We may have an attraction to body odor that started long ago.
Imagine getting a text message from your significant other which specifically asks that you avoid a bath until your partner returns home from a business trip. Would you be mortified by the clear implications of such a request? Long before the advent of the mobile phone, it is believed that Napoleon Bonaparte made precisely the same demand of his wife, Joséphine. It would appear that the Little General had a peculiar sexual attraction to body odor.
Before you cringe, you should know that Napoleon’s appreciation for the sexiness of stink was fairly common in his era. Bathing and personal hygiene were viewed in a very different light from the medieval ages up to and beyond the late 18th Century. It is even said that Queen Elizabeth I, known to have had many suitors despite never taking a husband, bathed once per month. How pleasant the royal palace must have been in the latter days of July.
The Medieval Culture of Not Bathing
The infamous letter from Napoleon to Joséphine was allegedly brief. “I am coming home,” Napoleon wrote. “Don’t wash.” Really, though, does a request like that require elaboration? Even so, for many years there has been a discussion about what Napoleon meant. On the surface, one could intimate that the French leader had a fondness for his love’s body odor, and perhaps he did. It certainly wouldn’t be the only curious revelation about the enigmatic general. He is also said to have enjoyed randomly tugging on people’s ears.
As historic mysteries go, however, the reality is often different, and even more interesting, than the myth. Bathing from the Middle Ages up until the time of the Napoleonic Era was a complex matter. It would be incorrect to generalize that the Medieval period was completely steeped in filth and that all people of the age did not bathe. Public bathhouses were, in fact, quite fashionable, and even those on the lower end of the social scale owned basins for daily washing. Yet, there was also a counter-influence to the benefits of hygiene—the Church.
Immorality of the Bath
Bathing and bath houses were suspect for leading to temptations of the flesh. Therefore, the most pious of individuals rarely bathed. Also, the doctors of the 16th century weren’t physicians in the sense that we understand our own doctor today. They typically answered to the Church and were expected to consider maladies in the context of some grievous sin. Some doctors were known to warn against excessive bathing, but it is likely that they did so because the Church believed too much bathing created too much fascination with the human body. It also didn’t help that prostitutes of the era conducted their business around bath houses.
As to our baths, … there is not much that we can say, for we only bath twice a year, before Christmas and before Easter.
This moral opposition to too much bathing ceased for a brief period before surfacing again in the 18th Century, right around the time Napoleon was sending his randy request to Joséphine. Perhaps Napoleon was simply doing his part to encourage Joséphine’s fidelity and virtue. Oft-described as the most lovely woman in Paris at the time, Joséphine had a reputation for being a shameless seductress. Maybe Napoleon believed a powerful body odor would ward off any stray suitors in his absence. If he arrived to find Joséphine washed, it could have raised his suspicion that she’d been entertaining someone else.
Studies Regarding Attraction to Body Odor
In our present culture, hygiene is certainly more easily accomplished than it was in Napoleon’s time. The shelves of the local drugstore are stocked with an endless supply of soaps, shampoos, lotions, perfumes, and colognes which are designed to eliminate or mask body odor. Nevertheless, there is some evidence today which suggests that body odor can play a role in sexual attraction. It has long been known that the sexual activity of animals is affected by odor and scent. Only as recently as 2009, however, did researchers begin to explore attraction to body odor.
In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers described having heterosexual male subjects place absorbent pads under their armpits while watching a pornographic film. Subjects then repeated the process while watching a normal film. Then, 19 heterosexual women were asked to sniff the pads of the men who showed the most arousal. The women also sniffed a control pad with a neutral odor and also a pad which contained the hormone androstadienone which is believed to be a sex pheromone. Researchers used an MRI to monitor brain activity as the females sniffed the pads.
The results were somewhat surprising. The majority of women registered a preference for the pads used by the men who showed the most arousal. The study was the first to demonstrate a connection between body odor and sexual urges among humans.
These findings could indicate that Napoleon’s admonition to Joséphine had some erotic basis after all. There have also been stories which claim that during Elizabethan times, it was common for women to place fruit such as apples under their armpits to absorb the odor. Then they would then offer the fruit to their partner as a remembrance of them.
Our Changing Perceptions of Odor
It is less likely today that a woman would heed the directive of Napoleon, and perhaps doubtful that a man would make such a request. As a society, we tend to perceive body odor as gross and a sign that one is not attending to their personal hygiene. What we must consider is that society in the time of Napoleon was not as superficially concerned with stink. Furthermore, Napoleon himself did not have the benefit of Axe Body Wash. One can only surmise that Joséphine smelt her own share of BO.
We have adjusted as a society to a culture which takes great measures to rid ourselves of odor. If the study mentioned above is any indication, our changing attitude toward body odor, a case could perhaps be made that we’re also adjusting the standards of physical attraction. Here is a case in point. Recall the statement that Joséphine was referenced as the most alluring woman in Paris? What we know today is that she actually came from abject poverty and possessed a mouthful of black teeth. Yet, despite her hygienic flaws, Joséphine captured the heart of the most powerful man of her day. There is a lesson there somewhere about our fascination with appearances today.
Even so, as a single man, I feel compelled to add this final disclaimer. Any sweat-soaked apple slices presented to me as a token of attraction will be regarded as an automatic deal-breaker.
“Life story: Napolean’s secret weapon – Joséphine Bonaparte”
“How the Middle Ages Really Were”
“What Women Like About Male Sweat”
“The Smell Report, Sexual Attraction”
“Body Odor and Sexual Attraction“