“Why don’t we delight in our ability to produce perspiration,” asks Sarah Everts, “the way we revel in the ability of a spider to produce silk?”
It is a measure of my neurosis that the verb “delight” strikes me as ludicrous. I take no joy in the fact that I sweat like a racehorse who just came in second. The analogy is yet another measure of my neurosis, because I can still hear my grandmother murmuring, “Horses sweat, dear. Men perspire, and ladies glow.”
I could light up the Dark Ages.
In her fascinating (and for me, therapeutic) book The Joy of Sweat, Everts quotes medical historian Michael Stolberg: “Far more than one would expect from a seemingly innocuous, bland, watery fluid, sweat is associated with shame and embarrassment, with pollution and stench, but also with purification, sexual attraction and masculinity.” In Facebook terms, “It’s complicated.”
But for me, shame dominates.
Walking three miles home from grade school (and no, not in a snowstorm—I should be so lucky) my thin hair was drenched with so much sweat, a neighbor kid asked if I had showered after gym class. Paralyzed, I just shrugged, as though I had, though nobody did. At high school mixers, I hid in the ladies’ room fanning myself until I was cool enough (or at least dry enough) to be seen again. In college, I researched what women wore in the hottest parts of the world and then draped myself in long, loose clothes—only to learn years later that the method only works in the desert, to avoid dehydration. In humid heat, you do better to strip.
“The moment anybody starts dripping sweat, that body is being inefficient,” Everts writes. “It is overreacting and overcompensating, losing valuable internal fluids in the process.”
I have often overcompensated. My mother could play three sets of tennis and dab at a drop of perspiration on her upper lip while I left puddles on the clay. But once—a lifechanging moment—a guy I did not know sat down next to me at a crowded, nightclubby sort of event. It was hot, and I had been dancing; drops dripped from wet hair at the nape of my neck. I must have muttered some halfhearted apology for my “grossness,” because to my horror, he slung an arm around me, drew me close, and said, “Sweat’s sexy.”
Our respective dates appeared and I never saw him again, but I wish I could have thanked him. Sometimes bodily acceptance is a gift that can only come from someone else.
More at ease these days, I read with sympathy that a honeybee collecting nectar can easily overheat, those tiny wings fluttering like mad to keep its bulky little body airborne. To avoid overheating, bees “regurgitate their stomach contents from the mouth and spread the liquid all over themselves with their forefeet,” biologist Bernd Heinrich tells Everts.
Ah, but vomit is my other phobia.
Sweat glands coil like treacherous snakes beneath our skin’s surface and have layers of “dark cells.” See how ominous? Galen figured out that sweat was sourced from the watery parts of blood (it is akin to plasma), and we now know that people really can sweat blood, though the condition is rare. My drenching seems to come from the eccrine glands, which are just about everywhere (we average more than four million of them) and, luckily odorless, secrete mainly water and electrolytes. The apocrine glands secrete oily substances in smelly, hairy private places, and because they react to angst as well as heat, they are responsible for the acrid stink of flop sweat.
Enough about that—here is something delightful. Dogs do not sweat as we do (they pant instead), but they do have sweat glands in their paws. Supposedly, this provides friction to help them run and climb, which puzzles me, because I would be more inclined to tumble if my feet were wet. But as I rely on my dog to pull me up steep hills on a hike, I am glad his paws sweat. And as a bonus, they only smell of mud.
“Where does our aversion to natural human body odor come from?” Everts asks. “After all, over most of human evolution, we’ve prospered by living in close proximity to other humans; shouldn’t we be accustomed by now to our aroma?” Sure, and I should be accustomed to vomit, but the brain is just not that malleable. When scientists built a body odor wheel, the possible stops were grapefruit, goat, wet dog, mint, asparagus, vinegar, cheese, rancid butter, cumin, and onion. No peanut butter, alas. Sometimes my urine smells like peanut butter, which pleases me. Why I am divulging this, I am not sure—except that there might actually be a connection. Sweat, I have just learned, is 99 percent water, sodium chloride, potassium, bicarbonate, calcium, magnesium, lactate, ammonia, and urea. Urea! Which, the internet confirms, is “found abundantly in mammalian urine.”
No doubt the peanut butter is yet another personal anomaly (the internet told me to “see a doctor”). Sweat’s “top note” is trans-3-methyl-2-hexonoic acid, which Everts characterizes as a “rancid goat-like stench with a hint of stinky cheese,” and it gets layered with a molecule redolent of ripe tropical fruit and onions.
Is this why sweat is thought vulgar? Working-class people live by the sweat of their brow; they are not afraid to “work up” a sweat. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground,” God spake unto Adam and Eve when he cast them out nekkid. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Men, in general, have been granted more permission to sweat and get dusty, while women had to dress in layers of petticoats and remain cool. Is coolness synonymous with control, thus antithetical to passion? We bleed, there is no getting around that, and we are famous for our tears, but the third part of that triad was forbidden to women of a certain class—as were all sports but croquet. Now the camera freezes us in midair, jumping high, sleek in stretchy workout clothes, and the ad copy inspires us to perspire, to “get addicted to sweat.”
It is better this way. “The cure for anything is salt water,” the writer Isak Dinesen once said. “Sweat, tears, or the sea.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.