Segment from Rinse and Repeat

Listener Call

Brian, Ed, and Peter take a call from a listener.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
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ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking about the history of cleanliness in America. As we do each week on our show, we’ve been fielding your questions and comments at And today, our producers have invited a few of you to join us on the phone.

PETER: Hey Backstory hosts, gather around. We have a call all the way from Charlottesville, our hometown. It’s Ozan. Ozan, welcome to the show.

OZAN: Hi there, how are you?

PETER: Well, we’re great. And we’re happy to have you with us. What do you have for us?

OZAN: Well, I moved to the States when I was seven years old, and I had a hard time making friends for a while, because all the kids would generally tease me and say that I was smelly.

PETER: Oh, no.

OZAN: And I was wondering if there was any history of that in the States, or is this just a case of kids being awful?

PETER: Oh, you mean smell prejudice?

OZAN: Yeah.

ED: May I ask–

OZAN: –um, hmm–

ED: –not to be too personal, when this was and where you came from before then?

OZAN: I came from Turkey, and this was in 1981. And it was in northern Virginia. It was really isolating, because, I guess, I did smell different. I mean, we still ate Turkish food, which is more spicy than–

BRIAN: –right–

OZAN: –standard American fare.

BRIAN: I want that’s the guys, is one of the ways that they’ve ostracized immigrants, going back to the 19th century, by castigating the way they smelled or the smells coming out of immigrant neighborhoods?

ED: You know, I would say, off the top of my head, or the inside of my nose, that that was not the language that people were using very much. Now there was the phrase “the great unwashed,” right?

And I think that the idea was that people were just dirty. And people were being judged by their clothes, the way they looked. And if the cleanliness of their clothes–

PETER: –OK, that’s the clothes. That’s right here.

ED: Yeah, because it was hard in the days before mechanized hot water for everybody to assume that they were without odor all the time. And I don’t know, Peter, it strikes me that all of these European visitors who loved putting down the United States when they visited, they put us down for spitting on the floor–

PETER: –sure, sure–

ED: –they put us down for, you know, eating with our hands and all these kinds of things. But smell just does not seem to have been a prevalent line of critique back before the 20th century.

PETER: You don’t hear a lot about it, Ed. And I think you’re exactly right. It’s the way people dress. And there’s a lot of intimacy, that is, people are thrown together in ways that we would consider intolerable. We have a much wider body space that we think we have some kind of control or sovereignty over if you get too close to somebody.

BRIAN: Except in Manhattan.

PETER: Yeah, well, there are places, like the subway, where it doesn’t happen. Though by world historical standards, we have so much space around us. The idea that somehow you are distinct from the rest of humanity is a very late, modern idea. It’s a fulfillment, you might say, of a notion of selfhood that comes out of the Enlightenment and all of those great things.

But the fact that you could actually mark out some space, be within it, and be clean within it, that’s absurd.

ED: But, Ozan, I think that it’s interesting what children say. They’re like canaries in the coal mine. They’re an especially sensitive cultural barometer of what people care about. And the fact they would have internalized so early that a taboo is how you smell tells you a lot about the culture as a whole, of how it was that it organized things at home to say, oh, don’t go out this way. You’ll embarrass the family. You’ll embarrass yourself.

BRIAN: Well, I just want to ask you, Ozan, have you overcompensated for this? Is smell something that, today, you think you might be overly sensitive about?

OZAN: You know, actually, no. I’m not really a big deodorant user. I probably shower three times a week. I work from home. I have a lot of kids. I’m very busy. It doesn’t bother me if I have a particular odor, like smell is natural.

PETER: I think Ozan’s fellow Americans are catching up with her.

BRIAN: I agree.

PETER: Come on.

BRIAN: Well, thanks for leading us into the 21st century, Ozan.

ED: By the nose.

OZAN: No problem.

PETER: Thanks, Ozan.

OZAN: Thanks. Bye, bye.

PETER: Bye, bye.

BRIAN: Bye, bye.

We’re going to take a short break. When we get back, a vision of clean that feminists, environmentalists, and eugenicists will all love.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.