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?



A Mouth by any other name.

Hands up everybody with bad breath. It’s one of those great unknowables that have shadowed many of us since we first became aware that others might be aware of us. It starts out in early childhood when the youngster begins to suspect that others not only can think, but that those thoughts may be different from his own. This is often called the Theory of Mind.

Only much later does the child –now a teenager trying to fit in with the pack- develop an analogous awareness: that the breath of others may be different from his own. I call this the Theory of Mouth. The degree to which it is manifest is obviously difficult to measure with any precision, and anyway it varies a lot depending upon the situation, but it certainly has an effect on self-confidence. In extremis, of course, it can lead the child along a path to isolation and troglodysm; more usually, however, the child becomes an adult who continually speaks into the cuff of his shirt. They are easy to spot.

In the old days, though, things were different. There were no breath counsellors then, and most of the GPs I ever visited had terrible breathes themselves, so offered no hope of redemption from either the adolescent pimples for which I had originally visited, or the breath concerns I had thought I could sneak into the therapy. Nobody older than eighteen seemed to care, quite frankly –or, having already found partners for themselves, they had their own coping mechanisms. Their own subterfuges.

So, I was intrigued when I happened upon an archival Guardian article on breath problems the other day:  When you become an elder, it is important to keep up with the past, so you can accurately relay it to a younger generation in case it helps.

I used to think I was so clever to breathe into my hand so I would, well, know how I smelled. We all relied on that in those days. And if it revealed a concern, or if we wanted to be sure, there was always Sen-Sen –the ‘breath perfume’ candy, we all carried in our pockets to the high school dances. In the scary days of the Sock Hop, the girls would all line up on one side of the gym and the boys on the other, so actually finding a partner to dance with required a lonely, soul-searching journey across a battlefield of writhing bodies. And if you were going to run the gauntlet, you had to be really sure about your breath, eh? It was a long way back.

I couldn’t actually dance, but that was hardly the point. It was a courage thing –a rite of passage and hence a breath thing.

I suppose the major difference nowadays is that it really doesn’t matter if your breath is fetid when you interact on Facebook, or chatrooms. Even online dating sites do not require breath attestations in the profile; it’s only if things progress to actual, uhmm, physical encounters, that one has to be wary. And nowadays there are no end of things you can put in your mouth to pretend it’s user friendly.

Anyway, Science seems to be catching up as well. War, or at least threat of war, has always been a big stimulus for breakaway products for the consumer. Think of the helmet, and the flashlight, as examples. If it hadn’t been for the need to deal with dangerous people hiding in the dark, we’d still be wearing baseball caps and carrying candles.

Breath was important, too –for obvious reasons: bad breath is a real giveaway in the dark. So they had to find ways of making it better. Not too nice, or anything –that’s a giveaway too. You can smell a mouth with a Sen-Sen in it a good kilometer away. No, breath prophylaxis became the watch-word… well, words. As the article points out, 85% of the problem originates in the mouth, so soldiers were taught to keep their mouth shut. That also was found to help with keeping stuff secret, so again, the public benefitted.

Also, when bacteria were discovered hiding in the mouth, Scientists became really excited. No longer could they simply blame constipation for the problem; no longer, in good conscience, could they hold garlic and its relatives for ransom; they even soft-pedalled onions for a while –although I suspect the farm lobby had a large role to play in that. ‘It’s the bacteria, stupid’ was the new mantra. We needed not so much an explanation, as something to blame. And then, only when ‘I told you so’ ceased to satisfy us, a treatment.

But come on –plus ça change, eh? Deep down, we all knew that. We all knew it wasn’t our fault. And we realized from the time of our first cavity, that you had to brush your teeth and carry some sort of breath mediator in your pocket before a date, or it’d be your last. About the only real advance in mouth fitness was tongue-brushing and maybe chlorhexidine -and even they only lasted until you knocked on the door to pick her up. I’m not sure why, although maybe I’m too old to do it correctly because I always gag. Like computer-savvy, however, some things are probably best acquired when you’re young -partners, too, I suppose.

Now that I am retired, though, I no longer have to speak to people, but old habits die hard, and I do run into friends occasionally in Tim Horton’s. I only use my hand with the women, however.