Of sweat and scent: in defense of infrequent bathing

I will be posting on various things in the week to come. I’ve got reviews of a couple of books to put up (including Men Speak Out), and will try and say something intelligent about Planned Parenthood, race, and the complex legacy of Margaret Sanger.

But it’s Saturday, and if I post at all on the weekends, it can’t be about anything too serious. My wife has been in Europe (doing various volunteer things) since last Sunday, and I miss her. She’ll be home in two days time. The stereotype of the generally neat married man who reverts to appalling slobbery when his spouse goes off for a few days is a time-honored one: yes, things are looking a little chaotic around the homestead these days. Newspapers and magazines on the floor; laundry arranged in sensible; adequately folded piles; coffee cups resting on any ledge they can find. And Hugo, unbathed as yet today.

I’ve let go of so many bad habits over the last few years. An earlier incarnation of Hugo on his own would have seen me in a home littered with filled ashtrays. Liquor bottles would have poked their heads out of the trash as well. Bits of clothing and long strands of hair, forgotten and discarded by those whose visit had had but one purpose, would have lingered under chairs for weeks or months. On these scores, all is different now.

But one thing I still enjoy, and that’s avoiding bathing. Surely, I am not the only person who finds the smell of his own unwashedness to be, if not delightful, nonetheless very satisfactory? I wash, use deodorants, and wear (cruelty-free) cologne when I’m on campus or going out; I stay as clean as I can out of courtesy to my beloved, with whom I share such intimate space. And when I’m going to be around the chinchillas, I’m a very loyal hand-washer. Nonetheless, if I can get my way, I’ll work up a good “pong” on those days when my wife is gone. Sometimes, I confess, I go running, come home, and change clothes without showering. Dried sweat and the odor of honest toil on the trails makes me happy, and I want to keep that going as long as possible. On occasion — again, only when my wife is out of town, I’ll go to bed unshowered, with dust and funk coating my body (and by morning, coating the sheets). I do stay off the couch when I’m at my slick, sweaty, smelly worst; I do make sure that the sheets and towels are all changed in time for her arrival home.

I enjoy being around unwashed people when I am equally so. Naturally, my own body odor never offends me, and when I am smelly, my tolerance for others’ pong goes up quite a bit. My wife is a connoisseur of perfumes (it’s more or less certain that she’s been shopping at Fragonard in Paris again this week). I love them on her. I like her best, however, when she’s home from the gym and unbathed. As she knows, my favorite vacations with her are the rustic ones, of the sort where I have a small chance of convincing her to go a day (or, God willing, several) without showering. Though each body wears perfumes and colognes differently, when it comes to the question of what sparks eros, there is nothing as sublime as the strong, clear scent of one’s not-too-recently bathed beloved. (Though it may be apocryphal that Napoleon asked his Josephine to stop bathing five days before he returned to her, I like to think that he did. In that respect if no other, he and I share similar tastes.)

But though my wife’s (all too rarely) unwashed skin is my favorite scent on any human being, I enjoy being around my friends most when they too are decidedly unclean. After our weekend long runs (which can last anywhere from 2-4 hours of hard running in the San Gabriels), we usually head out to coffee and bagels as a group. We always sit outside, even in the grimmest of weather, as our collective scent would overpower other customers. But after hours of bonding through the constructive suffering that is running, we’re already feeling pretty darned close to each other. And far from acting as a repellant, our group odor seems to draw us even closer. There are rarely more than nine in our group, which is mixed-sex and includes folks from their twenties to their fifties; we’re more affectionate with each other at Noah’s Bagels after a long run than we are at any other time. High on endorphins and overwhelmed by the very obvious pheromones of our fellow athletes, we’re very quick to hug and pat each other. It’s not sexually arousing, of course. What I like so much about being having all of us be sweat-drenched and mud-covered as we drink and nosh together is that I feel as if I am truly a member of a close-knit pack. Somehow, when I — and everyone around me — smells of Fahrenheit or Michael Kors or Old Spice, that mammalian sense of belonging just isn’t there in the same way.

My wife will have been on a transatlantic plane ride by the time she gets home. If I time my return from campus right, I’ll at least get to hold her for a moment — and breathe in her — before she races off to the shower. (Knowing her, however, she’ll have freshened up completely in the airplane lavatory before landing). In the meantime, I’m enjoying my unwashedness all by my lonesome here at home. The chinchillas, thank God, are as affectionate as ever, unfazed by Hugo in all his magnificent pungency.

14 thoughts on “Of sweat and scent: in defense of infrequent bathing

  1. I think it depends on the person. I’ve met some that really sicken me, but many of these were people of questionable condition encountered downtown. Not all, though. There’s 2 factors in the equation–noses vary as much as anything else, and I think people like me, who would rather not have visited your place in the old days, are mutations of some sort, who would have never made it to adulthood in earlier centuries before plumbing, showers, etc. But when hawthorns, rowans and pyracanthas are in bloom, it’s like catnip for me.
    I once had a roommate whose ancestors came from the taiga, and whose lack of hygiene made me about lose my dinner. [Everyone else of that background I encountered smelled all right.] I much later wondered if this had actually had survival value in the wild, for Alaskan mosquitos are voracious but I could not see even them biting *that*.

