Smell: The teenage obsession

Pubescent boys are using cleansing and freshening lotions in unprecedented quantities. James Delingpole investigates, while savouring the memory of his own fetid adolescence

IT WASNT quite as poetic as Proust's madeleine but it had the same effect: at the first whiff of my 12-year-old stepson's school dormitory - that noxious pong redolent of rancid foot, heavy body odour and cheap deodorant which I hadn't smelt in more than 15 years - I was transported instantaneously back in time to my own miserable days as a fetid teenager.

And all at once the memories came flood- ing in: the fruitless daily routine with the Biac-tol and the Clearasil; the endless assaults on blackheads which, like hydras, seemed to spring up tenfold for every one you squeezed; odour-eaters underfoot, deodorant underarm, Mycil under testicles; and the frequent checks in the nearest mirror to see whether by some miracle your acne-stricken features and lank, greasy hair had grown marginally less disgusting than they were last time you looked, 30 seconds ago.

Such were the horrors of my own adolescence and, by all accounts, things have grown more difficult still for the current generation of male teenagers. According to the youth marketing research company Informer, the average spotty youth - under pressure from his peers, uncertain about his role in a post-feminist world, besieged by advice from men's magazines such as FHM and Loaded, and by the existence of a growing range of male grooming products - is spending more time than ever behind the bathroom door, fighting a desperate battle against those raging hormones.

If you're a woman (and you don't have a teenage son or brother) you might well think this sounds like exaggeration. But that's because teenage boys tend not to talk about their problems. It's not just because they won't (it's uncool and unmanly) but also because they can't. No sooner has puberty arrived than they become incapable of communicating with anything more articulate than the occasional grunted monosyllable. Besides, at that age you'd far rather be in your bedroom playing the sort of music your parents hate and flicking through porn mags than responding to dumb questions from grown-ups who don't know anything.

This posed a bit of a problem in my attempts to discover from various teenaged boys just how obsessive were their hygiene habits. When I tried speaking to Arthur, 15, from west London, for example, pretty much the most elaborate answers he was prepared to give were, "Not really," "I guess"and "I suppose."

After extensive cross-examination, however, he did grudgingly disclose that he spent about 10 minutes each day in the bathroom using Biactol and Oxy spot creams; and that he'd given up using deodorant because only 11- and 12-year-olds were stupid enough to imagine that it was a serious deterrent to body odour.

Fortunately, Arthur's mother Hilary was more forthcoming. "It happens overnight," she says. "One minute you've got this dirty child who hasn't washed for 13 years. The next it's, 'Where's the bathroom, mum?' And you think, Oh my God. He's finally discovered girls. He's quite shy about it. I suppose there's a bit of embarrassment about being seen to lose his cool. But I do know that a lot of tweaking and manicuring goes on behind closed doors."

The first stages of puberty, Hilary reckons, are the worst. They strike at about the age of 12 or 13, when boys first tend to discover the manly thrill of using deodorant. "How we suffered in the days when Superdrug was doing a 'buy two cans of Lynx, get 10 free'. We could scarcely breathe." As my 12-year-old step- son confirms, extensive use of Lynx (or, for the more daring, Calvin Klein aftershave) is the sine qua non of early adolescent cool. "Everyone in my year wears it, apart from one boy whose mum won't let him use deodorant. He smells quite bad." And what happens to boys who smell quite bad? "Oh, you just say to them, 'Use some deodorant'."

If that's really all that gets said to boys who smell, then things have changed markedly since my own adolescence. When I was at school, being stinky was considered quite the worst crime imaginable. "Schwet-i-ie," you'd chant at the offender, holding your nose and making noises similar to one of those dogs that can say "Sausages".

Though I've forgotten the names of most my contemporaries, I can still vividly recall the ones of those who famously stank. And also the ones of those who didn't stink but had unfortunately smelly surnames: Ramsbottom (predictably known as Ram's Arse) and Tim O'Dell, whose name was the basis for a hilarious couplet: "What's that smell?/ It's Tim O'Dell."

Little wonder that so many of us spent so much time ostentatiously taking showers. At prep school, it was almost a badge of honour not to have a shower. It proved you were an intellectual rather than a brainless sporty type. But the rule certainly didn't apply by the time I reached public school.

Indeed, our twice- (or three-, four-, or five-times) daily shower, became the very pinnacle of our social lives. "Coming for a shower?" you'd say to your mates. And if you were really serious, you'd drag in a plastic chair so that you could stay under the nozzle extra long - sometimes for a whole hour. The practice became so widespread that our housemaster tried to ban it. "Only one shower a day and no more than 10 minutes," he decreed.

