Friday, January 2, 2009

THE LAST GREAT SOCIAL TABOO?


Please feel free to jump in on this one. It's a delicate topic, to be sure, but I’d love to hear from you, and tap into all the wisdom or experience you have to offer. Here’s the question: Is body odor one of the few remaining social taboos, one of the last unmentionable topics? Just to be clear, I’m not talking just a brief moment of someone’s bad breath, noticeable only at close range. No, I’m talking about pernicious creeping, spreading, wafting B.O. Like many of you, no doubt, I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at dealing with service people or with strangers in public places regarding life’s big and little annoyances. I’ve learned how to use a smile and a friendly voice to cope with everything from excessively noisy people or rude people, clueless people, even angry people…just about anything except…smelly people.

I was in the supermarket this morning, and had just pulled up to the conveyor belt and had unloaded a few items when I got hit with a wave of B.O. from the fellow in front of me. I’d been aware of him already in the aisles, the stinging malodor he’d left behind in the air like the valet in that Seinfeld episode. My friends, when I say this guy smelled, I mean it was so strong he could probably have knocked out satellite dish reception. I drew back from him, stifling a spontaneous woof of disgust, hoping he hadn’t heard me, and began re-carting my items – but too late. He turned to me, put down one of those bars that keep orders separated, and gave me a nod and a big smile. A lovely smile. He was obviously a very friendly man. I managed a weak smile in return, trying not to gag. As I backed up my cart I made a hand gesture and muttered something that could have been interpreted as me having forgotten something. Then I wheeled out of his line and over to the next till, feeling a little guilty. I wasn’t able to finish checking out ahead of him, and so had to follow him out of the store with my jacket lapel pulled over my mouth and nose, hoping he wouldn’t look back and see me…as if this whole episode was MY fault!! He’s the epicenter of a huge earthquake of smell ten times worse than roadkill, a condition he presumably has control over, and yet I don’t want to make him feel bad; I don't want to be rude??!!

Regarding that 'presumably" in the previous sentence, I should mention that this fellow was probably in his 50s, well dressed, not physically infirm in any way, and did not appear to be challenged in any mental or social capacity. I could hear him carrying on a chatty conversation with the store associate at his till (who, to her credit, never flinched although she must have been dying). In the parking lot, I saw my smelly man get in a late model Subaru, so I’m thinking he probably wasn’t a street person either. My point is, if he’d had an aura of stale cigar smoke, booze, or too much Aqua Velva, I would probably have just smiled, shook my head judgmentally, and tapped my nose as I backed away. Not this time, however. I don’t know why some otherwise capable people have such poor bodily hygiene and/or a lack of laundry skills. Just as unfathomable to me is why I felt the need to protect him from seeing the discomfort he's caused. Does anyone else feel this way, or do I just need therapy?


Grossed out cat photo from Wikimedia Commons

18 comments:

Kallen305 said...

BO bothers me but not as much as too much perfume. I especially hate the smell of Old Spice and run away from men who have it on. For some reason it is always at the grocery store. Senior citizen men in particular seem to like this scent and it actually gives me a headache and I feel light headed whenever I am near it.

BO also differs from country to country. When I was in Morocco many people smelled like curry. They eat so much of it that I believe it sweats from their pores. It took some getting used to but after a while I didn't even notice.

HA about your story though. I do feel your pain.

Lin said...

I can agree with though I haven't had this exact experience. I feel that way about the heady perfume women wear all the time. It annoys me. And some of these people are close friends. When they get into my car or sit next to me, I feel like stopping breathing. Sometimes I moved away rather than remain sitting next to someone say in church who sits down next to me after I'm already seated. But that's not as bad as BO order. Gag!

Sylvia K said...

Ah, Deborah, I too feel your pain! Have to admit I've never encountered anyone that I can remember (maybe fading memory is a blessing after all???) that had body odor that bad, except maybe when I've passed some of the street people, but I just marked that up to their situation. Why anyone decently dressed, enough money to buy groceries and drive a good car would walk around contaminating the air is totally beyond me. Could it be some kind of physical condition that creates that kind of odor and maybe isn't treatable??? I have no idea, may have to do some research. Just the kind of research I need to keep me off the streets myself for a day. And now that you've brought it to my attention, I just took a quick sniff of my underarm -- I passed -- well as far as I can tell. Do noses ability to smell go the way every other part of the body does at my age??? So many questions, so few answers!

Deborah Godin said...

@ everyone above - Good points! I agree, perfume and spices and such can be off-putting, even if they don't carry the same stigma as basic uncleanliness. Sylvia, I LOL'd at your sniff test! Maybe that guy did a lot of drugs in his youth and blew out his sniffer. Still, no excuse - common sense tells we need to shower and launder regularly even if we can't smell the 'need to' ourselves!

Ramblings of a Villas Girl said...

Hi Deborah! I don't know what proper etiquette would be, but I would have done the same. I do remember I was in a card store. When I went to checkout, there was a woman at the checkout who smelled very strongly of cat urine. After almost gagging, I ran to the back of the store. The employees held composure, but very quickly opened the doors to air out the store when she left.
Then there is the woman who comes into my office that smells like she took a bath in perfume. I did say something to her once and she has toned it down - some.
I think people get used to the smell, whether it is BO, perfume or whatever, and are immune. But what I don't understand is why they feel the need not to bathe. Next time you go to the store, be on the look out for his car. If you see it, go for a cup of coffee and come back :o) Have a good weekend. Lisa

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Smells bother me too, Deborah. Some people from different countries don't ever wear deodorant--and their smell is horrible. I agree with other people that heavy perfume is the WORST for me. There was an old woman at our church who wore some kind of horrible perfume.. It truly would make one's stomach turn. I could smell her even before I saw her. It was awful. I also have a good friend who wears strong perfume.. When we were together in October, she put it on and I finally said something! I'm not sure that people realize how they smell sometimes. BUT--as you said, there's no excuse in not keeping your body clean. Yuk!
Hugs,
Betsy

Squirrel said...

