Fair warning: this question is kind of weird. Basically, I’m wondering under what circumstances, if any, is it acceptable to tell someone that you don’t like the way they smell. Hear me out: I’ve recently been on a couple of dates with this guy that I really like. He is very good-looking and seems super nice and funny. We connect well personally and politically. The only thing is, the “scent factor” is kind of off. I’m a very scent-sensitive person, to the extent that having chemical scent-free environments is an access need. The issue with this guy is that he has a strong body smell, which he covers with a body spray that is pretty harsh-smelling itself and it’s really having a negative effect on me. It’s making it basically impossible for me to enjoy any close-up physical contact … and I want to have close-up physical contact!
I’m a very confrontation-avoidant person, and I don’t want to come across as rude or mean by telling my date that I don’t like the way he smells. Normally, I would just not see a person again rather than bring it up. But this guy seems really awesome, and I feel potential there that I don’t want to give up! In my ideal world, I could just ask him to use a better and unscented deodorant and it wouldn’t be a big deal. Is there any way that this could be in the realm of socially acceptable? Should I just let it go and look for love elsewhere? I guess I’m wondering … would telling this guy to change his grooming habits be asking for non-scents or nonsense?
Scents And Sensibility
I totally hear you on the “scent”-sitivity of this question! Giving somebody feedback in a new dating situation is an extraordinarily anxiety-provoking thing to do, and that anxiety factor shoots through the roof when our feedback has anything to do with issues as intimate as physical appearance, hygiene, sexuality or smell.
Starting a new relationship is an incredibly vulnerable process for everyone involved. It requires us to engage in forms of intimacy that are prohibited in most other areas of our social lives, with people that we don’t really know and therefore can’t fully trust yet. In this early phase of relationship-building, our task is to see if building the foundation for deep trust and emotional safety is possible, in which case we continue the relationship—if it’s not, the relationship usually comes to an end. The tricky thing here is that giving and receiving feedback is a huge part of the trust-building process. It’s really scary to give or receive feedback when the trust isn’t there yet. It’s yet another one of those horrible Catch-22s that is inherent to being human! Argh!
When it comes to giving someone feedback about the way they smell, it’s important for us to be aware of some of the specific emotional and cultural baggage that comes with the topic: Personal smell (and smelling “bad”) is automatically connected to the notion of hygiene in the dominant culture, and hygiene can be connected to many traumatic narratives for people.
Children, for example, tend to have little control over their personal hygiene, and experiences of hygiene deprivation as a result of social oppression or parental neglect can result in kids being labelled as “smelly” at school, which is extremely painful. Experiences of physical trauma and abuse, as well as mental health experiences like depression can sometimes cause individuals to feel reluctant to engage with their bodies and avoid bathing, which often increases a sense of shame and social otherness.
Cultural stereotypes and stigmas about specific groups of people also play into traumatic experiences around personal scent and hygiene—for example, poor people have historically been labelled as “unclean” or “unwashed” by the middle and upper classes, and migrants and racialized people are also often derided as being “smelly” or “stinky” as a way of dehumanizing us.
All this to say, SAS, smell is a vastly loaded topic and we need to take great care if we are to bring it up in a non-shaming way. What makes it safe to address such a topic with another person? In the first place, I think that familiarity has a lot to do with it. When we know someone well and we know that they have our best interest at heart, it’s often a lot easier to receive that kind of feedback. The question for you, of course, is how well do you know one another after just a couple of dates? What’s your sense of how much relational safety has already been generated for you to lean on as you navigate this thorny conversation? What do you already know about what this person likes and dislikes about receiving feedback? Does your gut tell you that this could be a potentially fruitful conversation, or that it’s just not a good idea?
If you have any feelings that it might be okay to proceed with this exploration, I suggest starting by establishing some measure of consent first. You might say something like, “Hey, I have something potentially awkward to bring up with you, is that okay?” or “I really like you and I want to keep seeing you, and I’m wondering if you’d be open to hearing something kind of sensitive?” In cases like this, I’d actually recommend asking for consent over text message rather than in person, because it gives them time to really think about how they want to respond, whereas asking something like this in person can create an automatic pressure to say “yes.” Once the person has consented, then you can ask for a phone or in-person conversation, and if they don’t respond (a very real possibility), I think it’s safe to assume that they wouldn’t receive your feedback well anyway.
If you do move forward, I’d suggest that you frame the conversation around your access needs and chemical sensitivity rather than acknowledge that it’s an awkward conversation, and be clear that you’re not expressing any judgment. Specificity, clarity and context are key when offering feedback—tell him:
1) Good news: You like him, what you like about him, that you’d like to keep seeing him.
2) Bad news: You’re finding the way he smells challenging, and even though he’s using a strong product, the product is actually a part of the issue, and it’s making it hard for you to enjoy close physical contact. You know this can be a touchy and tricky subject.
3) What’s needed: You’re asking if he would consider switching deodorants, at least for the times when you’re seeing one another.
4) What’s next: Ask him how he’s feeling and how he’d like to move forward.
Do your best to keep it short and to the point! The more succinct you are, the easier it will feel for him to integrate what you’ve said and to respond authentically.
After the initial conversation, it can be a good idea to also ask how he feels about the way you brought things up and if there’s anything he would have preferred. This kind of reflection is what therapists call “meta conversation,” that is, talking about how you talk to one another, and it can help to create the foundation of relational safety.
Of course, there are no guarantees that the conversation will go well, no matter how skilfully you handle it, SAS. Is it worth the risk to try? It’s totally subjective, but if I were you, I’d go for it! Real romantic connections are rare enough in this life that I think they are worth potentially difficult conversations. And indeed, it might even be that abruptly breaking off a good connection might well be more painful to both you and your date than a sensitive conversation about a tough topic. While it isn’t ideal, having some of these kinds of conversations early on can really help you to discern which connections are worth pursuing and what your growing edges are when it comes to relationship skills.
Fortune favours the bold, SAS—and love favours those who can be both bold and kind at the same time. All you can do is try your best and take responsibility for any mistakes you make along the way. Avoidance can only get you so far. Eventually, you have to embrace the awkward and in so doing, learn more about yourself and those you are in relationship with. And who knows? You might like what you find.
Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.