I have a pretty sensitive nose, as noses go. This is bad news for someone who lives in New York City, a city where you are living with lots of other people. It seems that as population increases, so does the potential for malodorousness. Ask any New Yorker, and they’ll tell you that the city smells awful all summer because the heat just kind of cooks all the garbage and other stinky stuff. The rest of the year is better, but only marginally. And what can you really do? Like many things in New York (like crowded sidewalks, crowded subways, crowded buses, crowded restaurants…) you just have to accept it. If you’re me, you try to either hold your breath, or at least your nose, and move on.
I’m embarrassed to admit that lately, I’ve been worried that I may be contributing to the smell. It’s not because I don’t bathe (I sometimes take two showers a day, depending on the time of day I choose for a run), and it’s not because I don’t use soap or body wash, and it’s not because I don’t wear deodorant. It’s because I run.
As anyone who works out a few times a week can attest, sweaty laundry builds up fast. And even though I’ve never done a formal poll, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who wears some articles more than once before washing them. I only have two pairs of running capris, for example, so depending on the weather I might end up wearing both pairs twice before putting them in the laundry. I do this with shirts, too. And pullovers. The only things I won’t wear more than once before a wash are socks, sports bras, and underwear.
There’s a problem, though: after I’ve worn something once, it STINKS. I don’t know how my body does it, and I don’t have this problem with my non-running clothes, but man–when I pull on a shirt that I’ve already worn on a run, I sometimes have to hold my nose! And if the smell is that bad for me, I can only wonder what it must be like for other people to have to experience it.
Part of me is embarrassed about this. I’ve had to wear stinky running clothes on group runs and wondered if my running mates could smell me. And if they could, what would I say? Or would I just pretend they were crazy and imagining the smell? Another part of me, though, is sort of oddly fascinated by the whole thing because of how ripe it is (haha, see what I did there) for questioning. I mean, in reality, no one would say anything because saying something would be a weird violation of this etiquette that has sort of quietly established itself when it comes to things related to our bodies and their odors. But in being the one who stinks, why am I not the one who has violated the etiquette of odor? When someone smells, why do we hesitate to say anything? We can openly complain about how much New York stinks when it’s hot out, but chances are no one in their right mind is going to say the same about one of the people in their running group (at least not in front of them). My suspicion is that this is because of how intimately smell is related to our bodies; however, I find it interesting and somewhat odd that our attitude toward what is appropriate and what isn’t when it comes to experiencing another person’s body in an olfactory way would be so different from doing so visually. I mean, it seems to be understood (again through some quietly established form of etiquette) that our bodies are on display for everyone who is going to be seeing them. This is true whether we want it to be or not, and in most cases it means that we dress them up and hope that people like them. And often, when people don’t like them, they don’t really waste time letting us know. Going out into the world is like signing a contract that tells everyone we’re open to public scrutiny (for the record, I don’t think this is fair, but I do think it’s the way bodies are treated in society). Similarly, we try to mask the way our bodies smell with perfume, deodorant, and soap. But when we fail at this, everyone just sort of turns the other nostril.
It’s possible (probable?) that I’m digging a bit too deep here, but this question of smell vs. sight has been on my mind for a while. What do you think? Are they really handled differently, or are people more critical of smell than I am accounting for?