Summer in Sweat

In the air above our heads our sweat evaporates and mingles, rises joyful, intertwined.


January 31, 2014 | Sweat | February 2014

July in Providence: pores outnumber people twenty million to one. The citizens of the city slide slick across the summer, sticking to clothes and furniture along the way. Sweat runs parallel to any group activity. Our skins open wide and weep. We evaporate in the kitchen, the driveway, starfished in front of the window fan. No relief. At parties, we talk about the heat, eat ice out of glasses or rub it on our necks, and carefully avoid staring at the Rorschach sweat stains on each other’s shirts. We learn not to hug each other much. We swelter and swelter, awake and asleep.

Of course, sweating is not unique to the people of Providence, or to people at all—practically every mammal on earth has sweat glands. Guinea pigs can sweat, and hippos. Dogs sweat out of the pads of their feet. It is true though that humans are one of the few creatures so dependent on perspiration to cool ourselves down, which is to say that we perspire more profusely than anything else. When the temperature rises, we pour. We leave distinctive tracks: stripes of sweat across the stomach of dress shirts, or the damp imprint of a body left on a pleather chair. As is taking note of them, or doing anything beside to prevent them outside of moving to the nearest shady patch. At the height of that summer in Providence, most of us in the cramped attic apartment take two showers per day, temporary reliefs. We use antiperspirant with labels that promise to Prevent Sweat From Forming! and Kill the Bacteria that Causes Odor! Nothing works, though–in the humid air the sweat won’t evaporate, it clings to our skins and our hair and our clothes. We learn to hate sweat young. I learn at thirteen, at a the house of a very cool friend. On our way to the door she pauses at the hallway mirror and lifts her arms. She holds them above her her head as if submitting to a pat-down at the airport, and bends her neck to examine them—first the left, then the right, then the left again. Her eyes meet mine in the mirror.

We learn to hate sweat young. I learn at thirteen, at a the house of a very cool friend. On our way to the door she pauses at the hallway mirror and lifts her arms. She holds them above her her head as if submitting to a pat-down at the airport, and bends her neck to examine them—first the left, then the right, then the left again. Her eyes meet mine in the mirror.

“Ugh, do I have pit stains?”

“No,” I say reflexively. When we’re together my duty is to deny all flaws and affirm all merits. She turns her eyes back to her armpits, left and then right, before dropping her arms, admiring herself in the mirror–glossy hair, pink Abercrombie shirt, the kind my mom says is too expensive. “Well,” I say, “maybe just a little.” She lifts up her arms, and there they are: two small quarters, winking wet beneath each arm.

“Ew!” Quick change of shirt and a vigorous application of deodorant. I keep arms clamped to my sides, suddenly aware of the dampness blooming there. I don’t own deodorant, haven’t realized how essential it is, would have never even thought to check for pit stains—wasn’t even familiar with the term. But sweat bad. Sweat is gross! And, like all grossness, this grossness transitive: if I am sweaty, I am gross. One has to be vigilant about these things.

And so I was initiated, as are most all of us at one time or another. In recent history, sweat-staving has expanded far beyond deodorant and showering, which are, after all, merely retroactive.  For a few thousand dollars, a technology called miraDry will zap the sweat glands under your arms with microwave energy, shrinking or destroying them. Expect pain, redness and swelling. A Swedish engineer went the opposite direction and unveiled a machine that extracts sweat from clothes and purifies it, producing safe drinking water. There’s also the recent advent of sweat-wicking technology–“Dri-release microblend performance fabric” or “moisture transfer polyester”–sold at an athletic apparel retailer near you. And then there’s Bikram Yoga: one room, many downward facing humans and 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Shared inconveniences inspire many solutions, for good or for capital gain. We sweat, whether we want to or not. It appears in the palms of our hands, literally, exuded from some hidden manufactory beneath our skin. We hide it or use it, hate or accept it–depending mostly on what we believe it signifies to other people.

Sweat can perhaps be divided into two types. The first type exists in billboard advertisements, in magazines, and in wishful fantasies about that fit, shirtless guy at the gym. This type of sweat glistens. This sweat gleams. It glows. This sweat may actually be baby oil sprayed all over the toned body of a model, but that model is a) hot and b) wearing a sports bra and boxing gloves, so okay, sure, it’s sweat, we believe! This first kind of perspiration connotes sexual appeal and physical performance. It’s the sweat of good-looking athletes and attractive couples. It’s purifying, laudable, even spiritual, in the commodified fashion of sweat lodge retreats or Bikram yoga practices. You can be absolved of that second brownie if you repent by “sweating it off” (it helps if you look good in spandex). A sparkling sheen of this sort of sweat is something to be proud of, because it means sex or self-improvement or both. You earned it, hot stuff!

