The not-so-sweet smell of excess

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This week has been an unseasonably warm Indian summer. Good time to talk about body odors.

My dog and I went into an office recently on one of the toniest streets in Milan. The office wasn¹t very posh, but the area is a high-rent district, so I had dressed for the occasion (hair combed, shoes and handbag matched, 18 carats, not my style at all). My dog doesn¹t have to dress up, but still I put her in her most elegant dog harness, color-coordinated with my jewelry.

It was a warm sunny day so I was expecting a whoosh of air conditioning to hit me as I opened the door. And it did. So did a whoosh of B.O. from the well-groomed blonde woman and the well-dressed young man who were at the reception desk. This being Milan, the smell wasn¹t acrid and aggressively offensive — but it was powerful. It made the small reception room seem smaller and stuffier. I felt suffocated by the odor. It was as if the air conditioning had been betrayed by human weakness.

Why is this passing thought relevant? Well, all of us these days are tethered to technology. Some of us may even remember the term “dweebs”. Years ago, during the last days of the tech bubble, the then-International Herald Tribune ran a front-page article discussing folks like dweebs, geeks, nerds, wonks, tekkies and the like. One distinguishing feature of dweebs, according to the writer¹s research, was that they care not for physical appearance nor societally imposed trivia such as daily showers, deodorants or mouthwash. It¹s not that they want to be dirty or smell bad; it¹s that they resist society’s mandates about what constitutes “good” grooming.

Body odor has its place. All dog owners know that, because smell is THE reference point for canine reality. What dogs see doesn’t matter as much as what they smell; the latter shapes their world and dictates their behavior.

In Middle Eastern society, smell is a key factor in interpersonal relations. A baby¹s smell (provided, of course, that it is our own baby) becomes an element in the bonding process. And all of us are aware enough to know that in a sexual context, body odor plays an important role — almost disturbingly so.

That¹s exactly the point. A person¹s own smell (as opposed to the perfume,cologne, mouthwash, or Ivory soap we may apply as an external trapping for societal consumption) is such a private thing, it shouldn¹t be flaunted. A person¹s smell is intensely intimate; it shouldn¹t be held up for indiscriminate public consumption.

I¹m reminded of an incident that occurred in a Milan trattoria several summers ago. I was having dinner there with an American friend and her Italian-born, U.S.-educated husband. A well-dressed, well-groomed, eminently-presentable executive, he had been delayed at his office on this occasion. He rushed into the restaurant almost an hour late, sweating and apologetic. The air conditioning at our table couldn¹t mask the heat of his body . . . or his odor. After more than 10 high-pressure hours on the job, both his Italian cologne and deodorant had given up and what was left was so personal that I turned away, embarrassed. Not because he smelled “bad” but because it was too intimate a revelation for such a public place.

In the same way that corporate attire should serve as a neutral backdrop for the individual, appropriate body smell In the Public Domain should be neutral too. Bottled fragrance may or may not be added, just as a tie or piece of jewelry is used to personalize an outfit. But just as a person shouldn’t walk into a corporation unzipped, one shouldn¹t go to work smelling too intensely of him or herself and expect to be treated with cordial neutrality.

Or do dweebs (or whatever the current term is for them) like the idea of smelling the waiter who serves their meal, the barber who cuts their hair, the grocer who bags their food? Lascia per loro, as they say in Italian. Indian summer notwithstanding, I want personal smells on my time only.

writer, PR professional, mother, dog-lover, traveler. See more at www.paroleanima.com

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