I've wanted to write something addressing the cultural norms we have around activity and body odor for some time, but I've veered off from it, probably because the topic feels so taboo. I sort of expect the reaction to this article to be mostly negative: a collective "Oh, I figured he'd think that." Or perhaps a few accolades of approval, but from the quarters of society that are already kind of on the fringes (with me). But onward, I charge! When else have I let a concern for public opinion affect anything written here?
You may or may not believe this if you've sat next to me during a meeting (haha!), but I'm among that most fastidious window of people who shower and change their clothes many times a day (in the winter, it's at least twice; summertime is more like three to four times a day). When I get to work in the morning, the first thing I do after putting my bike away is to go to a private bathroom and undress, washing in the sink like a homeless person lest I offend someone from the general pool of employees who haven't been on a bike since childhood.
Like my home, my work is un-air conditioned, which means that this effort is really just to stem back the tide of sweat.
I work with middle school students, which means on the one hand I'm very lucky to work with adults who mostly are out-of-sight out-of-mind throughout the day. Teachers tend towards the progressive end of the spectrum, so though most of the time I merely pass to talk with a coworker in the hallway, even during larger occasions the conversation about biking is more positive than negative. There's a (completely undeserved) reverence for me biking four miles to work, which (sadly, for now) is completely countercultural and foreign to the vast majority of people I work with.
Nonetheless, the students themselves are merciless, especially beyond seventh grade. Odd though it is, I think middle school students are a kind of canary in the mine. They show us the unpolished views that the culture at large sells itself. Those of us who are lucky enough to go off to college and be among slash-jeaned professors and hipsters may have more libertine views of public presentation, but in middle school you're actually seeing a fairly full cross-section of opinion. And that opinion is manufactured consent of the first order: it may be true that we have a general expectation species-wide for cleanliness, but middle- and high-school students are ground zero for a culture war that is all about television and internet advertisements. These kids have harsh views, and those views are turned inwards and outwards, all at once.
It's not just about exercise. American culture at large is incredibly finicky, as demonstrated through the unpolished realities of my students. For middle school students, any scent is a sign for alarm. A whiff of curry from an unfortunate teacher's lunch? This may cause a fifteen minute strike, during which students refuse to enter the room until a copious (and rather noxious) amount of chemical spray is cascaded into the air. A bit of roasted cauliflower, or perhaps even the wrong type of garlic tomato sauce on something as banal as spaghetti? We're in for it! Body odor is almost beyond the point.
I'm not making a full-on appeal for slovenliness, but in general I think we need to make realism about presentation a part of cultural change.
We're used to air conditioning. In my view, this is something New England is going to have to ween itself off of (the reason people used to vacation here, in fact, was because New England was considered moderate and comfortable in summertime--which frankly, climate change notwithstanding, it still is). It's actually not that hot here. But it is hot enough that people sweat a bit, and we should re-accustom ourselves with the idea that sweat is a part of life, to be managed rather than eradicated.
We're used to being chauffeured everywhere in little autonomous vehicles--also air conditioned--and to be able to park where we wish within two feet of our destination. That is something we cannot count on.
Increasingly, we cannot count on the idea that the climate itself will be comfortable. But that, in turn, is caused by our attempts to pretend that there is no weather at all around us.
For that matter, though I certainly make the effort when I feel I must, the appliances that we know use the most energy in our homes are those dealing with heat: dryers, irons, and such. I'm open to the idea that I should iron my shirt for a funeral or a wedding, but basically most things outside of that window are totally ridiculous to me. In practice, I know what I've got to do to get along and I do it. But we're in trouble if the only way we can envision adaptation is through new technologies. Some of what we have to do is just be simple: hang our laundry, and don't iron it.
I know that people are excited at the idea that every place should have a shower room ready for its biking employees. I think to some extent this is something that will happen, but I also think that a greater extent it's a pipe dream. When we get to a point that 30-50% of employees are biking to work, and that a good bit of the balance is taken by walking either directly to work or to work through the intermediary of transit, we reach a point where everyone is going to want a shower in a tiny window of arrival time, at great expense (in terms of plumbing, not the water itself). Can we really expect this? My school has one bubbler that works properly (maybe a few others that can be counted on occasionally), and yet we're expecting the school district to take on new plumbing systems to provide for this?
And I think of the way that cycling countries deal with work arrivals. It seems to me that the benefit of good cycling cultures is that one can arrive in a suit on one's bike. I assume this means that people are somewhat attuned to the idea that the be-suited person may have a bead (or two) of sweat on their lapels?
In the end, what I'm arguing for is not a return to filth. European cultures, in particular, were once known for their complete disregard for personal hygiene, and many of the steps we've taken away from that attitude (flossing, brushing our teeth, showering, washing hands, and so on) are vital to our culture. But we can also take a good thing to far. At the outset of this essay, I think I admitted that I'm rather a bit more concerned with cleanliness than most. But it seems to me that our culture's attitude towards this, like it's attitude towards just about every other thing, is based on a finite situation in which we have an unusual grasp of resources to pretend we don't live in a real world. When reality comes crashing down again, it's going to be an adjustment.