The second type of sweat is far more common and far less appealing. It’s the sweat that soaks into your clothes in humid heat, or before a job interview. It’s the sweat that you can smell. All summer, it makes us squirm in my shirt as rivulets swell between our shoulder blades and slither down our backs. Droplets form on our foreheads, the back of our necks; we leave a sour breeze in my wake. When we sit in our stuffy living room after work, we do not glisten in the style of billboard models. Our legs stick to the plastic couch. Sometimes, and not as often as we pretend, we work up a sweat at the gym or having sex with our respective significant others, but soon, and sooner than we pretend, we cease such exertions and return to base damp. A quotidien perspiration: embarrassing, irritating, foul-smelling. It’s part of a recognizably repellent family of involuntary bodily processes—blushes, farts, snot and stomach gurgles, the secretions and reactions that we must suppress, apologize for, or otherwise address.

The root is a sort of communal shame: we are embarrassed that our bodies insist on defying the conscious will. We apologize —“ugh, sorry, I’m so gross, it’s so hot in here”—and we are offended by the stink and sweat of other people. We wish they would keep their secretions to themselves–it’s only polite. Perhaps it could be the law: in 2009, the Honolulu City Council considered a bill banning unpleasant odors on public transport, including body odor.

Why are we so disgusted? The smell of sweat is caused by invisible, nefarious bacteria. The bacteria live on our skin, metabolize our sweat and belch out vile odors the way we exhale CO2. The stench is unpleasant, yes, as are the accompanying wet patches. But the sweat and the bacteria are beyond anyone’s control–just part of the package of our physical being. And yet Control it is the message we send and receive. Get your body under control, as if the droplets of sweat are screaming children misbehaving in public. On a public Providence bus, a man leans over to pick up his bag; a droplet of his sweat splashes onto the back of my hand. I freeze. I want to look away and scream. I want him off the bus, never mind that two stops ago he gave up his seat to me. How dare he hit me over the head—or rather, splash my on the back of the hand—with the blunt fact of his body.

We don’t tolerate unpleasant excretions, no matter how unavoidable. Perhaps it’s the body itself we don’t tolerate, whenever the body runs at cross purposes to how we desire to be perceived. When the body expels unappealing products of its inner workings, it betrays itself. In a room full of strangers, I could be confident, unflappable, beautiful, ethereal—except for the delta soaking through the front of my shirt. I want to explain that the odor or the discharge isn’t me, it’s some alien force that needs reprimanding. Excuse me, please. But it is me, of course. From time to time these things remind us that we are imprisoned in an unpredictable shell, which swells and shrinks, reeks and fails, exists and will die without consulting us at all.

Sweat undermines the surface that we desire to present to the world. I could dress in slacks, business professional. I could button my blouse up to my clavicle. I could moisturize, put makeup on. But when nervousness seeps through the blouse the illusion is ruined. I can’t be impermeable when my skin is literally opening up and leaking. I’m not impervious—I’m sweaty. I look up on a public bus, tracing the path of the strange, sudden sweat droplet, following the stench of a large man’s soaked perspiring torso. I wipe my eyes across him and his body, his obscene body. I avert my gaze, throw it disgusted next to my shoes like a crumpled tissue. But my shame is my own. Rejecting him, I reject myself. What we hate in others we hate because we cannot love it in ourselves. So we spurn those others to protect ourselves from what we have not yet learned to accept, the frailty that we may never learn to accept, the seepage of mucus and bile and sweat that will not be quelled.

Yet here I am, right now—here we are—in a hot and crowded kitchen, in July, in Providence. I took the bus here. The stink of sweat and beer expands dough-like in the room. A boy on the football team wipes the sweat from his arms with a bandana, beefy arms, like the ones belonging to the man on the bus. I can smell him from where I stand in the doorway, sweat and beer beneath peppermint aftershave. I don’t mind. I brush past him, sweaty skin on sweaty skin, to stand next to a different boy, a boy that I’ve been moving towards all night, but not so directly as to be obvious, I hope. He is sweating. I am sweating. I can smell the oils of his head, which melt into channels and course down his tanned neck. My body tends towards his. My mind is catching up. My shirt is soaked, and the V of my lower back, but I am not ashamed just now, not unhappy that the  gap between our arms is filled in just that little bit more. I don’t know yet that he will kiss me tonight, outside, we two held up in the summer night like a palm. For now I stand beside him, perspiring with him, with everyone. And while I cannot see it happen, in the air above our heads our sweat evaporates and mingles, rises joyful, intertwined.

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