Body Odor Etiquette: When Your Friend Smells. BAD.

So, you’ve got a friend with offensive body odor. What are you supposed to do?

Should you inform them of the situation, gently, so they can do something about it? Or should you keep your trap shut, to avoid hurting their feelings? What’s the kindest possible move?

Well don’t ask me. See, I used to have this friend, a woman I’ll call Rita. When I first met Rita I noticed a slight unpleasant odor about her person, but I didn’t think much about it.

It’s easy for me to dismiss and forgive these smallish, smelly social infractions because I have a paranoid belief in my own stinkyness, the seeds of which were planted in the 8th grade when a mean little girl named Dana told me I had B.O. Back then, I probably did. No one taught me how to use deodorant; I had to figure it out for myself (it was the next thing I did after asking my mother what “B.O.” stood for). But since that day, I’ve asked many an intimate companion to “smell me, just smell me. Tell me honestly, do I smell?” I try very hard to keep personal odor in check.

So anyway, my unfortunate 8th grade incident and that resulting hypervigilence have made me more readily forgiving of others who do stink a little. I always think, “that could just as easily be me!”

But eventually, Rita’s odor required no hypervigilence. It got a little worse each time I saw her, until it was a bold, sour cloud traveling with and around her. And I wasn’t the only one noticing anymore.

One day Rita and I decided to scare up some cash by sharing a table at a local flea market. She asked if she could sleep on my sofa bed the night before, so we could get an earlier start together in the morning. I told her no. I lied. I made a lame excuse, and felt like a jerk about it. I’m just not that kind of lie-teller, game-player, y’know? I’d rather just shoot straight. But I didn’t want to hurt Rita’s feelings, and I didn’t want my one decent piece of living room furniture contaminated with that awful smell — and it was awful. It made me think of rotting vegetables, and the smell of certain varieties of baby food my mom used to serve to my siblings when they were infants — peas, maybe. Like peas and milk that’s turned. No, not inside my sofa bed. I just didn’t have the confidence Febreze could handle it.

The morning of the flea market, I loaded my sellables into the back of Rita’s van and took the co-pilot’s seat beside her up front. I’d never been inside Rita’s vehicle before.

The stench was nauseating. And I mean this literally. Rita’s bad smell filled the space of the van, in concentrate. The second I sat down, I could feel it crowding around me like a lecherous ghost, clinging and stifling, licking at me, laying upon my skin. I wondered if I’d carry it with me into the flea market, wondered if people would smell it and think it was me. I felt the urge to vomit rising from those deep pink trenches under my tongue, and I swallowed hard. The market was only three minutes away — I could hold it.

At the market, I tried not to sit too near Rita, without seeming to be avoiding her. I took walks to “exercise my legs”, went to the bathroom often, browsed at nearby tables. Every time someone came to our table and just casually touched a finger to something Rita was selling, she shot up from her chair and hustled over to them to be of saleswomanly service, and each time she stood, the stench wafted anew into the air — a knock-out bullhorn of odor. I watched with a heavy heart as some people made contorted, sickened faces as they walked away from her.

At this rate, I didn’t think I could tolerate being around Rita again. She suggested subsequent get-togethers, meeting for coffee. I made more dishonest excuses, and couldn’t bear doing it.

I talked the situation over with others.

“If I tell her she smells bad, her feelings are going to be hurt. There’s just no way they won’t be,” I said. “But if I don’t tell her, and she continues to go around smelling like that, it could be really bad for her. She hasn’t made a lot of friends in this area yet, she’s only lived here a few months. She wants to make more connections, she wants a job. But is she turning people off and she’s not aware of it?”

“You have to tell her,” everyone agreed. “It won’t be pleasant for her to hear, but she has to know.”

“I’m kinda worried about her too,” I said. “I’ve heard some diseases can cause foul body odors. She’s had a lot of health issues in the past. What if something’s wrong internally?”

“Even more reason to tell her,” they told me.

