For two scents…

Okay, full disclosure: I’m a guy -uhmm, I suppose that has been apparent for years… But before I am relegated to just one of the many gender allocations now so readily available, I have to admit that when I was growing up, there were only two choices and actually they were assigned and not open for discussion. I have no issues with that; I am very comfortable in the clothes I have been expected to wear; and had I to start all over again, I would no doubt self-direct myself to the same side of the tracks.

And yet there is one thing… A very tiny thing perhaps –nothing comparable to the disrespect and outright inequity so often foisted upon other gender roles, of course, but nonetheless troublesome when you get right down to it. No, perhaps irritating describes it best… Actually, come to think about it, I’m going to go for disgusting. Sorry.

I’m referring, of course, to odour –male, exercise odour. Gym bag malfeasance. Male locker room fetor. Naturally I have been somewhat limited in my olfactory experiences given that I have never been sufficiently athletic to be selected for any team that might be expected to sweat excessively, and I’ve never been awarded female locker room privileges. But it has always seemed to me that males have been alone in their allotment to the spoor-bearing section. Hormones, I figured -testosterone, eh?

I can’t say it has been a burning issue all these years; it’s something you learn to put up with –something guys tell each other. I was warned never to leave a hockey equipment bag in the back seat if I was going out on a date. And always wear lots of aftershave even if you don’t –shave, I mean. At the very least it would make them think you were old enough. At the time, I never asked for what, but I have to assume it was about paying for the movie.

Body odour has always been a source of embarrassment to me, but being an only child I naturally believed that it was only a guy thing. Girls usually smelled of flowers and were probably not allowed to sweat. I don’t mean allowed, really –but obviously their hormones enabled them to control it somehow. Women are from Venus; Men are from locker rooms –anyway that made sense to my finally-deepening voice.

I was shocked when, in my later years, I came across a book by Katherine Ashenburg called ‘The Dirt on Clean’ and realized that our species had a rather chequered past with regards to both cleanliness, and odour. Bathing seemed to have gone in and out of favour as did techniques for disguising the stench that attended each person who happened along. But I guess if everybody smells, you don’t have to worry as much. And it wasn’t that grooming was on the endangered list or anything –fleas and lice were quite fashionable, so inspecting and picking at each other’s hair was probably what you did on first dates.

And hey, you didn’t actually have to wash –linen was believed to clean your skin without the danger of opening up the pores and letting bad stuff in. I’m not actually sure what linen is, but hopefully it came in nice colours.

But, naïveté aside, it did get me wondering if there was such a noticeable sexual difference in gym bag bouquet back then. Did they learn to stuff them with linen, or something? Of course, I suppose women weren’t picked for many of the hockey teams in those days, so we may never know. And I think only guys got to fight with swords and whatever… maybe that’s how the folklore about male body odour got started…

Finally, in my declining years, I have been given a clue of sorts –an explanation, maybe. It’s an acknowledgement by the BBC, previously undisclosed and carefully obscured: women have not escaped as unscathed as I was hitherto taught to believe. They also -well, dare I say it?- smell. It’s the bacteria, not the person though, okay?

But when you think about it, our perspective on the world is not only our measuring tape of others, but sadly, also of ourselves. Who would have thought that the Theory of Mind –i.e. our ability to realize that others may have different thoughts than our own- might apply equally to smell?

And yet, I have to admit that I am more than a little unprepared for this sudden equivalence. I mean, if men and women both smell the same after exercise –if we’re all subject to the same deodoral constraints- then what separates us? Apart from the more noticeable anatomical bulges, how are the sexes meaningfully different? On what grounds could we ever decide which would make the best or most efficient hunter? If Power smells the same in each, if hard work is olfactorially undifferentiable, what’s left to choose between us for anything? Why, exactly, did they put in a glass ceiling? Maybe they should simply mandate different coloured linen handles on gym bags.

But it’s just a thought though, eh?



Fashionably Old


Yes, I know this is uninteresting to those of you with a strong sense of clothes, but to the few of us less acquainted with the intricacies of maintenance, it is a continuing source of frustration. I refer, somewhat hesitantly, to what might under other more public circumstances, be called Fashion. The word, by the way, derives its parentage from the Latin factionem –’a group acting together’. A pity, then, that clothes are seldom as forthcoming when they meet me in a store -not honest when they gloat behind a bargain sign. How could I possibly know if a sweater is lying to me? I tend to accept stuff in good faith if it’s on sale and seems to fit me when I try it on.

