The moralisation of body odor

May L M Soo, Richard J. Stevenson*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    21 Citations (Scopus)


    Why some odors smell repulsive is poorly understood. This article examines one such example, axillary odor (AO). AO is unusual relative to other unpleasant smells as it can transmit information that should promote contact not avoidance. However, adults, but not children, strongly dislike AO, suggesting this response is acquired. The distal cause for this arguably lies in the meaning of the smell. Historically, many Westerners did not bathe and smelled strongly of body odor. With changing medical opinion, from the dangers of bathing to its advantages, along with the hygiene movement in the 19th Century, personal cleanliness acquired a moral dimension. To be dirty was to be slothful and meant risking infectious disease for oneself and one's kin. Advertisers further transmuted these meanings, equating cleanliness with personal and social success. We argue that these forces shaped contemporary meanings of AO - the process of moralisation. Whilst these meanings can vary between cultures, they offer a plausible account of why parents, peers and Western society currently shape negative responses to AO.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)25-56
    Number of pages32
    JournalMankind Quarterly
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2007


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