Before leaving for the Global Perspectives trip, we were repeatedly warned that we’d find ourselves a bit more sweaty and smelly than we are used to in formal settings. It was also made clear that it was more or less okay over there. Summer is hot, and wearing a suit in a place that doesn’t bother with air conditioning can lead to big wet spots under your arms. It’s a part of life, and accepted.
Here in the US, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to be clean, deodorized, and perfumed. Even after using the gym, people run off to shower and change immediately. Other than from the people with whom I have close relationships, most of the natural people smells I have experienced have come from the mentally ill or homeless.
I soon realized that I was actually excited to be around people who smelled like people. I was certainly excited about the possibilities for exposure to a new set of odors, but I was also looking forward to the comfort afforded by the relaxed standards.
For years, I’ve argued for increased acceptance of our biology, and the destruction of the various taboos around it. It seems silly to deny who we are, and to create discomfort by doing so. Hearing that it was okay to sweat there meant I was coming to a place that seemed a little more reasonable to me.
Bringing this up in the group discussion was met with a few chuckles at first, and some light teasing, but very quickly turned into an honest discussion. Of particular note was the influence of diet on body odor, and the differences between European and American foods. We wondered if perhaps Europeans just smell better in general?
A few days in, I started to get feedback on my own personal body odor. It was mostly not so bad, although when I took off my jacket during a walk outside on a hot day, I was told it was pretty intense.
Indoors, I was expecting a lot of hot, stuffy classrooms. But, unlike so many of ours, their windows actually opened. This helped with the temperature and the sweating, and also swept out the smell of humans much more effectively than air conditioning usually does. On a side note, that fresh air is a really wonderful feature. Air handling systems for classrooms in the US tend to not be able to exchange enough air for crowded lectures, and we get CO2 buildups that make students unavoidably sleepy. More than once, I’ve been tempted to bring a brick to class to make it so I could pay attention until the end.
I tried to keep a nose out for other peoples’ sweat, and I got it a few times, but it was almost never strong, and only then when I got up close and personal. Even the people with soaked armpits were fine. I was, quite frankly, disappointed. Maybe next time I will try to lean in closer.
This all supports my suspicion that we are way too worried about how we smell. For most people, having a bit of sweat or a day without showering is generally not going to be noticed. I think all of us should test it out a time or two, and ask our friends to sniff us. If we pass, we should try to relax about this whole BO thing.