I was approximately 12 years old when my mother bought me my first stick of deodorant. She gave it to me right before I entered sixth grade, and it was, at the time, the most grown-up product I'd ever owned.
Looking back, I realize that my mother probably tossed a stick of deodorant my way because puberty had brought the joys of b.o. to my life and she didn't want me entering sixth grade as "that girl who stinks," but at the time I thought it was her way of acknowledging that I wasn't a little kid anymore; I was a lady, who needed lady things, you see, like deodorant and a training bra and face wash and such. It didn't matter that I had no breasts or zits to speak of: it was the ownership of these products, the physical reminders that I was entering the realm of the grown-up world, that really mattered.
In today's New York Times, Jan Hoffman explores the world of the youngest Axe deodorant wearers—tween boys—and notes that the deodorant really represents "masculinity in a can," a way for boys to assert their manhood through the smells their female classmates have come to associate with older men. It's not a new phenomenon by any means; when I was in middle school, the stench of Drakkar Noir, often swiped from an older brother's bedroom, wafted down the hallways, and for the most part, we all thought it was totally dreamy until we grew up to associate it with, well, those dudes who still wear Drakkar Noir.
It's easy to scorn Axe deodorant and it's dumbass depictions of masculinity—I do it nearly every weekend, for crying out loud—but there's one line in Hoffman's piece that really broke my heart: when asked by a teacher why he had to wear the scent, a junior high student replied: "I have to have it, Ms. G., because I don't have the money to dress the right way. This is all I can afford." As a can of Axe costs less than $10, it's a way for young men to fit in and give the girls something they supposedly like without breaking the bank.
One of my New Year's resolutions is to be kinder to teenagers: it's way too easy to mock them without taking the two seconds necessary to remember how terrible and scary and complicated life was at that age, not only because of the effects of puberty, but because adults are constantly pointing out how much you have to learn and how far you have to go without really giving you an opportunity to actually learn and or go before they start yelling at you for doing it wrong. My instant reaction to this article was to just write "Teenage Boys Attempt To Stop Smelling Bad By Smelling Worse," which is a bit jerky and rather unfair, and doesn't really take into account the fact that many of us, myself included, doused ourselves in Debbie Gibson-inspired perfumes in order to feel more grown up at the age when being a kid or being an adult both seem somehow impossible.
And though I do find the Axe-ification of masculinity to be troubling, I'd guess that most of these tweens will move past their deodorant obsessions as they mature. Probably. Maybe. Most of us have moved on from our days of Baby Soft and Electric Youth and Malibu Musk, no? I don't think every 11-year-old boy who Axe-ifies is instantly transformed into a misogynistic douche, just as I don't think every 11-year-old girl who puts on a bit of eyeshadow is booking a ticket to Tramp Town. Adolescence is a strange and smelly time: sometimes, you just want the assurance that whenever adulthood does arrive, you'll at least be somewhat prepared. And that you won't be "that girl who stinks." Thanks, Mom.