Pee-Yew! The Politics of Body Odor

Laurie and Debbie, happy to be blogging again, say:

In the week and a half that we haven’t been blogging, we’ve come across a lot of interesting links, most of which we’ll get to in a later post. The first one we found came from fattest, who pointed out how Unilever is trying to get rich(er) by making Asians unhappy about their own body odor:

Russell Taylor, global vice-president for Axe, the Unilever-made deodorant marketed as Lynx in Britain, said that no one had yet found a way of making Asians self-conscious about body odour. “Asia is a market we have never really cracked. They don’t think they smell, but people everywhere smell,” he said.

The trick is to tailor …. paranoia to local sensitivities. To the company’s relief, risque British humour works well among young Indian men and Unilever is using its Lynx advertisements to good effect, but even so, it has to be careful.

“We tailor some of the media to private channels [such as mobile phones] so young guys are not subjected to watching things in front of their families,” Mr Taylor said.

Japan is an even more difficult prospect and the company has been forced to create commercials for the local market as Japanese teenagers don’t meet in as casual a manner as in the West. Mr Taylor said: “We showed a prearranged date and told a story. If we showed something too brash, people would ask, ‘How is that relevant to me?’”

Sophisticated multicultural diverse capitalism at its, ahem, best?

We don’t think we have to say very much about this campaign. Most of our readers have understood for a long time that the cleanliness industry is predicated on making us believe that things are either wrong with us or dangerous; overselling deodorant is not as socially dangerous as overselling antibacterial products or hair remover for preteen girls, but it’s noxious enough.

The article got us to talking, however, about body odor (not a commonly discussed topic).

As is clear from the article and the comments, body odor has enormous racial (and racist) implications. Some ethnic or racial groups perceive themselves as “cleaner” than other ethnic groups–which usually means that they believe they have less natural body odor than the other groups (and better hygiene). It’s perfectly possible that we’re evolutionary wired to distrust people who smell different from us. One function of deodorant is to minimize or eliminate any differences between people (which made Laurie point out with amusement that deodorant could be seen as a tool for social change, because it could be minimizing hostile reactions to other people’s natural odors).

Body odor also has class implications: people who do physical work for a living will smell more strongly at the end of the day than people who don’t. Therefore, when having a stronger odor is defined as inferior, doing manual work automatically identifies you as lower status. Similarly, if physical work is defined as lower status, which it generally is, that reinforces the class values of not having a strong body odor.

Culturally, we treat body odor as having health implications. Deodorant is not a health-related product, but “smelling clean” is associated with smelling healthy. There’s a persistent belief, which may well be true, that meat-eaters have stronger body odor than vegetarians, which can reinforce the sense that it’s health-related.

Babies smell very sweet, and thus “smelling like a baby” becomes a kind of marker of infancy. Since it’s well known that we are hard-wired to protect babies and very young children (and puppies and kittens), this is one reason people may be drawn to less intense body smells.

Finally, we raise a question of diversity: do we want to all smell the same? Is erasing our natural body odors a good thing? Especially when many of us replace them with jarred fragrances which make Unilever and its ilk rich and which don’t smell the same as each other … but they all smell different than human body smells. When are the differences in natural smells interesting and pleasing, and when are they disturbing and threatening? And what about human body odor as a source of sexual arousal? One thing the perfume industry does is try to rewire our sexual reactions to their fragrances.

Anyone doing a thesis on the politics of body odor?

13 thoughts on “Pee-Yew! The Politics of Body Odor

  1. Well… I remember years ago my mother telling me that a German boyfriend she had had when she was working in Europe in the mid 1950’s or so (pretty much just after the war) told her that making love to an American woman was like “making love to a freshly laundered towel”. Kind of sad, I suppose, and I’m not sure he meant it as a compliment. However, I (like my mother and most other American women) would prefer to smell all over like said towel or Chanel #5 (or insert your favorite fragrance here) than “body” odor. It’s our acculturation. I’m not even sure that it is such a bad thing (all things considered, and in light of life in general).

    I also think that a tolerance for odor is something that is not only a cultural factor, but it is also biological or learned through experience. For instance, as you pointed out, many cultures have a much higher tolerance for body odor than we do. But our own biology seems to have us rely on scent, despite what we might feel culturally about body odor in general.

