Each individual has a unique blend of body odours. Recent studies have indicated that, even in the relatively deodorized culture of the modern West, most people can recognize the characteristic body odour of close relatives. Parents, for instance, are able, by smell alone, to correctly pick out shirts worn by their children. From a biological standpoint, human body odours probably played an evolutionary role in self and group identification, in regulating reproductive cycles, and in sexual attraction.
Historically, body odours have been a subject of considerable social concern. Among the questions Aristotle pondered in his Problemata was ‘Why does the armpit have a more unpleasant odour than any other part of the body?’ In order to rid their bodies of odours, the peoples of antiquity cleaned themselves regularly with water and/or oil. The public baths of ancient Rome testify to the popularity of frequent bathing.
The inhabitants of the ancient world further restricted the production of body odours by removing hair (which encourages the growth of bacteria) from their underarms. Hairy, odorous armpits were considered the mark of an uncouth rustic. The breath, in turn, was made fragrant by chewing on aromatic herbs or perfumed candies. While many people undoubtedly attempted to mask body odours with perfume, this practice was widely scorned. Another of the questions raised by Aristotle was: ‘Why is it that those who have a rank odour are more unpleasant when they anoint themselves with unguents?’
Body odours, however, were not always considered unpleasant in antiquity. The Roman epigrammatist, Martial, romanticized the fragrance of a kiss as ‘the scent of grass which a sheep has just cropped; the odour of myrtle, of the Arab spice-gatherer’.
Significant changes in attitudes towards body cleanliness and odours occurred with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Germanic tribes which invaded the empire tended to eschew baths and perfumes, and therefore — at least according to the Romans — emitted very powerful body odours. The early Christians, in turn, were critical of baths and perfumes due to their association with sensuality and worldliness. A dirty, uncared-for body, by contrast, seemed to many Christians to indicate a preoccupation with matters of the spirit, rather than the flesh.
According to Christian belief, nonetheless, even a dirty body would exhale a pleasant fragrance if the soul which inhabited it was one of particular holiness. This ‘odour of sanctity’ was considered to be due to the presence of the divinely fragrant Holy Spirit within the body. In Christian culture, therefore, corporeal fragrance was not, or should not be, an indication of good grooming but of good morality.
The opposite of the odour of sanctity was the stench of sin, a foul odour thought to be exhaled by corrupt, sinful souls. It was said of certain saints that they had the ability to sniff out the virtues and sins of their fellows according to the odours they emitted. As with the odour of sanctity, the stench of sin was believed to be particularly noticeable when the soul left the body at the time of death.
In the Middle Ages bathing was restricted not only due to considerations of morality, but because of a concern that it led to illness. By removing the body's coating of dirt and oil, and by softening the skin, bathing was thought to weaken the body's resistance to disease. Strong body odours, furthermore, were considered to provide a certain protection against illness by warding off pathogenic odours. Thus, even if stale body odours were disliked, it was dangerous to attempt to eliminate them.
Up until the late eighteenth century, washing was usually restricted to the hands and the face. Otherwise a scented cloth might be used to cleanse the body of dirt and odour. Hair was similarly cleaned by being rubbed with scented powders. On those rare occasions when the body was bathed, special precautions were deemed necessary to avoid any ill effects from the procedure. For example, the body might first be anointed with oil to prevent water from seeping through the skin.
The peoples of the pre-modern West were preoccupied not only with the odours of the living body, but also with the odours of death. These last were deemed both unpleasant and also potentially harmful, as the odours of decomposition were held to induce illness in the living. The means taken to prevent or disguise such odours included embalming, censing, and perfuming the body. Cemeteries, with their concentration of corpses, were considered particularly dangerous sites of olfactory contagion.
The subject of contagion by body odours — whether of the living or the dead — was of particular concern to the sanitary reformers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The British physician Hector Gavin, for example, wrote that he found the air in the homes of the poor ‘so saturated with putrescent exhalations, that to breathe it was to inhale a dangerous, perhaps fatal, poison’. Previously, ‘healthy’ body odours had been believed to protect against disease. Now virtually all body odours were suspected of being pathogenic.
In the late nineteenth century this notion was dispelled by a new scientific paradigm which held that germs, rather than odours, caused disease. Nonetheless, the campaign to cleanse the body of dirt and ill odours continued, as these became closely associated both with disease-causing germs and with an ‘unclean’, immoral lifestyle. According to the new morality, cleanliness, far from being a sign of a sinful preoccupation with the flesh, was next to godliness.
The primary interest which the scientific community of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had in body odours lay in how such odours might constitute a means of differentiating among people, and how they might affect sexual behaviour. Thus attempts were made to chart the characteristic odours of peoples of different ethnicities, and to document instances of an attractive role of body odours in interaction between the sexes. Many of these enquiries were based on anecdotal evidence and coloured by popular prejudices. The customary conclusion was that body odour was stronger among non-Europeans than among Europeans, and played a more important role in sexual behaviour.
Reputed differences in body odour, in fact, had long served to express and enforce social divisions. It was usually the case that all peoples marginalized from mainstream society, whether because of their ethnicity, class, or gender, were associated with ill odours. ‘Foreigners’, for example, are often typecast as having a ‘foreign’ — and therefore undesirable — body odour. In the 1930s George Orwell wrote that ‘the real secret of class distinctions in the West’ consisted in the belief that ‘the lower classes smell’. Orwell also pointed out that this belief gave members of the middle and upper classes a sense of actual physical revulsion towards the working class, which helped to maintain class differences.
As regards gender, women have traditionally been considered more odorous than men, either more foul or more fragrant, and sometimes more fragrant due to attempts to perfume their allegedly inherent foulness. The ancient association of women with malodour is due both to their production of odorous menstrual blood and to the (masculine) perception of women as dangerous, corruptive elements in society. The association of women with fragrance, in turn, comes from the characterization of women as attractive (to men) and from romanticized notions of women's sweetness and purity. The customary use of perfumes by women worked to strengthen this association of women with fragrance.
The attitude towards body odours in twentieth-century culture was distinguished by a heightened consciousness about bad body odours or, indeed, any body odours, as virtually all odours naturally emanating from the body came to be typified as unpleasant. The term body odour, euphemized as ‘BO’, refers exclusively to foul body odours in its general usage. This attitude has in large part been shaped by intensive advertising campaigns produced by the marketers of soaps, underarm deodorants and mouthwashes. Such campaigns have played on people's fears of social rejection due to invisible forces of which they are unaware. During the Depression years, for example, soap ads warned people: ‘Don't risk your job by offending with BO.’ While there have been reactions against the stigmatization of all body odours as unpleasant, the naturally odorous body is still the subject of ambivalence and embarrassment.
Relatively little research was undertaken on human body odours in the late twentieth century. This was due to the ambivalence concerning such odours mentioned above and to the low status of the sense of smell in general in modernity. Most of the research which has been undertaken has centred on how human body odours might subliminally affect social behaviour, and on how people might be able to make distinctions of gender, age, and kinship through smelling such odours. Body odours thus remain something of an enigma in contemporary society.
Classen, C.,, Howes, D.,, and and Synnott, A. (1994). Aroma: the cultural history of smell. Routledge, London.
Schaal, B. and and Porter, R. H. (1991). ‘Microsmatic humans’ revisited: the generation and perception of chemical signals. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 20, 135–99.
See also halitosis; hygiene; pheromones; sweating.
"body odours." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/body-odours
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