Worried about your odour? One friend will tell you straight Nell Frizzell
In 2014, following a bike helmetsplitting fall on to against a piece of New Zealand road, I lost my sense of smell for a full year and a half. I was as anosmic as the joke dog with no nose, and spent the ensuing months furiously washing already clean clothes, avoiding lifts, dousing myself in perfume that could have been a mix of WD40 and TCP for all I knew, showering religiously, and silently quaking with an unquenchable fear that I stank.
So it is with some interest that I read that technology company Konica Minolta has developed an app that will allow you to test yourself for three categories of smell. The device, called Kunkun Body, connects to your smartphone, takes a reading from your skin and reports back any dangerous levels of ammonia, 2-nonenal, and isovaleric acid – the chemicals associated with the smell of urine, sour old age and smelly feet respectively.
Of course, it would be easy to see this as yet another harbinger of mankind’s technological isolation, subservience to capitalist fearmongering, social dislocation and inane love of gadgetry. It is a harnessing of people’s fear and discomfort with being, essentially, mammals, in order to sell small plastic devices that remove the need for human interaction.
Except that only your most brutal critic, most sensitive loved one, or most coked-up party guest will ever actually have the guts to tell you to your face that you smell. Like asking someone if you look stupid in your new cowboy hat, the answer is either in the question (we all smell of something), or the asking proves more embarrassing than the answer.
During my scentless 18 months – a time when I felt like I was living in emotional Tupperware – my home became just a building, lovers became skinwrapped objects, hugging my mother could have been moving a mattress in a wig, and dinner became a joyless exercise in munching. I whispered frantically to friends: “Do I smell? Honestly?” Only for them to smile benignly, shake their head and point-blank refuse to actually nuzzle their nostrils into my armpit like I was hoping. Not only will they not tell you; they won’t even check.
According to the journalist Daniel Hurst, there is a Japanese word, sumehara, that pretty much translates as “smell harassment”. Most of us will know the particular disquiet of working alongside a real honker: the person who glides through meeting rooms exhaling a unique combination of cheddar and burned onions; the one who fills a lift with the yellowish air of sour milk; the colleague who leaves a trail of malted sebum and eau de carpet tiles in their wake.
But imagine, for a second, spending your work day gripped with the fear that you are that olfactory hooligan. That, unknowingly, you smell overpoweringly of basements, bacon fat or Bovril but nobody is going to threaten a workplace lawsuit by ever mentioning it. Instead, you will find yourself simply edged out of tea rounds and workplace drinks until, finally, you get the message and go back home to Pariah Avenue.
Anosmia and its bitter bedfellows, parosmia (experiencing smell and taste distortions) and phantosmia (being haunted by smells that are not there) affect about 5% of the UK population, yet most of us know, or care, very little about them. Times without number I was told, cheerfully, that at least I hadn’t lost my sense of hearing or sight. Which may be true: you are certainly less disabled by society’s infrastructure when you have no sense of smell than if you have no sight. But the emotional consequence of losing this most basic, most bestial form of navigation, connection and communication, is significant.
As a species you cannot rely on us to always be honest. So no wonder that, when faced with the big questions – am I ugly? Am I stupid? Do I smell? – we put our faith in machines. And while sliding a small plastic box behind your ears, across your toes and around your armpits won’t make your home smell like home any more, at least it might temporarily quell the fear that you’re polluting other people’s lives.