Yes, you’ve read that title correctly; today’s column is an observation on the olfactory. Today, I’d like to point out the unfortunate level of controversy stirred up by Shawn’s quite excellent post on human hygiene. You should read it! It’s very good, and it makes explicit a link you’d think more people would understand: smelly human body odor isn’t dangerous to people, unlike the many different chemicals the modern human uses to cover the inevitable stench of flesh.


Not that that particular angle should matter. Hygiene policing is a dick move. Fundamentally, you’re trying to get another person to change. You’re not doing that because a person is hurting you, you want them to change because they’re offending you; yes, there’s a difference.


For example, Carrie asked me online if there was a significant difference between asking a person to respect your pronouns and asking a person to smell acceptable. Yes. Yes there is. In both cases you are trying to get another person to change, so I can see the superficial resemblance, and think it’s a reasonable question to ask. But it boils down to acts and respect, as these things so often do.


If you fuck up my pronouns, intentionally or not, you have acted in a way that hurts me. But smelling bad is not an act; it’s a status effect. It’s a status effect that can trigger on all sorts of factors an outsider might not even see!


Take me. I have a thyroid condition. It is a major factor in my “morbidly obese” weight, which spiked up about a hundred pounds over a three-year period in which I was too ashamed to seek medical attention. I was ashamed because I was trans, and I was ashamed because I was queer, and I was ashamed because I saw myself as ugly. Shame kept me sick, it didn’t make me well. But eventually I got through it, found out the issue was my thyroid, and courtesy of some Levothyroxine my weight stabilized at its current level.


I tried to get back to my previous weight, but to no avail. I’ve tried diet, exercise, and literal starvation, and my body just stays anchored to this point. So there comes a time when you just have to say, “Fuck it, this is my meat puppet, I have got to learn to love this,” and stop torturing yourself. But if you’ve never had to have that sort of body positive personal realization, you probably don’t get that.


Body positivity is almost as important as intersectionality when it comes to the modern feminist canon. Intersectionality is about our shared struggle, sure, but body positivity is about our basic humanity. In many ways that’s less relevant, but in some ways it’s more.


Unfortunately, my personal-water-and-carbon-transportation-device wasn’t finished messing with me. My particular variety of thyroid deficiency comes paired with a major disruption of my internal temperature regulation system. As a result, I sweat a lot. It’s uncontrollable, and fairly random. Summers are particularly unpleasant, but I’ve got no real respite from it. And while I drown my pits in antiperspirant, which comes with its own set of unfortunate health risks, in any stressful environment I’m going to sweat through it no matter how much I personally wish it were otherwise.


When that happens, I have two choices: I can get hyperconscious of my body, usually resulting in some form of anxiety response, or I can dissociate, blocking out my body as much as I possibly can. Neither one of these options is in any way, shape, or form assisted by a third party coming in and waving around their judgment like some sort of cudgel. And neither of those options makes that experience, and the human smells coming off my body, any better for anyone.


That’s why there’s no way for a person being mean to me in public to translate into change on my part. The base efficacy of the “shame them into the shower” school of thought is undercut by the massive number of complicating factors that often go into a person going to a public event smelling raunchy. Those factors are almost certainly known by the pilot of the body that smells, and those factors are almost certainly invisible to someone looking in from the outside. This is not an effective way to promote change, on a fairly basic level!


But even if it were effective to shame people into changing their behavior, it’s morally repugnant. One of the major problems that people with histories of abuse have to overcome is freeing themselves from the cycle of abuse. And, let’s face it, when playing a fantasy, escapist, nerdy hobby like Magic: The Gathering, you’re going to have a fair number of players who have been bullied. Who have had frightening, shitty, violent home lives. Who have been shamed, publicly and privately, about some key aspect of their identity.


That’s where you get shit like this, a comment from the Reddit thread about Shawn’s post: “Shaming someone into conforming to this more is ultimately a positive thing for everyone. Sure that one guy is embarassed as fuck, but from then on, he keeps himself clean and unsmelly as a punishment avoidance.”


Now, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that it’s my place to modify another person’s behavior via “punishment avoidance.” That’s fucking controlling and sadistic! Keep that shit to consensual channels in your sex life, and don’t think your role in our community is to hurt people who don’t stay in line. And my fear is that this was just one person speaking an unvarnished version of what, for many people, is the truth. Because it does seem like there are a lot of people these days who feel that way. That’s Taliban shit.


Look, the world’s gone upside down if we’re more comfortable with people bringing potentially hazardous perfumes to Magic events than people smelling unattractive. That’s not a reasonable ordering of our priorities. I know that it feels like it should be, but step back and look at this again. Look at the underlying power dynamics. Look at where the harm is truly accruing. A person’s smell, no matter how truly hideous it may be, is not an injury to you. It is an injury to them.


If you can see that and still think your disgust response gives you grounds for power over the actions of another, recognize that to a lot of people your position is reprehensible. Because it is. And even if you can’t see that, we can.


Jess Stirba believes in punching up, not down.

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