Personal Hygiene At 30,000 Feet

Personal Hygiene At 30,000 Feet

By Judah S. Harris

This American Airlines episode with the couple is a tough one, uncomfortable. A religious couple from Detroit (in this paper we don’t need to define which religion) was involuntarily deplaned in Miami on Wednesday evening a week ago. There may have been a mistake, there may not have been. The complaint was body odor.

Airlines have a tough job, including pricing, policing, packing bags above that should have been checked underneath (guilty here). I don’t even want to talk about cart service with people freely traversing the narrow aisles…and trying to leave the gate close to on time. These nice folks from Detroit were upset (outraged, actually), felt wronged and inconvenienced, even unjustly singled out, confused why this happened.

But still, why they had to comment in a public fashion, I am not sure. Best is to lie low and hire a publicist or represent oneself once back home to offer a statement (some statements can wait till a quieter moment). This can help avoid a story pickup that may not be in their interest, or the interest of others they will be connected to by association. This story got out there – internationally – to major papers and the US news stations, and reached millions.

Admittedly, the couple was looking to put down claims that they were the problem and striving to immediately resolve their travel issue to get home with their toddler to other kids waiting. They have nine total. I just don’t think they come across convincingly enough on camera (this was not an opportunity for a prepared studio sit-down interview). Unless you’re competent on camera, or things are really clear cut, you have to consider if you’re going to win points or lose. I’m not suggesting you can’t appear on camera to offer your sentiment; just think about if the news outlets are the sole ones who’ll gain, or if you will, too, with the story now out there and in your own expressed words. Had they said nothing, there would be no story. Hardly anyone would know. But they were angry and upset – who wouldn’t be? And so now there was going to be a debate. Were they at fault? Do religious Jews take showers often enough? Is this father of nine more prone to smell differently, because of the number of kids? These are just some of the comments on media and social media sites (the media itself doesn’t seem to take a position). The news world picked up quickly on this episode, as the couple spoke up to defend themselves and secure an airline response.

It’s easier to measure if people are being disruptive on a flight or going against some other code of behavior. True, strong smell is equally (or more?), but how to measure how much is too much? Obviously some on the flight felt it was excessive – at least they perceived that – and they (passengers and crew) pointed fingers in a certain direction. There are people on the flight who could likely attest, but most of them won’t want to voice anything that prolongs the story, hurts feelings, or harms the airline’s reputation.

Whatever happened, at least this is a reminder that hygiene is especially important in closer quarters. It’s important all the time, as a noticeable problem can harm job prospects and marriage opportunity – and general acceptance in society. But it’s a touchy topic, personal, not necessarily for others to intrude on – unless there’s something we need to say, because it affects us directly or because it affects the person’s own successful existence in our communities or places of work, school, and congregation, and we indeed care to help.

For the most part, I’ve only encountered something hard to bear (of this genre) on the NYC subway system, certain homeless who might, unfortunately, make a given car hard to tolerate. I have tolerated at times, tuned out the smell, and stayed put – even when others slid down to the farthest of spots on the long seats. I did this when it was manageable and I possibly had no choice. But when it was imperative, I and others headed with no reluctance out the door of one car and quickly, during the couple minutes or less in station, to the door of a next car, to be as far away as possible from the culprit. Excessive perfumes or other fragrances are another story and I have met people, even outside the subway commute, who were, in my opinion, overdoing it, making it not too pleasant for those they might seek to come in contact with (and even if they did not have that intent to connect).

Many people, it seems, could be unaware about lapses in hygiene, or if aware, may minimize the issue. Though not in the category of hygiene, if a guy needs plastic collar stays to look more “proper,” I will mention it at a right time if I feel that he doesn’t know how he’s appearing to others, combined with the fact that I know he’s also trying to date women. I am not concerned much about individuals who have secured themselves firmly in a happy family life. Nose hairs? I’ve met people who, in our circles, would do well to trim. I can think of specific married men – and I’m left wondering why their wives don’t say anything or take charge. They are the first responders, I would presume – providing the wives themselves, or significant others, are attuned to the issue.

