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Summer Riffs: The Sweat Science

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As summer hits, I must admit a certain fetish for deodorant. There is nothing more pleasing to me than standing that aisle of the grocery store, resolute on finding the one that will finally satiate my desire. My mind races: Do I want anti-bacterial or fresh scented. Oooohhh—the clear stuff. That one has aloe-vera and bacteria fighters. That one conditions—hmmm, I didn’t know my armpits needed conditioning. Isn’t there a clear, fresh scented anti-bacterial, aloe vera that doesn’t condition? Because for some reason, I’ve decided that conditioning is a frill I just don’t need.

While the Puritans preached cleanliness as near-godliness, today’s America insists on taking it a few steps further. Clean ears and neat hair? Well, that man must hold a respectable position with the bank and pay his taxes on time. Fear of rejection has always driven advertising. Veto, a popular deodorant in the 1950s, had an ad that urged women to “double check your charm everyday—you are the very air he breathes.” Men were not immune, and still aren’t. Mennen provides “proof positive” in the form of a leggy blonde—as long as their product is used. The equation for men: buy this stuff—get laid. And with the sweat season arriving, Madison Avenue’s gearing up to stoke the fires of our fixation.

Surprisingly, the hygiene hype seems to have worked. Adweek reported that bath product usage grew by 49 percent between 1988 and 1993, hitting $2.69 billion last year. There is a talc, gel, scrub, moisturizer, spray, mist, splash, conditioner, anti-bacterial, exfoliator, alpha-hydroxy, cleanser, cream, deodorizer, anti-fungal, anti-plaque, anti-gingivitis, whitener, mouthwash, balm and oil for every orifice, armpit and otherwise unacceptably gamy surface of the human frame.

The whole thing may seem obsessive, but it beats being a Puritan. Early settlers in America considered bathing impure because it required nudity. Even as late as 1850, Americans still felt no urgency in practicing cleanliness. Dirt was seen as healthy—it represented life and livelihood. Worse yet, in the pre-Vogue magazine era, standards of cleanliness and fashion were dictated by the wealthy. As luck would have it, fashion said: let them have layers—the more you had on, the more you had in general. Royalty was laden with linens, lambs wool, robes and shirts. And the general public, following the precedent set by their supposed superiors, did the same with what they had.

The finest society ladies sported layers of linens, cottons and silk. Despite the heats, small sachets were filled with rose petals, then placed under the arms and in bloomers with the intention of filtration. Perfumes were also favored as scent deterrents, and nearly all those popular in the ninetieth and early twentieth centuries were derived from the sex glands of animals, such as civet—obtained from a musk gland in the civet cat, with an aura similar to a neglected cat box.

In short, our ancestors stunk. Imagine the greenish-yellow smog hovering over the city of Chicago during the hottest months of the 1893 World’s Fair. Wafts of body odor simmered above the roasting mass of millions. Flower sachets had long since failed a majority of the ladies, and their greatest pleasure would be to remove their soaked corsets and scratch their midsections raw, in protest of the drips of sweat slowly trickling next to their skin throughout the day. And when the opportunity presented itself, the men could no doubt be found sneaking a near-ecstasy-arousing crotch-itch through their woven wool pants and linen undergarments.

So this summer, while I’m stuck in line in a black-top parking lot without a tree or water fountain in sight, I promise to bow my head for a moment of silence and pay the long overdue respect owed my forefathers. I also swear to forgive the miserable soul before me whose deodorant gave out long ago and is now sharing his scent with the world. Obviously, he should have opted for the long-lasting anti-bacterial, with fresh scent. (Marya DeVos)

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