Ask Dr. Salvo
September 28, 1993
Dear Dr. Salvo,
The other day I saw a commercial on anti-perspirant in which two thin layers of what appear to be petroleum jelly were put on a hot grill. The voice in the commercial touted his brand of anti-perspirant is superior to his competitor because it did not crack or crumble under heat. I presume the hot grill is used to simulate body-heat, and since the petroleum jelly did not break down, it is effective in sealing the sweat pores to prevent perspiration. Being an extraterrestrial, I am puzzled by America's preoccupation with something that is very natural. I do remember reading one of your past columns in which you discuss the concern of maintaining "regularity" to the act of excreting when humans were living in caves. So, does the fear of sweating have an origin as far back?
Thanks for your query of September the something -- I realize dates are not very important in your galaxy, but feel flattered that you still take a benevolent interest in us earthlings. I have also taken an increasing interest in your part of the Universe lately, as I read the almost daily reports of pollution of our air and water, destruction of our forests and oceans. Since we set aside the quick fix of the hydrogen bomb to vacate the earth, we seem to have chosen slow poison(s), meanwhile reproducing as fast as we can. This makes me suspect our unconscious plan is to ruin the earth but allow a few toxic, ragged colonies to move out and try it on some other planets.
With such sombre considerations as a background, your questions come as comic relief. You came to the right man to ask about anti-perspirants and odor-phobia. I was there in the 1930's when it began, or at least became obvious. There was a large pink, heavy bar of soap named "Lifebuoy," that was heavily advertised on radio. Out of nowhere we'd suddenly hear a fog horn bellowing, "B-O! B-O!" Then a few quick words suggesting that this product could save your life, at least from drowning in a heavy fog at sea. For some unaccountable reason this clumsy approach had the effect of greatly increasing the sale of soap -- and presumably all the faithful customers began smelling better. Pretty soon the picture ads for Lifebouy included suggestive erotic elements. Those men who felt timid about closeness with girls now had a new fear: They might not smell good!
This tapped into a primeval fear, or at least a common delusion of our time: Many paranoid people imagine that they smell offensive in some way, and no amount of persuasion can change their conviction. Now all these olfactory offenders had official proof of their obsession.
By the '40s, soap wasn't enough to quell the rising tide of body odor, and the advertisers began pushing "deodorants" such as MUM. Later liquid form, sticks and roll-ons of deodorant had their day. A subtle shift occurred, viz., BRUT. The latest deodorants are antiperspirants, all right, but no longer offer to cancel out odor. Instead, they neutralize the natural but presumably offensive underarm odor and replace it with an odor to make you smell like a MAN! A BRUT, macho man -- and we're in danger of arriving full circle at Pithecanthropus erectus, a man who cares not how he smells.
You may note that I have said nothing about women and their antiperspirants. I suggest that the prevailing view of women in the 30's was that they certainly did not sweat, and probably did not perspire. They were also expected already to be using plenty of perfume and toilet water, and to smell good at all times. Only after the nationwide campaign to eradicate mansmell succeeded, did it occur to the advertisers that women too were subject to social anxiety and phobias. They too could be intimidated and made subject to suggestion about their smell. "Feminine hygiene" was on its way, with new threats. At some point -- I'd guess the post war 40's -- the advertisements in women's magazines began to advocate the shaving of women's legs and axillae. With this began a ceaseless war against woman's natural curves, and the ideal woman began to look like a tubercular model in the New Yorker. The Petty Girls, as airbrushed onto the pages of Esquire, were the male's last protest against the de-Venusization of woman. Right now the Twiggies and Giacometti's are still in charge of the fashion scene, and upon these scarecrows their ephebic designers hang old oversized slacks and jackets from the men's clothing rack.
Correct me, E.T., if I am wrong: I believe a brilliant extra terrestrial from Tau Centauri world look at all this tyrannical olfactory repression and label it as a highly sophisticated effort to reduce the world's population pressure. The sexual scents or pheromones that are being eradicated have served for millions of years as powerful stimulants to mating and procreation. Some female moths, for instance, can pick up the male's scent at one part in several millions and fly twenty miles to mate with the source.
Odor, as part of gustatory sensation, or taste, also has a similar power over time. Those of you who fancy winners of the Cannes Film Festival are no doubt drawn to writers like Marcel Proust. He suffered so with the gift of total recall that he felt obliged to inflict it on his readers. And, to spend 20, 30, or 40 years stopped up in a cork lined room, to avoid hearing his mother's voice, screen out traffic sounds, and facilitate recall. "Rememberance of Things Past" was the book, and he claimed that the whole extraordinary project was foisted upon him by the taste of a madeleine he ate with his tea one innocent day. The madeleine is a small french cookie not known to be otherwise harmful to man.
Back to the repulsive ad about the petroleum jelly deodorant/antiperspirant: This very weekend I learned from a book on the history of chemistry, that the earliest form of perfume was made by layering purified animal fat (lard?) with strata of fragrant blossom. Then the tallow or fat was rolled into a cone which the wearer would perch upon the top of his/her head, (flat side down, boys). The body heat, and the climate of Egypt 5,000 years ago, sufficed to melt the cones. Shiny little rivulets of oil would run down over the hair, head, eyes, ears, etc. and release a divine fragrance. One must suffer, to be beautiful.
The oddest response to bodily scent was expressed by a patient of mine about 35 years ago. He was a physicist for Westinghouse, an odd duck, a bit cranky in his bachelor ways, and an excellent physicist. He came into my office one day proudly announcing he had quit smoking. I was glad too, since he was a chain smoker, and I congratulated him for quitting.
About a month later he admitted he had resumed smoking "because of other people." This turned out to signify that the odors emitted by other people made it necessary to smoke in order to drown them out. We dug and dug but were unsuccessful in analyzing this symptom; it is the only case I've heard of. With more and more toxic substances polluting the air perhaps more people will smoke in order to have a choice of inhalants. "Name your poison."
E.T., my associate in research, Tim, reminds me to tell you the mushrooms are all over the Eastern Shore, twenty or more varieties. The tube top mushroom, or bolete, is in the ascendancy, and the poison Amanitas are not far behind. And yet, on a trip to Montgomery we saw none!
--September 28, 1993