Wor­ried about your odour? One friend will tell you straight Nell Frizzell

The Guardian - - JOURNAL OPINION -

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.

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