Monday, May 5, 2008

Not smelling American


In a previous post, I wrote that I liked the way I smelled before I had my shower. This is indeed a significant development in my life, for I have a dirty secret, quite literally. Thank you, Father Time, for allowing some memories to become merely interesting stories with age.

When I was in the 6th grade, I developed a terrible problem with excessive underarm sweat. This was particularly difficult, for I was already ostracized in school as a "weirdo". Now the weirdo not only was weird, but sweated buckets all day. It was not anxiety: My palms did not sweat nor did my face flush. Quite frankly, I was so used to being the strange child at that point that my social anxiety was practically nil. I had stopped trying.

However, this new development was a horror. If I raised my hand to ask a question, I exposed the huge wet spots under my arms, so I stopped participating in class discussion (which, now that I think back, was strange I was doing in the first place.) The sweating increased to far more than a wet spot under my arms, so I developed the habit of holding my arms closely at my sides. The sweat dripped all the way down to my legs! I had to relearn how to do the simplest things, like writing and holding an armful of books.

Of course, trying to keep oneself in a perfect position all day long just doesn't work for child of 11 and on some days my personal shame would be exposed, much to the amusement of the other children.

The reason this story interests me is not the painful memory or the fact that I was the object of ridicule (I was surely used to it by then!) but because of my parents' reactions. I finally decided to ask them for help. This was not something I ever did, for I trusted quite firmly from experience that they wouldn't, but a child always continues to wish what isn't so.

My parents were livid. I heard rants about stupid Americans for who knows how long. "The French stink and it's perfectly fine!" "Americans are too puritanical!" "You wash every day: you must be fine!" "You want a deodorant?! They're bad for your health!" "Use more Maja soap!" " We don't wear anti-perspirant in this family!" "They just want everyone to smell the same in America!"

You get the picture.

Since I had never seen my parents buy an anti-perspirant, but seen ads in the back of magazines for them (like the one I lusted after: Mitchum, for "problem perspiration"), I honestly thought you could only attain these miracle products through the mail. What was an eleven year old to do?

I was in the old Woolworth's one day and saw that the stuff was on the shelves, in a real store (but not the Mitchum, not yet). In my mixed up little mind, I thought somehow if I used my allowance to buy the stuff, I would be found out. So I stole it. This was the first thing I ever nicked: a bottle of deodorant! I don't remember what brand it was, which figures, 'cause the anxiety that stealing it caused was great.

I was much more afraid of my parents finding out I actually owned an anti-perspirant than them finding out that I had stolen it. And the day came eventually when my mother found it (after a gloriously perspiration free couple of weeks). "Where did you get this?!!", she demanded, with the statement, "Don't you know how we feel about these kinds of products?"

Yes, I knew how they felt about such things. They had their decidedly non-American views on many things in life: My father thought that understanding Sartre, for example, was much more important than making a living.

But I digress. I did steal another tube of deodorant that year and hid it in a place that was never discovered. I can't say it made my last year of grade school all that less awful, but it was a relief, and whatever made me sweat so profusely seemed to just go away on its own accord.

However, I have rarely gone a day without using an underarm product in my entire life (like most Americans, I'd presume). When I stopped for no apparent reason, I was confronted with my own smell and delighted to discover that it was just fine.

And now I understand what my parents thought, though they should never have imposed it on an eleven year old. After all, we did live in America, and not Paris, no matter how much my mother tried to pretend otherwise.

Old Ad note: I tried hard to find an old MItchum ad but to no avail.

1 comment:

Abigail said...

Julie,
This piece is genius! I laughed out loud. I felt for you, as that young pubescent girl. You introduced me to your parents...I feel I know them...simply from reading this short piece. You are a gifted writer. I enjoyed this thoroughly.
- Abigail