Smelly Teenage Boys

Smelly Teenage Boys

One day, I was walking across campus at the secondary school where I taught, when I passed a rather nondescript group of teenage boys. This is something I would generally completely ignore. If they were kids I knew, I’d say hello, of course, but smelly teenage boysotherwise, I just walked on by.

But this time I noticed them. As they passed, I was enveloped in a thick cloud of a sickening odor. Not body odor, though that’s often a problem with kids this age. No, this time it was perfume. Cheap perfume. Very cheap perfume. The kind that smells toxic.

Of course, it’s not actually perfume. Nowadays it’s sold under a different name, “deodorant body spray.” And deodorant body spray has become as necessary to the average teenage boy as acne cream, and does just about as much good.

In other words, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t deodorize them; it just covers up their own odors with a new one. And, given that by definition teenage boys have no taste, their new odor, sprayed all over their bodies in massive quantities between classes (they carry the full-size bottles with them in their backpacks), is probably even worse than the body odor they’re trying to cover up. Sometimes, if the body odor was pretty bad already, the two odors combine. It’s amazing the boys don’t pass out from the fumes.

This has got to be the marketing coup of the century: create a product no one needs, but then convince a large proportion of the population that it’s absolutely necessary.

It occurred to me, as I sped up to escape the cloud, that things have done a 180-degree turnaround since my own high school years. Boys have become girls, and girls have become boys.

In my day, boys most emphatically did not wear perfume. At most, when they shaved, they might put on some aftershave, but generally it was something like Old Spice, borrowed from their fathers, and it didn’t smell bad. They only shaved once a week at most, and it didn’t last more than a few hours anyway.

On the other hand, girls experimented with perfume pretty much every day. Depending on their tastes and their pocketbook, the results would vary. Some ended up with a chokingly chemical odor, much like those boys I passed that day. Some smelled pretty good. None of them put it all over their bodies; just a dab behind the ears was considered enough, so you had to get pretty close to smell it at all, and it wore off quickly.

The same turnaround has happened with hair gel. In my day, a boy wouldn’t have been caught dead with gel in his hair. It was just not done. Brylcreem was something old men with comb-overs used. Girls, on the other hand, did some pretty outrageous things with hair gel. If you’ve ever seen Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, you’ll know what I mean.

Now, it’s the boys who get carried away with hair gel: the more the better. It makes their hair look like wet, thick, plastic cords, but they think it works. It certainly stays in place, even when bicycling at high speed on a windy day. I think they may never get to enjoy the simple pleasure of someone running fingers through their hair, because it’s clearly too disgusting for anyone to want to touch it.

And why do the boys want to do all this anyway? Have we missed the boat, teaching girls that they don’t need to spend so much time and money on perfume and gel, but forgetting to tell the boys the same thing? Who made boys think that they needed all of this? Or is this all just a tactic that producers and advertisers have developed to keep sales up: if girls give up a product, get the boys to buy it instead? How can we fight back, if only for the sake of our lungs? Will make-up be next to switch to boys? High heels? How do we get these things to just disappear instead?

rachel-hellerAbout Rachel: Rachel Heller is a writer, blogger and teacher living in Groningen, in the Netherlands. American by birth, she met her Dutch husband and found her career as a teacher when she joined the Peace Corps and was posted to Malawi. She loves to travel and write, preferably at the same time. Her blog, “Rachel’s Ruminations,” is at and follow her on twitter.

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