Stinky pits


Jack’s safe place, tucked right under Greg’s armpit (photo credit, Levinsky)


Apparently, the arms are the least attractive part of the female body! Funny, but I don’t feel this way at all, but it’s a fact according to Desmond Morris in his book The Naked Woman — A Study of the Female Body. The safest place to touch a woman, in a non-sexual way, is on her arm. If we were to think of the arms in evolutionary terms, then perhaps this makes a little bit more sense because the arms used to be our front legs. When man began to straighten up, those front legs transformed into very important tools to help us grip, climb, throw etc. Typically, the female arm is much more delicate than the male arm and although the following statement will annoy some of you, statistics teach us that most men are more attracted to slender arms rather than large, developed muscles that we see when female bodybuilders flex their muscles. Those types of builds remind them of the male body rather while they are programmed to seek out females that will help carry on their genes–this is a scientific fact that transcends all cultures and borders. Therefore women who are feminine looking with an hourglass figure will gain the most attention, but in terms of weight this standard of beauty differs from culture to culture depending on the availability of food– the more scarce the food, men tend to go for women who are heavier. Here in the West, some men don’t even like toned female arms even though that look conveys a healthy candidate, good nutrition and exercise. The male’s longer and stronger forearm is a testament to their evolutionary purpose, to be the aimer and thrower, reminds us Morris. Who knew, but even the angle of the female elbow is different from the male’s whose wider shoulders keep the arms dangling away from the body as opposed to the female design, and this is another one of those important gender signals.

Moving along the arm we reach the armpit and  believe it or not it’s an important component in chemical signaling. When our ancestors used to mate, on all fours, there was no contact with the armpits, but when the position changed to a face to face posture, suddenly the armpits became yet another gender signal—the reason we have specialized scent glands in that area of the body. What I didn’t know until reading this book is that females have more glands than males do; the odor that we emit differs significantly in both sexes and is specifically directed at the opposite sex. And here’s my favorite bit, in an experiment that was conducted with blindfolded men, they actually became more sexually aroused when sniffing sweaty female armpits rather than the ambrosial scent of armpits doused with expensive perfumes. Ha, it makes a girl wonder why she bothers at all. Apparently, our armpit secretion is a bit oilier than ordinary sweat, and it develops when we hit puberty, and with that change comes the hair growth, which similar to the vaginal area acts as a scent trap helping intensify the sexual signals, naturally. This immediately brings to mind one of my roommates from university, Anna–she was a beautiful young woman but one who didn’t believe in pruning and grooming herself at all. I still have vivid images of her in a dress with very hairy legs and armpits, the type that sticks out even though the arms are rested against the body. She was smart and confident and she also had a very loving boyfriend, but according to science this girl was very good at trapping scent—the more hair, the more intensified the signal, which obviously explains why her boyfriend stuck around. It makes me wonder whether my first marriage fell apart as a result of too much shaving? Na, in my case it was mother-in-law issues that trumped any hairy or non-hairy armpit scenario. Before learning about this subject matter, the running joke in our family with regard to hairy armpits has always revovled around my son Jack’s preference for falling asleep under Greg’s pits, I haven’t researched this at all but who knows, maybe, just maybe some of that sepcial scent is a proven formula for putting babies to sleep.

There’s an old English custom passed down from generation to generation where a young man at a dance must place a clean handkerchief in his armpit under his shirt before the dance, and after the dance he uses it to fan his partner. This is an act of seduction to better spread his apocrine or scent in layman’s terms. Thank goodness that it’s one English custom that my own English husband has not adopted for himself; I’m not so sure how successful he would have been in seducing me. According to Morris, in rural Australia young ladies would stick a slice of apple under their armpits when dancing, and once the music stopped they would offer the apple to the man of their choice. In Elizabethan England, the ladies would use a whole peeled apple for this seduction tactic and it was known as the “love apple.” And speaking of sweat and smell, how can we possibly leave out the French? Mary of Cleves was a married woman who loved to dance, and on one such occasion after dancing at court she retired to her room in order to change out of her sweat-stained chemise. The Duc d’Anjou, who later became King Henri III of France, happened to enter the same room and thinking that he had picked up a towel, he wiped off his sweat using Mary’s “scented” chemise. Oh man, his senses went wild, he was so affected by Mary’s scent that he developed an uncontrollable passion for her albeit she was already married. Needless to say, what followed was a lot of heartache for everyone involved.