I only went into the store because of the Sale sign in the window -this type of enticement blinds me to everything else. I thought maybe they might have a nice Mick Jagger tee shirt –the one I have is so faded you can’t see his hair, and anyway it’s shrunk almost to the size of a bra. I figured I was in the market.

When I asked the sales clerk, she said they were all out of the Mick Jagger selection, but she seemed to have difficulty keeping her face serious. Maybe somebody had just told her a joke.

“But you strike me as a sweater sort of person, anyway,” she said as I started to leave.

I don’t know how she figured that, but she kind of made it sound desirable so I stopped and looked at her. I didn’t really need another sweater, frankly –I’ve got a perfectly good brown one at home. My mother gave it to me for graduating… Well, actually I figured it was a reward for finally leaving home, but I never let on that I knew.

The clerk led me over to a counter with a few brightly coloured sweaters piled haphazardly in little desultory heaps. My eyes ached just looking at them but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. There wasn’t a brown one in the group. Nor a blue one. There wasn’t even a black one… I couldn’t believe it.

“Uhmm…” I didn’t know how to tell her that I didn’t like any of them.

I could see her eyes sizing me up for a moment. “Well, it seems a shame to leave without something,” she said. She pursed her lips, but sent her eyes over to savage my clothes. “I realize it’s hard for some guys to come in here…”

I liked her for that; it is hard to go shopping for clothes when you’re retired. I think I blushed.

She looked through the piles, glancing back at me every so often, as if she were trying to find the perfect colour for an older man. Finally, she fondled a scabby-looking yellow one that was ‘not too bright, but still sensuous’, as she put it.

I don’t generally go for yellows, but the price was right, and the saleslady had a nice smile and seemed adamant that I would get used to it. “Some people can wear anything and get away with it,” she said, glancing at the stuff I was wearing, and then reached out and touched my arm.

I have to say I was flattered. I mean, how many people can wear anything? I picked up the yellow sweater again and tried it on. I thought the sleeves were a bit long, but she quickly rolled them up into cuffs. “There,” she said, fussing with the lengths to get them just right. She reminded me of my mother in that moment, so I decided not to argue.

“And it’s a bit loose at the bottom, don’t you think?” I said, thinking it looked more like a very short dress than a man’s sweater. I wasn’t sure it was at all remediable.

She shook her head slowly and smiled at me as if I were a bit slow. “You should see my daughter…”

I waited for her to tell me what I’d see, but she seemed to think she’d offered a perfectly good description of how sweaters were supposed to hang nowadays. Unfortunately, she left the matter of whether her son would ever wear a yellow sweater unresolved, however.

I must have looked as if was still unconvinced because she winked at me. “She sometimes tucks it in,” she added, as a hoped for coup de grâce. She glanced at her watch; I was obviously taking far too long to make up my mind. And it was closing time. “I tell you what, if you buy it right now, I’ll take a further 15% off for you.”

“Give him 20% off the sale price,” her boss chimed in from the back of the store. For a moment, I thought she’d rolled her eyes, but then I decided it was just the flickering of the fluorescent light over the mirror.

Well, of course with a deal like that I had to accept. I was tempted to wear it home, but she had it sealed in a box before I could even reach for my wallet. They’re very efficient in that store, I must say.

“Let me give you our card, sir,” she said with another wink. “Maybe you can convince your partner to come in, too.”

I smiled and put it in my pocket. I have to admit that I don’t like it when somebody says ‘partner’, but I realize that in today’s society to presume to specify gender in relationships is to risk bumbles every now and then. I considered confessing that I was single, but then I realized that it might sound like I was coming on to her so I held my tongue. You have to be careful, you know.

On the bus home, an older woman sitting next to me kept smiling and looking at the box on my lap. “Shopping?” she asked.

I nodded. “Every once in a while, I have to do it,” I said, thinking it was a clever answer.

“Anniversary?” She was obviously intrigued.

I smiled back, of course, but I was puzzled. “Why do you ask?” I said.

Her smile broadened –like I was being modest, or something. She pointed to the printing on the box that I hadn’t noticed before: Forever Feminine it said, bold as a brass plate. “Most men are afraid to go into a woman’s clothing store like that by themselves,” she said, obviously pleased that she’d finally met one.