There’s a scene from Mad Men that I think about a lot. Peggy Olson, the young copywriter, is confidently delivering a pitch to an important client. The client licks his teeth at her in what she reads as a crude but ignorable gesture. The meeting ends successfully, she smiles at her colleagues and is told matter-of-factly that she has lipstick on her teeth. Her colleague, a man she’d argued with earlier, had deliberately not told her in order to humiliate her. A small disrespect in the context of 1960s ad agencies but one that still stings.
There is something incredibly humiliating not only about being marked by something embarrassing but in being blissfully unaware of it, especially if you’re a woman. Spinach in your teeth, toilet paper on your shoe, visible snot in your nostril or – if you're really unlucky – menstrual blood on the back of your skirt. For the most part, I genuinely do not care if I find myself at the end of the day with a smear of chocolate on my cheek or if I have sleep in the corner of my eye at 4pm. I’m a human and these things happen to humans. Who cares, mate!
But like Peggy in that conference room, hurriedly rubbing red from her teeth, I feel like I am constantly on the verge of humiliation when it comes to how I smell. In particular, that I would unknowingly smell bad.
For a while we were away from other people and their accompanying scents and during that time became even more acclimatised to our own bodies. This isn’t helped by the fact that you can’t really smell yourself anyway. According to Pamela Dalton, PhD, at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, your olfactory systems are desensitised to your own scent. Even if the scent is clearly bad, the odour receptors in your brain acclimatise and after a while stop sending messages about a lingering scent. And that’s before you take into consideration how COVID-19 has wrecked our senses. Anosmia (loss of smell) is a prominent symptom of the virus and although sufferers' sense of smell should return within a week, there is no guarantee and a significant number of people who were infected, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, continue to have their sense of smell affected.
Until fairly recently I was conscious of, but not too focused on, my scent. To my mind I didn't have a particular scent either way. I am a sweaty person and an oily person but I shower regularly and I feel like post-workout stink is understandable on others when they've clearly just exercised. But in recent years that indifference has morphed into a hyperawareness.
Even if you account for viruses and your own standard scent perception, all sorts of things can affect both how you smell and how you perceive it. Anxiety can change your sweat in a bad way and can alter your smell perception to make benign odours smell worse. So can paranoia, and the fixated thinking common with conditions like OCD or dysmorphia can be smell-specific, too – there are cases of olfactory reference syndrome (ORS), whereby sufferers are so convinced they stink that they cannot leave their homes, despite having no bad scent at all. On top of that, fatigue (brought on by anything from long COVID to malaise to a whole range of chronic illnesses and mental health conditions) can make it harder to wash as often as you once did (even if the change is only minimal). Likewise, not washing as frequently can be a response to trauma or can be tied up in sensory issues.
You’d think that all of this, plus time away from sweaty, sticky crowds, would make people more understanding of the fact that we all have a scent. But the reacquaintance with the scent of humanity, for me at least, has made me significantly more self-conscious about it.
The fear of smelling bad to other people doesn’t just rest in your own head. The fear comes from how other people will interpret it: you are lazy and you don’t take care of yourself. You are disgusting and, especially if you are read as a woman, failing to live up to gendered expectations. To be a sweaty, greasy woman is unfeminine and only acceptable in contexts that can be linked to desirability – either changing or 'improving' your body by working out, or in sexual scenarios. Sweaty foreheads in a meeting or sticky pits on the bus need not apply. And tied up in this is an assumed foolishness: either you know you don’t smell 'right' and aren’t ashamed of it (which is something women should reject) or you don’t know and are therefore an idiot for not realising who should be taken down a peg.
After decades of marketing of soaps, salves, toothpastes and creams that promote cleanliness alongside smelling good, it’s no wonder we have such clear delineations between 'good' and 'bad' people based on how they smell. The fear, for me at least, is ultimately being unable to control how people see me and that, without knowing it, I could be repelling people.
But human beings have a smell! We all do. And that is not a bad smell that necessarily needs to be masked by perfume or vigorously washed away three times a day.
The solution to this problem isn’t to wash constantly, at least not for me. That is my impulse but I can tell you now, as someone with a history of OCD, that behaviour like that can quickly lead you into desperately anxious territory, where the scale of what is acceptable gets worse and worse.
Nor is the solution to reject hygiene and embrace the stink. Human beings smell, yes, but there’s a reason certain scents repel us. Maintaining basic hygiene is important for yourself and for others.
Beating yourself up over pit stains in the summer or repeatedly sniffing your hair because it’s been two days since you showered is a waste of time and energy. The way you smell is not a rejection of womanhood or a sign of laziness or ignorance. Smelling bad one day is not a moral failing. Worrying that you do takes up valuable time that you could spend living your life, maybe even having the kind of fun that makes sweating worth it.