Disgust, Body Shaming, and Gendered Spaces

Disgust, Body Shaming, and Gendered Spaces April 30, 2016
Temple relief from ruins in north-eastern India (Assam).
Temple relief from ruins in north-eastern India (Assam). A photo I took in 2011, which exemplifies how broken I feel now when attempting to do yoga.

This is one of those rare posts about my own experience, filtered through the lens of me being a cultural scholar.

I practice yoga. I’m not very good about it, as I’ve written. But I like having a form of exercise that helps me work on flexibility and counts as self-care. It keeps me breathing, in times when I feel that stress practically suffocates me.

Recently, yoga has become a bit of a fraught experience for me. This is because my preferred form of yoga is hot yoga, or yoga classes that are taught in a heated studio (in order to encourage sweating, which is helpful in shedding toxins, whatever those are). I’m not a hugely sweaty person, so even though I take the proper precautions and layer my special hot yoga towel over my special hot yoga mat, I don’t tend to sweat enough to slip and slide around in a pool of my own sweat and thus risk injury.

So… there’s no nice way to say this, or admit this. I’ve been told twice in the last year that my body odor in my hot yoga class is unpleasant for other students. And now I’ve received a third warning, with some implication that if I don’t comply and somehow fix the problem, I might not be able to stay at my current yoga studio (which, btw, I’m a fan of… the atmosphere is generally chill yet rigorous, as in, teachers are free to drop the F-bomb while guiding us through asanas).

Body shame is a real problem in contemporary American culture. Having just taught a college class called The Body and Society, I’m hyper aware of the ways in which sexual shaming and fat shaming have real health impacts upon various groups of people. Numerous studies have documented, for example, how fat shaming has adverse health outcomes for people who are overweight. I haven’t really delved into the dimension of how smell-shaming might play into the rest of the shame complex, but clearly there’s something going on here.

As a folklore scholar, I’m also attuned to disgust. As Michael Owen Jones states in his article in Journal of Folklore Research “What’s Disgusting, Why, and Why Does It Matter?”: disgust is close to a human universal, though “it appears to be the product of nurture, culture, and cognitive development rather than genetics and instinct” (55). Studies show that certain kinds of disgust, such as food contamination, are learned behaviors. Also, “while bodily waste is generally disgusting, we especially tend to recoil from other individuals’ secretions and wastes, particularly those of strangers” (57).

The concern here is that specific kinds of smells seem to offend, but only in specific contexts. My scholar-brain is fascinated, even while the rest of me is feeling mildly hurt and shamed, and wondering… well, now what?

However, if I may make some observations around whatever sensory experience people seem to be having in my presence during hot yoga classes:

  • Obviously I shower daily. Showering more than once a day isn’t really an option, thanks to me having eczema (which I’ve written about in relation to shame here).
  • Sure, there might be something weird going on with my body chemistry (foot fungus? pheromone-something-or-other?)… but surely I’d have noticed by now, or been notified by an intimate partner (none of whom, by the way, have had negative things to say about my my body odor)
  • Since the purpose of hot yoga is to sweat, it seems a little counter-intuitive to me to shower right before going. I’d consider doing it…but why shower right before getting sweaty during a workout, especially if I’m going to get sweaty enough that I need to come right home and shower afterward?

And that brings me to gendered spaces. The yoga studio I belong to, like many others, is primarily attended by women. And women, according to American culture, are delicate flowers who don’t perspire overly much.

I have to wonder: if I were working out in a more male-dominated space, like if I’d gravitated toward power-lifting instead of hot yoga, would whatever scent I emanate be worth mentioning? Or would it be chalked up to a paradigm of “well, we’re working out pretty hard, so people are gonna sweat”?

This is a good place to mention intersectionality, or how multiple facets of identity intersect and compound one another in terms of oppression, privilege, and/or creativity/expression. Because I live in a somewhat more bourgeois area of my city, I think that might combine with the gendered aspect of the “yoga studio = a pure space” to make it even less acceptable for me to exhibit traits associated with lower-class folks such as having body odor (because that’s not something you have when you don’t have to work menial labor, amirite?). Michael Owen Jones ties disgust back in here, asserting that disgust is about class status too: “it also involves notions of civility and propriety; of differentiating, ranking, and segregating people … A typical moral sentiment is that the people or behaviors we find disgusting have a will to offend” (63).

Finally, I’m not sure how to handle the sorta New Age worldview expressed in this sentiment. Because while the studio I belong to discourages the use of perfumes, in order to respect the needs of folks who are especially scent-sensitive, I’ve totally smelled non-human smells on other people in classes there. Nothing quite so blatant as patchouli, but definitely stuff that smells like upper-end fancy-lady skin-scenty-things.

Now I’m left to wonder: is my transgression that I’m not upper-class or feminine enough? I’m not doing enough to cover my all-too-human scent by pretending that I just don’t sweat or don’t smell?

I understand that some people are sensitive to some smells more than others. Sometimes my allergies act up; sometimes I get awful headaches. There are times when I literally can’t stand to be around certain odors. But when I’m in that space, enforcing it is on me, not on anyone who’s around me. If I know I need to limit my appearances in groups of people, that’s something I’ll take onto myself. If I think someone is emitting a bad odor, I might say something, especially if I know them and I’m worried that they’re unhealthy and that’s the reason for the body odor. But in general? My sensitivity, thus on me to deal with.

Where I’m left with is this: I’m aware of the potency of disgust claims as a moral positioning, and I know that shame is used to police bodies that are different. But hot yoga spaces in the U.S. are largely feminine and upper-class, and thus I have to be wary of rhetoric claiming that body odors are unacceptable in those spaces. I want to be open to criticism and to the possibility that I could somehow do better at being a social human…but really? If showering once a day isn’t enough, and this isn’t a medical issue that’s already obvious, I’m not sure there’s much I can do.

My choices are:

  • Try a bunch of things out in order to pass this enigmatic smell test at my yoga studio. How far am I willing to go? In case this is an expression of an undiagnosed food intolerance, am I willing to go on an elimination diet, or go paleo or vegan? How much money am I willing to spend on fancy body grooming products?
  • Call bullshit on the way in which this seems to be a sexist and/or classist way of dictating how bodies in enclosed spaces should be, and find a different yoga studio to which to belong.
  • …that seems to be about it. Capitulate to a degree, or not. What would you do?

I’d like to conclude with a plea for us all to be aware of the cultural logic dictating how we interpret the bodies that surround us, including our own. Let’s be compassionate toward our always already flawed bodies, and when we feel the need to ask others sharing spaces with us to make changes in order to improve our shared experiences, let’s also be compassionate (and specific, for heaven’s sake… I have no idea whether to focus on my feet as a dancer, or my sweat glands, or what, when it comes to this supposed smell problem).

Bodies are weird. They’re at once concrete and culturally constructed. We all need to navigate the having and seeing and smelling and feeling of bodies – and ideally we’ll do so as compassionately and astutely as possible.

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