    Within our own society, we have our own sets of tolerances which are unremarkable, and don’t tend to raise eyebrows unless they get beyond a certain point. To wit, children. I personally cannot abide even the “normal” smell of babies or children (frankly, they do not smell sweet to me – they smell like diapers and other stuff), but I also don’t have children. Not everyone feels the same way, and most mothers greatly appreciate the smell of their own offspring (my assumption is that I would too if I had them), and most family members are comforted by the “smell” of those within their immediate family (scent being powerfully associated with emotion).

    So… when talking about spreading the gospel of deodorants, I’m not sure whether we’re in the presence of something that is good, bad, or indifferent. I have no idea how someone might avoid some degree of body odor in a place like India where temperatures can soar above 110 degrees F. If this has been discovered, may I have some of whatever it is please? I DO think, however, that it would help if there were some non-offensive way of helping people cope with situations that might produce said odor. For instance, in some places manual laborers are given places to clean up (i.e. — get themselves less stinky somehow) before returning home on public transport. It would be great if we could do that here. I live in New York and ride the subway… I would SINCERELY appreciate it.


  2. Hehe, I was thinking the exact thing about babies and children. I really can’t stand that juvenile funk, though the manual labor stinkiness doesn’t bother me much.

  3. One of my jobs, over the years, has been working in theatrical/opera costumes, and I have smelled a lot of people. Frankly, I prefer the smell of body odor to perfumes, which make me sneeze. One of the most interesting things is that, when working wardrobe backstage, I can identify who wears a costume by its smell. Also, I can tell you that nervous sweat(opening night sweat) smells a lot more bitter than just exertion sweat (in rehearsals). As a costume persopn, I have a pretty high tolerance for odor, and there really has only been 1 or 2 people throughout the years that smelled completely distasteful to me. Of course, I also wash other people’s underwear for a living, so I am pretty over the grossness of things (my students, however, are another story!)

  4. I don’t mind roll-on deodorants or antitranspirants and sometimes I will use them myself to stay dry, not because I’m afraid of body odor. However, I am extremely bothered by any kind of spray, be it deodorant or hairspray. My boyfriend uses sprayable deodorant and similar stuff all the time and I keep asking him to stop because I think it only makes the smell worse instead of covering it or anything. I also think it’s unnecessary – he smells just fine and I do love his shower gel; it’s not as intrusive.

    To sum up, I’m perfectly fine with scented beauty products as long as they also serve another purpose aside from just applying scent, and I am more annoyed by deodorants than by natural body odor.

    I agree with your observations, but I had never heard of smelling clean being associated with smelling healthy. It’s sort of mind-boggling to assume that sweaty = unhealthy. I’d rather associate sweat with exercise, which was still a healthy activity last time I checked …

  5. My PhD supervisor and I had long discussions like this about body odour – my PhD was on histocompatibilty antigens, and while I was studying their evolution and genetics, there is research on their contribution to body odour.

    Female mice prefer to mate with male mice that smell different based on these histocompatibility antigens – which probably has survival value in terms of more diverse immune systems among offspring – and there’s some evidence the same may apply to humans. (By the way: most of the active evolution in humans in the last 10,000 years involves the immune system. Living in cities is a real challenge to our primate immune systems.)

    The most interesting thing is that while pregnant (and that includes being on the pill) women prefer body odours more similar to their own. Here again: female mice form shared nests for pup-raising with mice who effectively smell like sisters.

    Kudos for talking about this sort of thing in public, because most people are really uncomfortable about it (which I think is a clue it’s important).

  6. I live in a big city and use public transport. I’m American. I must have been successfully brainwashed by the deodorant industry, because I’m disgusted by strangers’ body odor. I’m completely mortified if I realize that I’m smelly, as well, even if I’m doing something active. To be honest, I don’t mind the smell of people in my family, particularly my husband – but he’s even more careful about personal hygiene than I am, so his B.O. is always really subtle. I have an unusually acute sense of smell; maybe that’s part of it. Anyway, I would be a happy camper if everyone who’s planning to be in public (especially when it’s hot out) would shower and use deodorant daily. I know my views on this are horribly bourgeois, but there you go.

  7. I haven’t heard the specific connection between smelling “clean” (as in “Irish Spring” or whatever) and smelling healthy. I CAN tell you that I smell different to myself when I am ill (as in fever and all the other unpleasantness), and when my husband is ill his natural odor changes and becomes unpleasant.

