We were in high school, a group of us, who found ourselves – as a group – vacating our spot at the table whenever Mina arrived. Rude? Yes. But this girl SMELLED. Whatever appetite we had when we arrived quickly dissipated every time Mina appeared. Her stench was so bad, we wondered if she slept in a sewer.
One day, knowing she was soon to arrive, we quickly concocted a plan to tell her, nicely, that her malodor was killing us. But when it came time to choosing who would do the telling, nobody stepped forward. So we took the coward’s way out, wrote her a note, and left it on the table. It said simply, “Brush your teeth, take a shower, and wear deodorant.”
Since that day, nearly half a century ago, I have come across people who needed the benefit of that note, and not just because they smelled of body odor, but because they reeked of perfume.
At a community function where people passed around business cards as a way to garner more business, for instance, I met Mr. Smelly Man. I imagined him bathing in a huge tub filled with cheap cologne. For showers, he probably attached a tube from the bottle to his showerhead. And after he toweled off with a wipe sprayed with the same offending and overwhelming rankness, he sprayed what was left from the bottle all over his body, his clothes, his head, and probably his armpits. A heavy investor in Crappy Cologne, he walked the room with clouds of acrid incense whiffing around him.
Body language from other attendees showed me I was not the only one whose lungs were collapsing. Perhaps he had an inordinate fear of offending people with his body odor and overcompensated by drenching his body in the skunk oil. But he never noticed people widening their berths as he made his way through the crowds.
Other rancid offenders consume massive quantities of garlic cloves with each meal in an attempt to ward off viruses. I’m sure their philosophy functions well, because people stand as far away as is humanly possible for fear of getting too close to garlic oozers. People who share washroom facilities with these garlic guzzlers know when offenders are in the building whether they’ve seen them or not.
Unlike animals that use their sense of smell to detect predators, find food, and locate potential mates, the human sense of smell seems to be less defined. But researchers have been nosing around the science of scent for years and in the last decade have made some amazing strides.
Researchers Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck, who won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, embarked on the mysteries of the olfactory system more than a decade before they breathed validity into what previously had been just nosy investigation.
From various receptors in the brain, Axel and Buck discovered a family of approximately 1,000 genes lined in the nasal cavity that send messages directly to the olfactory bulb of the brain.
Located in the front of the brain, this bulb receives messages when an odor excites a neuron. The odor signals are then relayed to the brain’s higher cortex where thoughts are processed and then onto the limbic system where emotions dwell. Fragrances and odors that activate this region of the brain, when combined with pheromones (chemicals in the body that stimulate reactions) and hormones, cause us to respond with approval or repugnance, depending on our emotional reaction to them.
Because emotions apply significance to fragrances, good memories are sometimes activated from foul odors. My aunts filled their closets with mothballs. While I don’t particularly care for the smell of mothballs, I loved my aunts, and the scent of mothballs brings to mind fond memories. Onion fields remind me of my first real home, because when I was five, we moved from Chicago to one of its suburbs which was within smelling distance of onion fields.
Memories that surface suddenly with no apparent reason may be aroused because of scent. Amorous affection for one person who wore a particular fragrance will remain within the sensory memory until the next time the individual who relates to it senses it again.
But scent memory can also be so completely embedded within the subconscious that any negativity associated with a particular smell will trigger emotional recognition and response. Children who have been abused, for example, can relive the horror of their abuse simply by being exposed to the scent of their abusers. The brain might not remember in consciousness, but it will remember in sub-consciousness.
Some people are aware of their own noisomeness. Asthma patients, for instance, often suffer from halitosis because the lungs expel a particularly foul odor. The smell of death permeates cancer patients who receive chemotherapy and/or radiation. People can smell the dying cells.
So how do we express our distaste of somebody else’s preference for personal hygiene? We could be abrasive and ask, “What type of deodorant don’t you wear?” Or we can be empathetic. Consider how you might feel if your body odor or breath were offending somebody. By offering gum or mints, you alert a halitosis victim without embarrassing him. Purchasing pink grapefruit body wash and wrapping it up with a friendly note saying, “I use this and I thought you might like it” lets your friend know you care about her without overtly offending her.
Better to be polite and offer help than to ignore the problem and think it will go away. Like walking around with spinach in your teeth, because nobody wants to hurt your feelings, smelling like a sewer without being told is equally painful. Wouldn’t you want to know?