Hairless Bodies, Stankless Pits: An American Story

Illustration for article titled Hairless Bodies, Stankless Pits: An American Story

Today, The New York Times examines the history of the American desire to eliminate armpit stank, and whether the $2.3 billion (!!!) a year that Americans spend trying to eliminate the possibility of smelling like, well, themselves, is money well-spent. The consensus among armpit scientists: probably not, but we're all too scared of what other people think to stop!


Just to back that up, writer Anna Jane Grossman also got 3 guinea pigs to try to stop using it to check if people would notice. Nobody did, but only one person (an artist, of course) made it more than a couple of days without caving to the overwhelming sense that using these products (and being nearly sweatless and odorless) is expected of us. She tracks this all back to the turn of the last century, when advertisers convinced immigrants to start using it to smell more homogenous to fit into American society — because what America needs today is obviously more homogeneity.

Great job, advertisers!

As anyone who has ever lived or studied abroad in Europe might have noticed, they've not as overwhelmingly bought into this whole idea. In fact, many of them think the main component in antiperspirants (aluminum) might cause cancer (although, our National Cancer Institute, an arm of the FDA, says it doesn't, so I feel better). Of course, they're also generally more comfortable with body hair and the natural aging process and stuff — this insistence that we all look, feel and smell as close to Barbie and Ken as possible seems to be a uniquely American fetish.

(Speaking of fetishes, I strongly recommend no one Google image search "armpit" or "smelly armpit" with the Safe Search function off. Apparently the social stigma against hairy, smelly pits... well, you can probably imagine for yourself what kind of kink that inspires).

As for me, some days I am either too tired or too hung over to remember to use deodorant and (as long as I'm not additionally too hung over to shower and have relatively recently shaved) it isn't the sort of thing I remember because I catch a whiff, because there's no whiff to catch. On the other hand, I currently have no less than 5 antiperspirants on my dresser (they all smell differently people!), so I'm obviously a slave to the advertising gods' will, too. I've also noticed that using really strong ones have on the rare occasion yellowed my pits (I have very fair skin, so it's really obvious) and that freaked me out a bunch. I can't say that I'm not sure my European friends are right on this — a little soap, a little powder and a little perfume and I might be just as well off in terms of B.O. And maybe better off in terms of letting my body do what it's supposed to do. But, now that I've written all that, I'm suppressing the urge to sniff my own pits because that's why peer pressure sucks.

(Yes, I just caved. They smell fine.)

Cast Aside Underarm Protection, if You Dare [NY Times]
Putting the Shower to the Test (and the Nose on Alert) [NY Times]
Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer: Questions and Answers [National Cancer Institute]



Hmm. The partner and I are American, and neither of us ever wear antipersperants or deodorants. I know my pits don't smell because I've actually made most people I've gone out with smell them at one point or another and never got a single complaint. And I know my partner's never stink because I like putting my face in them (he has really long, silky armpit hair that I'm very fond of). We speculate that we may be particularly un-sweaty because we're Asian Americans.

But I think it's also a whole lot of excessive cultural conditioning. I have a feeling that the overwhelming majority of people will smell just fine without deodorants if they just shower every day. Then again, I'm the type of person who eschews many, many things that most American women consider absolutely essential (I rarely wear makeup or get haircuts and NEVER shave my legs, pluck my eyebrows, wax any part of my body, blow dry my hair, use any hair product, get facials, or get mani/pedicures). It's not because I'm a granola type (3" stilettos and dresses to work every day is more my style), but because I think all these rituals involve a tremendous amount of effort for mostly negligible results. I'm always kind of amazed at Jezebel posts that are beauty related when the majority of posters chime in and say that some ritual I consider useless is absolutely essential for them to look "presentable" or "normal".