Apparently it’s enough to just get a whiff of the scent, and you may find yourself hooked; this explains why sometimes men and women feel stimulated by the other sex without knowing what hit them. It could very well be that they had detected the armpit secretion on an unconscious level. It makes you think twice about online dating sites and their appeal to men and women when such basic evolutionary sexual signals are completely taken out of the mix, and yet people manage to create bonds with each other nonetheless. I too met my husband online; however, I remember that when I told my sister of my plans to fly out to London to meet him for the first time, she warned me against feeling too excited, building too many expectations and hopes for a guy that I had only met online because “you may not like his smell, it may be a turnoff” she explained. I waved her off as though her words were complete nonsense, but what she said had somehow stuck with me, I couldn’t get it out of my head.  There was one other issue to deal with before I could concentrate on Greg’s scent; you see, in every single photo that he emailed me (pre-Skype), his mouth was closed. At first I viewed his closed-mouth-smile as cute, but after my sister had planted new ideas in my mind I wondered whether the closed-mouth photos were done in order to cover up his bad teeth. Obviously it was not going to be a deal-breaker, people can get their teeth fixed, but it’s a fact that in Europe people do not put too much emphasis on their teeth; look at Prince William and his teeth for instance. So Greg’s teeth happened to be very nice after all, lucky for me, and thankfully there were no problems with odor either. Generally speaking, the English do not have such a good reputation when it comes to cleanliness, and I can attest to this because I was born in England, spent a few years there as a youth as as an adult, and used the London underground as transportation many times! Imagine a stuffy cabin in the heat of summer with your nose pressed against a stranger’s back while everybody standing holds up their arms to firmly grip the pole as the train races to the next stop–the air laced with malodorous vapors, the distinctive scent of rotten onions, mildew, nicotine, and a decomposing whale carccas, yeah, well, that’s what I remember. The gym at the University of Manchester was just as offensive to the senses, so hard to breathe in that weight room, and if you want to know more about that aspect of my life then you must read my novel The Diary of a Wrinkle where you’ll find a lot more examples of smelly English people. According to Morris, in countries such as Korea, for example, half the population does not have axillary scent glands at all, and same goes for Japan, and in China it’s less common to find those glands altogether and the reason that armpit odor is terribly offensive to people in those parts of the world.

So when did we begin to get rid of the armpit hair and use deodorant to hide the very scent that was meant to attract the other sex? It happened around the 1920s, and it’s no surprise to learn that the cosmetic industry first peddled the trend to young ladies by advising them to shave their pits in order to better attract the opposite sex. There were those who rebelled against the practice of hairless pits, not many joined their cause, but in The Joy of Sex the idea of grooming the pits is tantamount to “ignorant vandalism.” Another magazine that Morris quotes is Hair to Stay, The World’s Only Magazine for Lovers of Natural, Hairy Women–what a mouthful (of hair), but in this publication they target women who poke fun at hairy armpits and explain that those types of people just don’t know any better, because removing the hair is like rebelling against our sexuality. The armpit hair “acts as a transmitting antenna, sending out signals to invite sexual intercourse.” Well, to any proponent of this school of thought all I can say in my defense is that now that I’m married, I see my shaving ritual as safeguarding the sanctity of my marriage, making sure that I’m not spreading any unnecessary sexual signals around town, you know what I mean. Perhaps for the unmarried and unattached women out there it’s okay to grow out the pits, but for us married ladies, why should we go au naturel if it means attracting other men to us in droves–that could potentially become tiresome . . .

But c’mon, isn’t having to deal with one man more than enough? Getting back to my opening statement, when I think of female fashion and what body parts women choose to expose, I feel that the arms are just as attractive as other, more noted body parts such as cleavage, or neck, boobs, butts, and legs. It seems that as we age those parts that were once deemed most attractive are not as important and attraction sways towards other parts of the body instead. However, statistically, a woman’s face is rated as the number one, most attractive feature by men, and continues to draw their attention even as we age, duh, just look at the makeup industry and what about face lifts! We know that beauty standards differ from one culture to the next but I still think that any part of the body can look attractive, including arms. Why do women choose to wear jewelry on their wrists if not to emphasize that specific part of their body, right? What about arm tats? If women believed that nobody cared about their arms they would never bother adorning themselves with body art or toning up their muscles for that matter. It’s common knowledge, beauty is in the eye of the beholder–and women who advocate “love what you see” will attract the types of men who go for that–while a woman who thinks that she’s attractive after altering her face dramatically, will also have her audience of admirers. Let’s not pretend that beauty doesn’t matter; the bottom line is that most of us care about our looks, we’re programmed to care and take pride in our appearance and we do our best to look beautiful in the paradigm that speaks to us most. I’m not a fan of extremes, but I think that developing a healthy approach to beauty is important for our mental wellbeing, we can’t ignore the fact that men are visually driven and looks are indeed a conduit to pursuing love. If we adopt an unhealthy approach to this beauty thing, we may become preoccupied with chasing an ideal of beauty that does not exits: a woman of forty should not aspire to look as though she were 20 and a woman who feels that she should not put any effort into enhancing her looks (clothing, hair, skincare, teeth) may be doing a disservice to herself and missing out on opportunities. It’s just the way it is. A true beauty, in my opinion, is a woman who exudes confidence, intelligence, and humor and accentuates her physical attributes unapologetically.

Greg has just been peeking over my shoulder and he says that after reading this essay all he can think about is unattractive “bar mitzvah arms” from his teen days when every other weekend he attended a friend’s Jewish rite of passage ceremony, with decorated halls, buffet tables decked with Victoria Sponge cake and English sandwiches against a backdrop of jubliant aunties and droop and dangle.  See what I mean. Got it, all right,I better do a few more arm curles.

Armpit hair, I feel just as feminine without it (photo credit, Levinsky)



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