Tuesday, July 3, 2007


I spend way too much time thinking about my armpits.

I can't wear deodorant. Well, I can and sometimes do. I put some on this morning, which is why I'm thinking about this. I shouldn't wear deodorant, because my armpits break out in a painful rash that can take weeks, even months, to heal. This only started happening a few years ago, and it conveniently coincided with a general relaxation of my attitude about my appearance and hygiene. I don't care as much as I used to, but I still care too much.

I think my mother introduced me to deodorant before I even had armpit hair, and I remember that terrible feeling those mornings when I realized on the school bus that I'd forgotten to put it on, and worrying all day that someone might smell me.

I used to use antiperspirant when I was performing regularly, and it didn't bother me much. Sometimes I'd get a little itchy, but it seemed worth it -- I can't imagine what my costumes would have smelled like otherwise. I tried switching to Tom's and other "natural" brands, I even tried "the stone," but they were more irritating than the big name brands, so I switched back.

Mitchum was my favorite for a while -- it was so astringent I only had to put it on every 2 or 3 days, which was very nice when we lived on the road and couldn't always take a shower every morning. I can't imagine what that stuff is made of -- glue? Eventually even the brands I'd always used started to irritate me.

When I was cooking for a living in Utah, in a very hot kitchen, I tried again, but I had a severe reaction, the worst ever. (That was the rash that took almost all winter to heal.) It was similar to the breakout on my legs that I got in my twenties and then again a few years ago, bright red blotches that itched so severely I wanted to jump off a bridge.

Doctors never know what things like this are. They call it eczema, which, translated literally, means, "I have no clue."

The first time it happened was in my late twenties in the late eighties. My shins were covered with burning red splotches. I was sure I had AIDS. It would get bad every summer, just in time for shorts weather, and recede in the fall. And then one year it didn't come back. A couple decades later it returned when I was living in Nashville. The free clinic I went to gave me two courses of steroids, which got rid of it.

I could go on about my skin problems, but I'll save it.

I put on deodorant this week because I've been spending the afternoons with a new friend, someone I don't know too well yet, or more to the point, someone who doesn't know me too well yet, and I want to make a good impression. I've been riding my bike to his house and arriving drenched with sweat. Sometimes I can get away with putting on deodorant for a few days. My skin doesn't break out right away; it's a cumulative reaction.

Going without deodorant is like becoming a vegetarian. No matter your reasons, lots of people will assume that it's about politics and that you're doing it just to offend them personally.

I don't have any reason to think this new friend is the kind of person to judge a man by his body odor, but these biases run deep. As comfortable as I am (sometimes) with the fact that I might smell, especially in this muggy weather, I usually have an involuntary negative reaction to another person's body odor. Is this aversion instinctual? A territorial thing? Or am I echoing the disgust my mother expressed whenever she encountered someone who smelled ripe?

However, if it's a man I find attractive, I like the smell. I want the smell. That's another story.

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