I recently learned about a fascinating new study with a terrible name—Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth—which attempted to trace the evolution of "social control and individual agency" in the presence and reaction to body hair.
Not surprisingly, the study discovered that body hair on women by and large induced disgust and a feeling of overall dirtiness, both in themselves and in observing others. Perhaps even less surprisingly, the study spurned all kinds of sociological and psychological analysis. And in the red-hot cross-hairs of this body hair debate, there is, of course, a feminist discourse:
These results on a seemingly “trivial” subject nuance the “rhetoric of choice” debate within feminist theories of the body while also illustrating a vivid experiential assignment that delves into women’s personal values, relationships, and social norms. Implications for assessing and changing attitudes about women’s bodies—particularly “abject” or “othered” bodies—are discussed. — Breanne Fahs, study author
All of which got me thinking about an inherent element of my own body that has alternatively plagued and buoyed my spirits. I'm a girl who smells. And I know what you're thinking. "Oh, yeah, me too, when I get home from yoga, boy do I stink." Smiles conspiratorially.
No. I am talking about an inherently bad smell. I get out of a scalding shower, take a sniff, and the nose wrinkles in confusion. Is it a "good" smell like coconuts, baby powder, or peach schnapps? Well, no. Does it smell like meat and hot onion soup? You bet. "Good" is a confusing moniker for body odor. In fact, "good body odor" is basically an oxymoron in a culture obsessed with cleanliness.
(When someone sighs and says, "Mmmm you smell so good," they are not talking about that person's smell. They are talking about a bottle of liquid, jar of cream, or tube of goo that the person has rubbed all over their body.)
I've always had a very conflicted relationship with my body's smell. And prolific sweating. Not only do I kind of always stink, I also sweat a whole fucking lot, so in high school, my "hyperhidrosis" was the bane of my existence. My armpits were at the very center of my universe. (I was also buck-toothed, flat-chested, and liked to dress in men's polyester and bell-bottomed golf pants, so already my come-hither status was dubious at best.)
When puberty finally hit around 14 I had just started attending boarding school, which thank sweet baby Jesus, allowed me to go back to my room several times a day (usually around four), at which point I would change my clothes to swap out a soaked, stinking shirt for a new one. After field hockey practice (go Falcons!) I would duck into the nearest restroom and clandestinely scrub my armpits with hand soap in the dining hall's bathroom before traipsing down the stairs for dinner.
Alternatively, I would line my shirt with paper towels, pinning the damp rags between my arms and body. Or kneel beneath the hand drier letting the hot air work its magic. Oh, and for extra-special events—like prom!—where my "situation" would be so visible, detectable by dance partners and/or capable of ruining whatever I was wearing, I had an over-the-counter deodorant from my doctor made of almost pure aluminum chloride (which, just for the record, is sinister shit and definitely causes cancer and Alzheimer's).
My poor ex-WASP mother would grimace sadly when I would get into the car sometimes, wrinkling her nose in pity and utter confusion. "Your body odor is very strong right now," she'd sigh, slipping the car into drive. My response tended to be a vague, "yeah, I know," or generally aggressive and defeated. "You think I don't know that?! Lay off!" Neither interaction was satisfactory. She still had a daughter who stank.
When I graduated and entered the college fray, however, I shifted my attitude. I refused to wear anything. No more antiperspirant, perfume, deodorant, salt sticks, rubbing alcohol, "bird baths" in the sink, or wet strands of toilet tissue clinging to my armpits. There in the suburban bowels of Allentown, Pennsylvania, I found these cerebral, crunchy bitches who were drinking my "fuck-it" Kool-Aid. I wore my stink like a badge of honor. I didn't conceive of it as a feminist act, but as a kind of down-with-the-man protest. "You stink," they'd say. "Yup," I'd smirk. "People don't smell like a Fiji Breeze! I smell like a human!" And of course when my pals would more-than-happily remind me that they too, were humans, but did not possess that kind of raw-onions situation, I insisted that wasn't the point.
I had been so ashamed and exhausted from wrestling with my armpits for five years, I couldn't help but suffer from my own delusions; I actually derived pride from people's incredulity. I'd curl up beside my pal Liz and she'd turn to Naomi with her patented Janis-throated-growl and mutter, "Dude, Katie's smell is so intense today." My eventual college boyfriend told me he knew if I had stopped by and he wasn't there. He could smell it.
Also true—and apologies if it turns your stomach (it really makes my brother want to purge in the bathroom)—the men I dated loved that smell, the raw meatiness of it. They couldn't help it. I imagine it was one part tenderness for their smelly little girlfriend and two parts all instinctual, animal sex-beast-magic. They'd get a whiff as we embraced hello or I climbed into the backseat of their car and I could see their nostrils quiver and eyes dilate. Call it pheromones, call it a Pavlovian response, call it "fucking sick" (as my brother is wont to do), but they really dug it.
But there came a day of reckoning.
After an internship at Daily Candy, my brother's wife—who had helped finagle the gig for me—was told by someone on staff that while I was a lovely gal, a talented writer and blah blah blah . . . I smelled. I wanted to curl up and die. I imagined the whole team of women—all clad in frothing, flowered sun-dresses—flashing toothy grins over the "smelly intern." I imagined their dread when I walked over to their desk and they tried to hold their breath until I left their nostrils in peace. The worst part? I had been trying, keeping up diligently with my hygiene duties to avoid just such an embarrassment.
I thought about surgery. I thought about acupuncture. About changing my diet. About homeopathic scrubs. About committing harakiri. But when my soul-searching smoke cleared, I decided I still kind of liked it. I just had to curb it. Like a naughty dog.
Every woman on earth has a bodily cross to bear and mine is armpits that smell like old soup. We've all got something we hate about our vessel; call it internalized patriarchy, call it whatever you like. This life and body are far from perfect, but they're mine.