“She Didn’t Look Depressed to Me”: On Postpartum Depression and Funky Smelling Girls

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Dr. A. Breeze Harper

The other week, I was at my community park in Berkeley, CA. I overheard two men who work at the community park center, talking to each other. One of the men told his colleague that he saw a female colleague dancing at a club. He said that she was on disability leave because she had postpartum depression. Shaking his head disapprovingly at his colleague, he said, “I saw her at that club and she was having a good time. She didn’t look depressed to me.”
It wasn’t my conversation so I didn’t come over to correct this man and his assumptions about what it ‘looks like to be depressed.’ I decided to be ‘polite’ over being ‘politically correct’. Should have I?

…But then, a few days later, the same man started talking to me about one of the kids there at the park who was attending the summer camp program. He informed me that one of the preteen girls smelled ‘really funky’ and that he had to tell her mother that she needed better hygiene practices. He said that her mother was offended and he told me he said, “Well, would it be better if one of her friends told her she was really funky?” He said she needed antiperspirant. So, this 50 something year old man thought he was trying to be helpful, but I found it really uncomfortable that he was even talking to me about this.

When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I learned how I was supposed to be ‘ashamed’ of smelling bad. Boys apparently could smell nasty, but not us girls. It was all around me: ridiculous commercials that reminded me how disgusting and shameful it is to smell like less than a prize winning rose as a female. I also remember my mother telling me that I should make an effort to make sure I don’t smell while on my period. I never was able to solve that ‘problem’ though, as I was always very odoriferous during Aunt Flo’s visit. Puberty basically meant spending a lot of time using soaps, sprays, and anti-perspiration deodorants to mask my natural bodily odors; products that I would later learn were horrendous for my health.

Unfortunately, I grew up in an interesting culture in which people like my mother and this man at the park believe that one should use harsh chemicals to mask the shame of natural odors. And on top of this, I would later learn that as the only Black girl in an entirely white K-12 school system, I simply could not smell or make it appear that I had ‘bad’ hygiene practices because I had to represent an entire race of people (that, in itself, is another story!).

And of course most of us who subscribe to this culture don’t even know that products such as anti-perspiration deodorants are toxic to our systems. So, as this man at the park explained how he confronted this mother about her daughter’s odor, I kept thinking how this girl shouldn’t dunk her body in a bunch of chemicals that will increase her likelihood of yeast infections (FDS use) or using just to make people like this man, happy. But, I also thought about how this man commenting about her hygiene practices is Black and so is she. How much did that have to do with his need to tell her mother? Is he concerned about this issue with all kids he helps to take care of during summer camp, or are Black girls more of a concern because he doesn’t want them ‘embarrass’ all Black people?

Overall, this man’s perspective on cisgender female’s bodily processes (hormonal changes that cause postpartum depression and certain body odors starting with puberty) was quite disconcerting for me. However, I know that he is not an anomaly but rather represents what a majority of those in the USA think.

Maybe I will return to that park, armed with data that shows how postpartum depression is real and that most Americans have an unhealthy relationship with how they deal with the fragrant human body? I can leave a gentle note letting him know how his perspective is potentially harmful and hurtful.

If you enjoy the content of my writing, you can find out more about my latest book project. This book will be book number 3 for me. My first two were Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health and Society (Lantern Books 2010) and Scars: A Black Lesbian Experience in Rural White New England (Sense Publishers 2014).

My new book is tentatively title “Gs Up, Hoes Down”: Black Masculinity, Veganism, and Ethical Consumption (The Remix). Don’t worry folk, the first part of the title is from DJ Cavem’s song of the same title which talks about Gs as “organic growers” and “hoes” as the garden tool. Go here to find out more.

3 thoughts on ““She Didn’t Look Depressed to Me”: On Postpartum Depression and Funky Smelling Girls

  1. I was just talking to my friend about embarrassing menstrual stories and situations, while experimenting on making cloth pads. Then I saw your post. I remember the smell insecurities, as if cramps and body changes weren’t enough to handle. I remember the paranoia about ‘the smell’ because I never overcame the situation. I have made lifestyle changes since puberty; but the struggle was real….. On the subject Postpartum Depression, Why is it taboo for a women to go enjoy herself if she is dealing with postpartum depression? is she supposed to stay at home and be depressed and overwhelmed? It’s always awkward when men feel like they have a sense of entitlement to speak on women’s issues and they are not supportive or informed. Dr. Harper, if he continues to engage in conversations like these with you, give him the data!

  2. Well, I’m one of those who don’t like to smell bad. I don’t care if it’s “natural”; me personally I don’t like period or musty smells…I don’t like the smell of roses either (ugh! roses stink!), so it’s not a right thing or wrong, it’s just a personal taste in what odors one likes and don’t like.

    When I used to have a period, I would always take a bath instead of showering. I noticed soaking in water lessens any odor. I’d just use soap and water (no body sprays or anything) and I was fine.

    Maybe change of eating certain foods/drinks helps with menstrual scents, because I know for a fact bodily secretion smells a lot according to what one eats and drinks..

    Regarding deodorant, I use animal cruelty-free Certain Dri anti-antiperspirant. It’s the ONLY product that is vegan and keeps me from smelling musty. This antiperspirant isn’t as harmful as others (I did my research comparing many underarm products). I’ve tried everything from commercial to homemade to “guaranteed healthy and will keep you from smelling”…none works for me except antiperspirant Lady Mitchum and Certain Dri, but I choose Certain Dri because Mitchum products test on animals. Seems like no natural deodorant (non-antiperspirant) on this planet works for me.

    I believe we can’t escape every bad thing out there. Worried about underarm chemicals? Think about all the chemicals we breathe in every second of our lives that’s in the air. I think the best thing to do is work in other areas to stay healthy and I do, like eating right, exercising, I don’t smoke or drink alcohol, I don’t take any drugs–including prescription, I live in a minimum stress environment, etc. this makes up for any one or two unhealthy things I take into my system if I feel the need to do so.

    I don’t know about others, but where I live, if you are musty, you most likely will never be hired for a job (I did volunteer orientation at a hospital recently and a supervisor said she had to tell a person once that she had an odor, but then again at hospitals, they don’t want you smelling like anything so no perfumes as well…).

    IMO, it’s not so easy not caring what others think and to go around smelling “naturally”. There are other people one is in contact with you have to get along with (bosses, friends, lovers) which usually also means having to smell “nice”.

  3. I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one whose mother was almost obsessed with hygiene. I still struggle with some of the things my mom has said to me.
    Just today I woke up from sleeping in the nude and I’m currently menstruating. It’s good for the body to “air out” and there was a bit of a smell when I woke up. I took it in stride and didn’t get into the shower. Once I put on undies and put some natural vegan deodorant on, I felt okay. I have noticed since my vegan diet I don’t “smell” as much.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, Dr. Harper.

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