Besides the fact that almost nobody likes to smell bad, I thought Rita might be especially sensitive to the issue, because she’s a very fat woman. She was already self-conscious about the size and shape of her body — I didn’t want to add another layer of shame. And it’s hard enough to win acceptance when you’re obese; almost impossible when you’re obese and have an alienating issue like body odor.

“But if anybody can tell her in a kind and gentle way, Kim, it’s you,” my friend Stephanie said. “Who better?”

So I did. It took me several weeks to get up the nerve, but what finally pushed me to act was the picture of Rita in my mind, wondering what she’d said or done to make me upset, wondering why I was ignoring her. That was unacceptable to me. I didn’t want to be responsible for making her feel so unceremoniously rejected, and besides, I wanted Rita for a friend. It was the smell alone I couldn’t stand.

I was too big a coward to call her on the phone. I didn’t want to hear any hurt that might be in her voice. If she cried, I didn’t want to hear it.

So I sent the kindest, most diplomatic e-mail my heart could compose. I told her I couldn’t stand the thought of hurting her feelings, and how hard it had been for me to broach the subject. I told her I was worried that the odor might be a symptom of something internal gone awry. I reminded her that as a fellow fat woman, I was mindful of keeping certain fleshy places clean and dry, powdering under breasts and bellies and such, and that I understood how some places on the body might be difficult to reach if you were apple-shaped like she was. I offered her links to web sites that offered extra-long back brushes and other grooming products for large people . I reminded her that I wanted her for my friend. I told her I wanted her to have every opportunity for friendship and employment in her new community, and that I would hate to imagine anyone being distracted from her wonderful qualities by a mere odor that might be easy to take care of.

Rita did not take it well. She said she felt humiliated. She even remarked that it was ironic I should say these things to her, considering I did so much fat-positive writing. That comment, I didn’t quite understand. Fat or thin, if you smell unbearably unpleasant, I’m going to tell you so I don’t have to lie about why I’m not hanging around with you anymore. I guess it was the hurt talking.

“You couldn’t possibly have said it better,” friends told me. “She’ll come around some day.”

But she hasn’t, and I don’t think she ever will.

Several months later, I posted a Facebook status update for the singular amusement of my friend Stephanie. She was coming over to write with me, and I warned her I was a mess and I didn’t plan on showering for her, either, so she’d better be prepared to take me as I was. I think the Facebook status read, “A true friend will come over and tolerate your unshowered STANK.” Rita, whom I hadn’t heard from since the “you smell” e-mail, saw it, and simply commented:

“Nice.”

That made Stephanie angry. “Unfriend her now! Unfriend her!” she raged from my dining room table. “I felt sorry for her before, but not anymore. Okay, so the news was hard for her to take at first. But now she’s giving you ‘TUDE? Look bitch, we’re all fat around here, but I’d sure as hell want to know if I was choking people everywhere I went, so I could DO something about it. Unfriend her, Kim, unfriend her today!”

I did unfriend Rita, mainly so she wouldn’t have to see any future comments that might be hurtful to her. And frankly, I felt I could live without her sarcastic comments, too. And Stephanie’s tirade made me think maybe Rita was being ungrateful after all. Sure, I might be really embarrassed if someone told me I smelled. But if they delivered the message as kindly as I had, I imagine I’d eventually get over it and be able to face my friend again. I hope I’d at least refrain from being snippy.

Is this one of those things that can never be taken well? Are we damned if we do, damned if we don’t, no matter who we’re dealing with? If you don’t tell a person they smell, then they’re left to think poorly of you when you suddenly stop spending time with them. If you do tell them, they’re left to think poorly of you for embarrassing them.

It seems like a no-win situation, but there is one potential positive outcome. If the message was heard, and Rita has started doing things to eliminate her odor problem, then she wins in the long run. Unfortunately for me, the messenger gets demonized either way.

Welcoming feedback and other anecdotes on dealing with a friend who has body odor. What’s your advice on body odor etiquette? Do you deal differently with a friend who has body odor and also happens to be fat?

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