I won’t list every possible infraction. This is not a topic I usually write about and different societies and cultures have different attitudes and habits that we need to accommodate for (remember they may be accommodating some things we do too!). But returning to the topic of smell… it seems that although we may think we know how we smell to others, we are not able to so easily test the situation with accuracy.

As agile and discerning as our ability to smell is, we get used to the scents we’re overly exposed to. I spoke to a plumber recently, and he told me exactly that: He’s used to it. His wife, interestingly, works for a municipal water treatment plant – an office job, meaning indoors – but the place is not a flower shop. They wear or apply fragrance to counter the pervasive odor of sewage being treated with bacteria and protozoa at a mid-stage of the overall purification process.

One thing to know is that if you can smell something on yourself, others can smell it more so. Again, this is because we are accustomed to our smell and it’s hard to get away from it to an objective vantage point. It can take weeks to reset the body’s sense of smell. An example that proves the point is returning to your home after being away on vacation. Does the home smell different to you (discounting any lack-of-fresh-air feel from closed windows)? This might be the regular smell of your home, just that you never noticed it because you’ve been living there all the time and got used to it. You certainly noticed the overall smell of the hotel or motel room, if you stayed in one while on your trip.

Years ago, National Geographic did a special issue with a feature on smell. In this September 1986 edition of the magazine, they actually included a survey with a scratch-and-sniff sheet of six smells – androstenone (sweat), isoamyl (banana), galaxolide (musk), eugenol (cloves), mercaptans (natural gas) and rose – that tested readers’ abilities to detect odors. A bunch – let’s be clearer, 1.5M readers – responded as to what they smelled. Or couldn’t smell. The findings have been used in research in the years since, and a few of them are that women have a honed sense of smell (slightly over men), but when they’re pregnant, that advantage is lowered, compared to other women who are not pregnant. With age, the capacity of smell diminishes in both genders.

If you want to get a sense of how you smell, ask people who are real close to you. To get a more accurate assessment, ask the ones you work with who are exposed to you, but not all the time and can offer what they perceive.

Body odor generally results from bacteria that break down the keratin protein on the skin surface. Keratin is a major component that protects the skin and affords it rigidity. The breakdown produces odor, and moist sweat enables the breakdown. Certain parts of the human body are more prone to sweating. Keeping these areas dry helps alleviate odor problems. When necessary, a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water can be used to further defeat body odor. Individuals may also need to change their diet, since strong, pungent, or fatty foods can seep though pores in the skin.

General guidelines offered by the National Institutes of Health in one of their newsletters include bathing, wearing clean clothes, and using deodorant. People should clean and care for their teeth and mouth; keep the mouth moist and the body dry, and avoid eating onions, garlic, and other strong-smelling foods.

Beyond the social challenges, certain odors can portend a sickness, possibly be a sign of disease. Breath problems could be a result of infections in the respiratory system or elsewhere in the body. Stress can also cause odors.

If there are those we’ve met who need to upgrade their hygiene, there are also people we know who tend to worry unduly about if they smell just right. Someone may have said something to them once, or it may stem from other insecurities and be coupled with extended time spent in front of a mirror making sure that the hair is just right. Society is forgiving and might barely notice that which we pay attention to in and around our own bodies. In close proximity, we see things that others simply can’t. Even as a photographer who has photographed portraits of hundreds of people, I talk about how others see us in more general terms, even if they do notice what we’re not so happy with. As one woman I was dating recently told me, when I pointed out some skin imperfections on the left side of my face, “Does it really matter?” Probably not, and a smile can be the best cosmetic, at any altitude.

Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker, and writer. He offers highly-journalistic coverage of weddings and bar/bat mitzvah events, both in Israel and the US, and produces documentaries for families wanting to preserve their multi-generational history. His website is