Stink And Stinkier

The American obsession with cleanliness.

My husband once told me a childhood story that, for better or worse, is permanently seared into my neural pathways.

When he was around 10, his two best friends were identical twin brothers (we’ll call them Stink and Stinkier). The pair had the utterly bizarre quirk of running home to change if they passed noticeable gas. Not just their underwear, but their entire outfits. Immediately. Was it because something mistakenly came out? Was it because they believed the scent from their fluff had left an indelible mark on their bottoms and transferred to their clothing? Or, just possibly, was this an unfortunate case of parental shaming?

We’ll never know for certain, but Stink and Stinkier are far from unique when it comes to our society’s extreme compulsion to smell “good.” It’s more than just cleanliness; this is aggressive de-scenting. Supermarkets and box stores proffer many ways for humans to strip themselves of indigenous odors on our persons and in our environments: Lysol wet-naps to clean cart handles, anti-bacterial hand cleansers in every imaginable dispenser tool to scare off bacteria, flushable wipes to improve upon toilet paper, antiperspirant to transform us into cucumber mints and peach cobbler breezes, Axe to manifest chick magnet glory (make that delusion) for teen boys.

We shower more than anyone anywhere, we wash our clothing after just one wear, and we slather a multitude of scents on our body, from shampoo to conditioner to lotion to perfume to deodorant – anything, in fact, but au naturel.

Bromidrophobia, or fear of body odors, is relatively common in modern society. says of it: “Today’s emphasis on cleanliness has led to the belief that bodily scents are dirty or taboo. This can lead to an unhealthy obsession with ensuring that our regular odors are removed or masked.”

Run a quick Google search of Bromidrophobia, and you’ll see stories of people washing their hands until they’re raw, showering three or more times a day and yes, cleaning their clothes just as often. Bromidrophobia can also refer to a fear of others’ body odors creeping up on us when we sit close on public transportation or even (gulp), the next TED talk you attend. Stink and Stinkier, indeed.

According to Vadim Bolshakov, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, our need to wash away scent is actually taking away our ability to tell others (without opening our mouths), that we are having a response to them.

Bolshakov wrote in her proposal for an MIT installation that, “In the West, smell is thought of in ‘aesthetic terms – pleasant or unpleasant,’ whereas in other cultures, body smell is an important personal defining feature. Since our representations of the world are most of the time scentless, this indeed reinforces the social drive for deodorization of the world.”

But what are the consequences for our need to be clean? In terms of clothing, this means an exorbitant over-usage of water and the wasted time to do overwhelming amounts of laundry, not to mention fueling obsessive compulsive behavior – and consumption of products to “fix” it all.

Kelly Drennan of Fashion Takes Action writes in a recent EcoSalon article: “The average North American household washes 400 loads of laundry per year. This accumulated number of washes requires 13,500 gallons of water to complete, and is equivalent to how much water it takes to fill a standard above-ground pool.”

And what of that “extra cleaning power” you often see advertised in laundry detergent? Those cleaners often come with a potent chemical cocktail that is not only harmful to groundwater but to your body, emitting a carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting additive so that you can combat the scent of the low-rent restaurant you were just dining in or, yes, the gas you just passed. With our socially-approved penchant for washing items after just one wear, you have to wonder what all this lather is doing to our bodies and brains.

And then there’s the other fabric taking on entirely too much sulfate: the social fabric. Being squeaky clean means more than a health and ecological hit. It may also interfere with our ability to select appropriate mates, or sniff out trustworthy friends, or sense danger, say evolutionary biologists. So ask yourself: when was the last time you stopped and smelled the Joneses?

Images: Sean Rogers1, Prayitno, jbcurio


Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.