"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.