would even seem rude.

    i guess this sort of information - that you stink in some way - can only be communicated by a trusted, close friend or family member. coming from another source it could be taken totally wrong or not trusted. only someone with no other agenda than love can say something like this.

    just my two cents.


  4. Anonymous02:13

    I suffer from overactive sweat glands. For years I have tried to find a good deodorant that helps but it never totally got rid of the smell despite being a very clean person. I am horribly self conscious and aware that I smell. I wear perfume, but last week my boss took me aside and asked if I was allergic to perfume. I told her no, and that I used clinical strength. I don't think she knew what to say. I took all my strength to finish my shift without crying. I was so embarrassed. I think it is fine to let people know, but don't make a judgement and assume they don't use deodorant or bath. I can say from experience that it hurts.

  5. Anonymous13:43

    Believe it or not, Axe deodorant is the only thing that worked for my older girl.

  6. Anonymous03:39

    Oh that naughty Finn - Matti! ;-)

    Yes, I'd want to be told - bad breath, body odor, food odors lingering on my clothing and if I'm wearing a fragrance that isn't pleasant to those around me.

    I occasionally ask close friends about these concerns (and vice versa)...usually getting honest responses.

    I've found out that I smell basicially non-offensive because of showering daily, wearing a deodorant, brushing/flossing my teeth, using a tongue scrapper followed by a powerhouse mouthwash (that use to be available by prescription only).

    I think most all of us (in the western world) would be in for an olfactory shocker if we were magically transported back even just 100 years into our surroundings. The odors of people and animals (horses commonly dropped their doodies right in the street) would be mind blowing.

    ~ Susan

  7. (1) Been to the theatre on Friday. I'm not the perfect person to demonstrate good manners and I have no decent evening clothes (it could be questioned whether I have any decent clothes at all because I wear jeans, tank tops, oversize sweatshirts and slouchy sweaters.... but that's another matter) so I wore black jeans because black is okay for just about anything and cashmere/silk sweater because cashmere and silk does on every occasion and watched the poly-whatever satin and upon some wondering, I decided that I'm seriously underdressed but also demonstrating more good taste than majority of fellow theatre goers.
    Anyway, next to me, a well groomed lady was sitting, and she stank to high heaven. And there was a gentleman in front of me who should pretty please read the entry for 'shower' in first available dictionary and enter this invention into his life. Puh-leeze, these weren't farmers in their best Sunday clothes having a cultural day.

    The next day (there was a tiny dance festival I couldn't miss), I was equipped with a bottle of Keiko Mecheri's Bois de Santal and heavily perfumed fan and from now on, cologne is my culture-going staple.

    I'm no stranger to rotting garden waste or various excrements, feline steatorrhea being far the worst, but not even poo of a sick cat is worse than long unwashed armpits. Hey, we have this civilisation thingy, get thee some soap.

    Anonymous: I feel your pain. I sweat a lot although I don't get stinky extremely fast unless it's really hot. Still, it feels bad when I'm aware that I might not actually reek but that I do smell. In such cases, I use lots of cologne - something not too pervasive that smells okay mixed with my sweat.

    Brownie: my dentist says that strong brandy is better than, to quote her, 'the goddamn Listerine, because it doesn't taste foul and it has the same effect'.

    Also, Niemi in English sounds weird. I wonder how all those puns and language things were translated? I can't envisage any way of translating the intermingled Finnish and Swedish.

  8. I've been convinced since age 17 or so that deodorants, and especially antiperspirants, make my BO worse, really sickening, and so gave them up. That was in my Eau de Givenchy period. More than 15 years later, I still manage to hold down a job and keep a few friends around, with the aid of beautiful perfumes (Different Company's Ailleurs et Fleurs is my current fave), scented powders, and regular scrub downs. I wonder if anyone else has this experience with antiperspirants...it is as if my body is fighting back against its assault on my personal aroma...


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