Why Bodies Smell So Bad

    I have noticed a visceral and emotional reaction to the smell of bodies.  A reaction so strong that it goes beyond the physical sensation.  This article is not about the physical side of how bodies smell.  Instead it looks into why we take the smell of bodies so personally.

    It should be noted that this post was written quite late and after a very long day of trying to read complex and abstract books.  As such this post might not flow quite right, and might be a bit strange or abstract in parts.  With that said it should be grounded enough to at least convey the gist of what I arguing.  So enjoy my late rambling!

    Smell is a vert personal sense, it is one we have strong emotional feelings about.  This is because smell forcibly questions our body boundaries even without our realising.

    The act of smelling is one we have little to no control over.  It is difficult to block out smells without extreme measures, which is why we usually cover bad smells with better ones.  Smelling is something we do constantly and without realising, allowing bad smells to creep up on us and invade our senses.

    Smells enter our bodies, quite literally, in order for us to sense and interpret them.  To sense a smell we have to let it inside our nose, to breathe it in.  The smell has to enter us, but it also has to do more than just this.  To smell we have to interact directly with the smell itself, it has to get in and touch our nose.  So essentially the smell has entered us physically and is now interacting with us directly.  All without our consent or input, in some ways we become the passive object and smell becomes the active subject.

    Smell blurs boundaries of where things (particularly) begin and end.  The question of where a sense originates or begins is an old one.  Galileo asked if the sense of being tickled by a feather came from the hand that felt the feather, or from the feather that tickled the hand.  There is that famous and more relatable question of the tree falling in the forest.  This question is asking for the distinction between noise and sound, between action and reception.  It is asking where sound begins, in the ear where we hear and interpret it.  Or in the action that caused something for us to hear.  Or perhaps sound exists between and in combination of the external action and internal reception.  Thus sound is the joining of the external and internal.

    This is the same with smell, but in a more personal way.  When we smell someone we are smelling them.  For it is their body that created the smell, it started with them and is a piece of them.  To smell someone is to directly interact with them, to let an essence of their body into ours.  All without permission or direction for smell happens constantly without conscious input.

    Take something like a fart of bad breath as an example.  These things might not smell too bad in comparison to other things, but they are often treated and regarded rather extremely.  Advertisements about bad breath play on fear, on being judged and on offending others without realising.  Bad breath is treated by advertising as something of a social disease and linked strongly to social fears.  There is an advertisement for a mouth wash from the 1920s which depicted someone being fired for having bad breath.  Another thing to consider is that the part of our brain which governs smells and sounds is strongly tied to emotions.  So sounds (like songs) and smells can easily evoke emotional memories and feelings, more so than other senses such as sight or touch.

    We treat bad body odours as a personal insult, offensive not only to our senses but to our personhood.  This is because smell is a rather intimate and personal sense.  It involves a direct and unconscious and uncontrollable interaction.  One breaths in a smell, lets it into them physically and mentally to be able to sense it.

    But there is more to it than just this, as smell questions our own identity and boundaries.  our question of identity is a complex one, so I will try to keep it simple for times sake.  But essentially we can question what a personality and a body is.  On thought is that a person is a meeting of their physical and mental selves, and a meeting of the internal and external worlds.  In a way we are our sensory experiences, they influence who we are and define where we start and end.  For example one knows an object is external as they feel it, sense it outside themselves.  Thus one is able to define the internal and the external by what is or is not within them.  Our senses influence our thoughts and feelings, songs evoke emotions and memories, tastes and touches please or upset us and so on.  It is not a stretch to say one is just an accumulation of various senses over time.

    Yet smell questions this, as when we are smelling we are interacting with the external and letting it enter our body.  The smell before us becomes part of us in order for it to be sensed.  This brings into question our own boundaries and definitions.  So in a sense we are joining with the smell to interpret it, but at the same time joining with the creation of the smell.  To smell a body we are blurring where our body begins and theirs ends.  Smell is the bridge between bodies, between beings.

    It is then no surprise that we treat smells of dead bodies so personally.  We are not only smelling the person, and interacting with them.  We are smelling the decay and interacting with the thought of death.  When smelling a dead body we are interacting directly with that dead body.  Blurring where our 'living' body starts and the other 'dead' body ends.

    This is something most of us are uncomfortable with and find quite emotional.  By now it should be no surprise that the smell of a dead body is treated so emotionally and personally.  The thought of the smell of a dead body is enough to incite an emotional response in most people.  Even those who have never smelt a dead body have strong opinions or feelings on the subject.

    Essentially when we smell a body, living or dead, we are forcing a question of where our body begins and theirs ends.  We are interacting with the dead body directly and without consent or conscious input.  As such the smell of dead bodies is regarded rather strongly and personally.  Not because of the smell, but because of the idea behind the smell.

    When faced with taboo or offensive things we should ask ourselves to make an important distinction.  Is it really taboo or offensive itself, or is it the thought behind it?  In this case, is the smell really that bad or is it what we perceive about the smell?


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