I once worked with a guy who bathed but never washed his clothes...ugh!

at another job a co-worker had industrial strength bad breath, and as her supervisor, I was ordered by my boss to talk to her about it. I did very very carefully tell her, and she claimed people kept saying that and it was a lie they were just picking on her--jealous of her.! she continued to blast her breath around.

I would never tell anyone ever again because they've usually already been told. and for some perverse reason... don't want to fix it.

exudone is my word verif. !!!

Squirrel said...

I hate POLO by R. Lauren--it's toxic.

magiceye said...

in mumbai we grow up with a variety of smells and the city is so crowded that one has to learn to live with it :)

hitch writer said...

Cant believe some one from your country is making a post on Body Odour !!!

It should have been us from Mumbai, sweaty humid and crowded !!!

However for me the Deodarants are more of a headache !!

me ann my camera said...

Oh, I am so with the perfume overload awareness and I so applaud the mention of it for it has been my anguish and concern for years, and I love the signs in public places that suggest somewhat along the line that, "no scents makes good sense".

It is difficult to let a person know that you are uncomfortable with their nearness, whether it is B.O., or some other offending something about them. Yesterday I met an old aquaintance in the mall and as I was chatting with her I noticed she was wearing an angora hat, which is a big allergy problem for me. So I thought to cut our conversation short and also keep my distance from her. As she neared for more confidential sharing, bringing her hat closer to my nose, I instinctively moved backward and I saw a doubting, confused look in her eye and I felt like I was confessing to some social misdemeanor when I said, "Oh, I'm so sorry, but its your hat."

And her returning smile was big with relief as she whipped off her hat and stuffed it inside her coas as she said, "Oh, I thought I smelled!", for she had noticed my reluctance to stand closer. Messaging to someone that they smell is big, no matter how tactfully it is done, for it concludes a wanting of distance and space from that person.

bobbie said...

Apparently there are a lot of people annoyed by this problem. Well, me too. But I am always aware of the possibility that they really can't control it. Not likely, but possible. I worked with a man once - nicest man you'd ever want to meet. He had a physical problem that caused it, was acutely aware of it himself, and always apologetic. He tried to keep his distance. there seemed to be nothing he could do. He'd been to doctors who couldn't help him.
Perfume is another story. That can be controlled. I've had to leave, or move to other seating in theaters and church because of it. A co-worker I had once doused herself all the time. I did speak up about it, and she tried, but then would forget. Shehad no snese of smell herself - So why the heck didn't she just not use it?

Deborah Godin said...

I appreciate hearing from all of you! I agree with HITCH and MAGICEYE about cultural aromas - I once lived in a mixed ethnic neighborhood in Toronto, with lots of interesting international foods and spices. It did take some getting used to at first, but was ultimately part of the charm. In that regard I think North America is pretty bland in comparison to some parts of the globe! As for B.O., I suppose one might make a broad general argument that Western culture, with its roots in a belief system that tends to disavow the human body, would be the one to become so fixated on being as hairless and odorless as possible!

Shellmo said...

I was wondering if it could've been cultural too. I am very sensitive to smell (my hubby says i can smell someone's BO a mile away!) At one job - I had to have a talk w/ our receptionist (our clients were complaining) and I asked her if she "felt ok" because we were concerned she had the odor of someone who was possibly sick (I couldn't just say - you stink!) - she did say it was because she was sick but never elaborated and never took care of it. Shortly thereafter - someone above me let her go - she was smelling up the furniture and making our clients not want to come to the office.

Sydney said...

" so strong it could have knocked out satellite reception".. Man, you're good... and then " the epicenter of a huge earthquake of smell ten times worse than roadkill" Now that's great writing, in my opinion -very funny! Just goes to show that inspiration often comes from so much adversity..

I can share many body odour stories, having flown overseas for many years Now there's a combination for you--cultural, too much alcohol, baby diapers, flatulence We used to wake the passengers up for breakfast, wanting to wear surgical masks, because the passenger cabin was so ripe... thats the word we used--- ripe.

Cloudia said...

it is a puzzling assault, but an assault nevertheless. I remember driving taxi here in Honolulu and picking up fishermen wo'd been out for weeks and driving them home. yikes!!!!! Of the nice Korean man over 30 years ago next to me on the train in D.C. Too much kim chi, and I've never forgotten him or that crowded train with no other seats . . . . . . gee thanks for reminding me! ;-> Aloha-

Cloudia said...

Perfume? Worse!

Avid Reader said...

I was in a library yesterday and a really smelly man kept standing next to me, he'd sort of casually follow me from fiction to non-fiction to biography (like it wasn't obvious) anyway he smelled like urine and worse. I would take a clean perfumed person any day over a person smelling like they rolled in their own feces & wet themselves. The odd thing was, his jacket looked new and clean, and from a distance he looked normal enough. the smell came from inside the jacket --did he have crap on his inner clothing? did he never bathe? -- eeww.