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Sweating It

Photograph of a sweaty nape of a neck
  • By Bijan Stephen
  • Issue 17
  • EssentialOctober 2016

I can’t remember when I stopped wearing antiperspirant. It happened imperceptibly—so gradually that I became conscious of it only when I realized I wasn’t worried about not having it on. On the New York City subway in midsummer, surrounded by commuters wearing the same expression of near-defeat, I no longer shared their posture: arms held slightly apart from bodies, with a wider stance than usual, attempting to minimize skin-on-fabric contact. Trying not to sweat. A few years ago, someone created a website that predicted temperatures on L train platforms; temperatures regularly top 100°F. A rush hour subway platform is a hot, smelly affair, but I found myself less afraid of it. I didn’t mind sweating freely. I didn’t mind others sweating freely, either, even as the bacteria on their skin gobbled up moisture to produce that honest pong—a familiar smell of unwashed body you mainly register when it’s not your own.

There is an anti-antiperspirant movement, which campaigns against the metals and esters that prevent you from sweating. Simple deodorants are newly popular. They don’t inoculate against sweat, or, really, smells. It’s a Victorian way to combat body odor, adding another layer to your base scent. This feels both individual and democratic. It’s better on the other side of dry armpits, where we can tacitly acknowledge that things are less civilized than we generally imagine them to be. I can’t explain why, but since I took on this viewpoint I’ve noticed I’ve been sweating less. That feels philosophically correct and empirically satisfying. Everyone sweats, in the same way that everyone dies—it’s a precondition of being alive and having a body.

Sweat glands mature in the first two years of life, meaning sweat regulation is set when we’re young. If you grew up in a hotter climate, with more active sweat glands, you probably tend to be sweatier than those who lived elsewhere during that formative time. I grew up in East Texas, where the temperature and humidity generally coincide; when I was in high school, at soccer practice, people fainted from heat stroke. Marching band practice, out there on the hot asphalt, was miserable, and bearable only after I sweated through my shirt.

Most sweat glands are eccrine glands, which serve a thermoregulatory purpose. But the sweat glands in our armpits and groins, the apocrine glands, are different—their main function isn't cooling, and is an evolutionary holdover. They are most active during sex and stress. Sweating at night generally indicates that something serious has gone wrong; in my case, I have learned, it’s that I am over-bundled. This is a medical term that means too covered with blankets. When I was younger I used to wake up in the middle of the night dreaming of nuclear reactors and plumes of radioactive fallout. I’d stare at the moon while I sweated out the dream, as though surfacing from a body of water at night. These days my anxieties are more generalized, and I can’t remember where I am before I return to consciousness.

Photo by Rose Marie Cromwell