One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Soup of the Day

Slate has an interesting article about human body odour which you will find fascinating. I mean, just have a look at this wheel:

The original, plus the instructive sidebar, is here.

You may have seen such wheels before: they're commonly used to identify components of wine

or commercial fragrances

but I have never seen one for body odour before, because it's not the sort of thing that people generally want to classify: they just mostly want it to be gone, hence the millennia-old art of perfumery.

Still, the BO wheel does answer a question that I've always had, and I certainly do apologize if this is too much information, but here goes. Since I hit puberty I've had to wear deodorant, and I always do. My own ordinary scent is unobjectionable, as far as I know, but my underarms? Something else altogether. If I were to go without deodorant for a couple of days (which I have on rare occasion done as an experiment, and once had to do for a while due to an iatrogenic fungal infection about which the less said the better) but continue to shower daily as I always do, what I end up with at the end of a normal day of normal sweating in the axillary region is a smell that can only be described as chicken-soupy. No kidding, no exaggeration: it smells like chicken soup--salty, fatty, animalic, cooked. It really is the damnedest thing. There are worse things to smell like, but I sure don't want to smell like that, so deodorant/antiperspirant it is.

What a relief, then, to find "chicken broth" on the BO aroma wheel. It's not just me! Other people have a soupy-brothy smell to their apocrine sweat as well! I'm not a freak!

Well, maybe I am, actually. But well within certain parameters.


The "wet dog" odour note interested me, because I've read that (some) black people think that (some) white people who've come in from the rain smell like wet dog. But then, people historically have tended to 1) find that people of other races and cultures do not smell like them and theirs, and 2) think that that difference in smell is a bad thing. (When white travellers first came to Japan, the Japanese were not pleased with the newcomers' odours, partly, no doubt, because a long sea voyage is not conducive to top-flight hygiene, but also because of dietary differences: there are no dairy products in traditional Japanese cuisine, and so one Japanese word for Europeans was "bata-kusai", "stinks of butter".)

Not just other cultures, either. Some vegetarians claim that meat-eaters have a stronger body odour; some of the more militant types say they "smell like death". Whatever. I used to be a vegetarian (for four years), but don't get me started on them.

If you do some poking around the Internet, you can find just about any identifiable group vilified by another group for their scent. I would like to believe that if world society becomes more homogenous, as has been the trend over the last fifty years or so, you'll see less of this sort of thing, not necessarily because we all start to smell alike, but because through broader exposure we just get used to the idea that different groups of people, as well as different individuals, can have varying, normal, bodily odours: different ≠ bad. However, given that men and women still think the other sex smells bad, I don't suppose we'll ever see any progress in that regard.

You can read a lot more of this sort of thing in The Smell Culture Reader, which you can preview here in some detail, thanks to Google Books.


  • Matt - my OH - tells me I smell of digestive biscuits. Can't find dat on da wheel

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:48 PM  

  • Mmmm. Digestive biscuits.

    In the movie "Michael", with John Travolta as a renegade angel, didn't he smell of cookies?

    By Blogger pyramus, at 5:26 PM  

  • ah-ha! I always thought that urine smells like chicken broth. Don't get me started, I guess that's why I don't really like chicken soup . . but it's good to see that it's "called out" on the scent wheel as something that other people have smelled, too.

    By Blogger Isabelle, at 8:42 PM  

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