    And I think some people with noses like mine must have gotten together and set up the 20th century obsession with deodorants and so on, which in my opinion has gone just too darn far. I sure wouldn’t go back to the weekly-or-less bath etc., but I figure 1 day’s worth of sweat is okay, at least it shows you’ve been doing something. What I find creepy is how come (last time I bothered to check) only one gender is pressured to buy special deodorants for their private parts. That sector poses hygienic challenges for both sexes. Someday I’ll come up with a unisex deodorant–and call it “The Pit and the Pendulum”.
    Still it is hard to draw the line exactly where individual dislike ends off and cultural prejudice starts. In an age where we are constantly hearing that our bodies are imperfect and need fixing in a million different ways, folks need to start thinking carefully about this.

  2. “Pong?” I thought that was the first video game! We call it “funk” or “B.O.” around here—although I can get “pong”, because the smell of it is like a slap upside the head!

    Can’t say I’m with you on this one—when I’ve been doing heavy sweating, I can’t wait to get in the shower. For me, there’s nothing better than getting the oil slick and dirt off my body, and smelling like fresh, clean skin again. Even more than the smell of day-old sweat, I hate the feel of it. And B.O. is the polar opposite of an aphrodisiac for me. Armpit odor so strong you can chin yourself on it? No thanks.

  3. > “only one gender is pressured to buy special deodorants for their private parts”

    Really? Is that common in USA these days? There’s actual deodorants being made for the lower regions? This is the first I’ve heard of the whole thing. I’m European myself and sure hope that trend doesn’t come over here too.

    Back in the 1980s I used to take a shower perhaps twice a week and that was normal for everybody. When I was leaving to be an exchange student in USA, one of the things the councellors stressed on us was ‘remember that americans wash every day and if you don’t, you’ll be shunned’. We thought it was a bit weird at the time. Nowadays though everybody washes every day here too.

  4. Professor, this is disgusting. Funny, but disgusting. THANK F-ing GOD you bathe for your students and your wife. The one or two times I’ve been close to you in office hours you smelled great, nice cologne or something. How bizarre to think that youre so different when your left to your own devises!

  5. I like being clean, and generally shower every day, but I like those three day weekends where I shower on Friday morning and then not until Tuesday morning before work starts back up, too. I think it’s good for the body not to be scrubbed down all the time. Although, that said, in those weekends, I rarely work up much of a “pong,” but still, I like to revel in my uncleanliness as well. Glad I’m not the only one.

  6. Angiportus, can’t say I’ve heard of what you’re talking about either.

    Unless it’s got to do with, erm, scented washes and the like; I’ve only heard of those in the context of my elders repeatedly telling my generation they’re silly and a risk for infection. (I’m a current college student, and recognize that I’ve been a bit sheltered so it’s possible they’re more popular in poorer areas and the like.)

  7. Did you bathe every day when you were in tropical locales such as Colombia or the Philippines?

    In fact, a common greeting in Indonesia is “Sudah mandi?” (Have you bathed yet?). (You’re expected to respond in the positive; if you respond in the negative, people will make no effort to hide their revulsion.) People bathe at least twice there – once in the morning and once during dusk/evening.

    On the other side of the coin, there’s a Balinese story about a particularly pungent villager who helped get his fellow villagers a large piece of land (known as Tenganan Pagringsingan) just by accompanying a court official with a particularly sensitive nose. The land was a reward for the villagers’ discovery of the king’s favorite horse, which was found dead. The king decreed that the villagers would get an expanse of land wherever the dead horse’s odor could be detected. The court official was puzzled that the horse’s odor was strong all the time the villager was with him. After deciding that the parcel of land was large enough, the official went home. With the official out of sight, the villager pulled out a chunk of the dead horse from beneath his clothing. So, I guess being funky does have its advantages – but notice that the funk came from an outside source in this particular story.

  8. Yes, I bathed daily in the Phillippines. I bathe daily most of the time; my wife and students like it that way. Heck, when I’m doing two-a-day workouts, I bathe two or three times a day. But I do that out of courtesy to those around me, not out of pleasure.

    I did note that Filipinos seemed to be exceptionally concerned with hygiene.

  9. “I did note that Filipinos seemed to be exceptionally concerned with hygiene.”

    I do know that typically when Filipinas show signs of their first period, they don’t really get the “birds and the bees” talk (it’s not really necessary – they get that from town gossip, usually), but a talk about how their hygiene needs change from that point on.

  10. I was talking about those feminine deodorant sprays and douches–something I really don’t know that much about save that the very idea sounds like an insult to half the species. I have had more problems with the smell from compressed air systems at work, and people of both genders with bad breath.
    I wash every day because I like feeling clean. In the summer I wouldn’t want to turn in feeling all sticky. But I feel guilty about using so much water even though I take quick showers.
    Thanks for the Balinese story!

  11. At the risk of stereotyping, it seems to me that people in the US are far more concerned with body odor than most of the rest of the world. It seems to me that you equate “clean” with “having no personal smell at all”, which I find very strange. Bodies do smell, they have a smell of their own even when freshly bathed, and in order to get rid of that smell you cover it up with colognes and perfumes. In my European opinion, keeping clean is certainly a good thing, but keeping completely non-smelly is something I can’t quite wrap my head around.

    I don’t much like the smell of stale sweat, or tobacco smoke, but I much prefer the smell of a reasonably clean body to any cologne or perfume in the world.

    As for myself, I really like the way I smell when I’ve been spending half a day at the stables. The combined smells of horse, straw, hay, horse manure, the dust from the paddock, the grass from the fields, and my own sweat – they evoke the joy of being with the horses, plus, as you say, the smell of honest work. Unfortunately that predilection isn’t shared by the rest of the household… so when I get home it’s a shower and some deodorant – but no perfume or anything else to cover up the smell of human.

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