    My guess is our immune system getting rid of all of those germs and general “yuck”. I had a cat who used to sniff at strangely if I was sick too… There’s probably something to this, but I wouldn’t go so far as requiring everyone to smell of Unilever’s best to be called healthy! :)


  8. I’m really appreciating the lively discussion, and don’t have much to add. AndyJo, very astute comments; it especially interests me that both you and Bekbek don’t like the smell of babies, which I would have guessed was close to universal (I’m always wrong when I think something is close to universal).

    Sophia, fascinating about theatrical back stage smells; I also prefer B.O. to most deodorants, and I’m not surprised (though I am interested) that nervous sweat smells different. Seems to relate to AndyJo’s later comment that illness sweat also smells different.

    Tiana, that makes sense.

    Aquaeri, it’s always lovely to learn something of the science behind the sociology, so special thanks. When I was pregnant many years ago, I was very aware of the enhanced sense of smell and eventually decided that if one was living, say, on the plains and moving slowly, being able to recognize predators from further away would be quite extraordinarily useful.

    Dee, you have the reactions you have, and the preferences you have, and that’s okay.

  9. I have long been an advocate of scratch ‘n sniff personals, because my observation is that a great deal of information gets communicated unconsciously via smells.

    I’m an old hippie with a liking for certain essential oils. For some years I wore gardenia oil exclusively and a friend told me, “You smell like my brother.” I guess his brother used a soap with gardenia oil in it. A few years ago I went on a major scented oil binge with Black Phoenix Alchemical Labs and I was fascinated by how differently the exotic oil blends affected different people. Previously I always felt that patchouli oil smelled like dirt–literally and I didn’t like it. But I happened upon a PB blend called Voodoo that contains patchouil and sandalwood (and some other oils) that transported me back to a poster store on Haight Street circa 1968 and made me feel 19 again. What other people might think of it when I wear it, I don’t much care, it makes me feel good!

  10. Having lived in Japan I can say that Japanese people do care about cleanliness more than being “smelly”. As a society they are also very conscious of blending into the crowd, and not being offensive to others around them. Certainly having lived in Tokyo, one of the most crowded places anywhere, I noticed that people did not wear strong scents while at the same time bathing daily and otherwise having good grooming.

    Strong scents can be offensive to others, not to mention possibly unbearable. Developing asthma as an adult I certainly have found Axe body spray to be one of my asthma triggers, not to mention I think it smells far worse than sweat or b.o.

    The incidence of asthma is definitely rising amongst children and the population in general, at least here in the U.S., and I wonder how much of that is caused by the increasing use of not only deodorants, but of other scented products from laundry detergent, air fresheners, fabric softeners, conditioners, etc.

    One last comment about Japan, while I was there I saw a news piece that showed rising concern about women, especially wives & mothers losing their sense of smell. They showed that there was a marked decline in the acute sense of smell and the ability to detect when food had gone “off”. The culprit was – air fresheners and overuse of scented candles, etc. Interesting to think about….

  11. I use deodorant and light perfume (either ylang-ylang and rose if I want to be sexy, and Vera Wang Princess if I just want to smell pretty) which enhances and complements my natural smell. I’m obsessive with not smelling, because I DON’T want the “smelly fatty” stereotype.

  12. I’m another who finds the way most children and babies disgusting. It’s sort of a mushroomy, damp smell to me.

    One of the things I like about my partner is that he rarely has any body odor at all, even his feet and other places one would expect odor. That’s true of nearly all my boyfriends. I’m not consciously aware of natural smells.

    I like to wear a particular perfume that I’ve worn for more than 30 years but it’s not a big deal if I forget.

  13. My husband is a professor at a large public university. He has a number of graduate students from other countries … particularly from eastern Europe. He himself is originally from eastern Europe, so he knows that wearing deodorant and dental hygiene are not tops on the list of priorities for some. He always makes a point of privately suggesting to his students that they adopt American habits (like daily bathing, using floss, etc.) if they want to succeed in this country. Many of these students will be interviewing for competitive jobs in the U.S. and will be at a disadvantage if they show up and offend the interviewer with their body odor. If you’re too embarrassed to say something to someone with a body odor problem, you could always send an anonymous email from a site like – your recipient will never know it came from you.

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