Of course it might just have been that, as public schoolboys, we were all latent homosexuals dying to cop another sight of each other's willies. But I reckon that the male cameraderie of communal showering is far healthier than the lily-livered current practice (at my stepson's school, anyway) of giving boys their own separate shower cubicles. I suppose it's done for the benefit of mothers who are terrified that their darling boys might accidentally be turned gay.

The latest research suggests that it is wholly natural for the male adolescent to be obsessed with showering. Between the ages of 11 and 12, about 30 per cent of boys take at the least one shower or bath a day. By the ages of 14 and 15, the figure has risen to 40 per cent. Thinking about it, that's not all that impressive a rise. My guess is that the 14- and 15-year-olds were lying to show what "don't give a damn" dudes they were.

Because let's face it, by that stage, you'll do anything in your power to offset the hideous effects of full-blown puberty. Your sweat glands start going into overdrive, causing your armpits and feet and crotch to reek, and your once-smooth ephebic features to resemble something like the aftermath of Passchendaele.

"You think about it all the time," says 15- year-old Mike from Worcester. "What you look like. Whether your spots are showing. But you'd never talk about it with anyone at school, no way."

In this respect boys are at a huge disadvantage to girls, for whom it's perfectly normal to discuss the state of their skin and what to do about it. For them it's just another branch of cosmetics. For boys, however, the idea of being caught doing something as poncey as going to work with the cotton wool and the cleanser or applying cover-up to your spots is anathema. The whole point about being a bloke is that you have to look good effortlessly.

Yet there's no doubt that today's male teenagers are indulging more and more in traditionally girlie practices. The market researchers say so. "Though it breaks the masculine conventions about fear of ridicule," says Informer's Ian Pierpoint, "it has to some extent been legitimised by men's magazines like FHM which tell you it's OK to take care over the way you look. It's not only more acceptable to use spot cream but also moisturisers, scrubs, face packs and aromatherapy oils. Guys are starting to pick the best bits from the female world."

But do all these treatments actually work? Mike's father Nick doesn't think so. And, as a doctor, he should know. "A lot of the cleansers are alcohol-based, so they dry out the skin. They don't do much to cure the spots. They just make your face look crusty. As for cover-up, that merely makes you look like someone who's got spots but has covered them in thick foundation. If somebody has a serious acne problem, then the only treatment that really works is long-term antibiotics."

Which certainly bears out my own experiences in the world of zit hell. I suppose there are certain psychological benefits to be gained from using the full range of spot lotions - at least you feel you're doing something about the problem - but I do wonder whether teenagers aren't all the victims of some conspiracy by the cosmetics industry designed to make them buy costly potions they don't need.

And, rather like chemical fertilisers, the more you use these potions, the more you have to use them. I've noticed this on the occasions when I've tried using my wife's Clarins. My skin looks great immediately afterwards, but unless I carry on using the stuff, I find my face erupts into horrid, subcutaneous pustules. When I stick to my usual warm-water-and-no-soap routine, on the other hand, my skin seems to take care of itself.

The fact is, if you're a male teenager, you're virtually guaranteed to get spots whatever you do, so you might as well grin and bear it. It's not as if it's all bad. When else in life do you get the matchless pleasure which comes from attacking those little black wrigglers which congregate around your nose; or the really juicy ones on your chin which, with just a little pressure, can be made to explode so satisfyingly on the mirror?

I must say, though, I do wish that those wonderful new nose-packs had been available when I were a lad: the strips which you moisten and put over your nose, leave to dry, and then pull off to reveal a wormy horde of freshly unearthed blackheads. They're great fun.

Really, though, the biggest problem of male adolescence is not acne nor BO nor crotch-rot but lack of self-esteem. Yes, girls suffer from this too at that age, but not nearly as badly, according to Informer's research. As Ian Pierpoint explains, in these post-feminist times, "girls are not looked down on for being overtly female." In fact they're positively encouraged to behave as girlishly as possible.

Boys, on the other hand, are "reactive, uncertain, negative". They're expected to behave in one way with their mates, another with their parents and yet another in front of girls. Inevitably, it leads to a great deal of confusion. (Which, incidentally, says Pierpoint, is one reason why the New Laddism became so popular. At last, a movement which allowed young men to remain true to their blokeish instincts.)

It's sexuality, of course, which is at the root of male adolescent unease. The main reason - almost, in fact, the only reason - cited by young men in Informer's surveys as to why they struggle to look and smell good is their urge to appeal to the opposite sex. (Girls give different reasons: their main priority is looking good for themselves; their second, for other women; doing it for the benefit of boys comes a poor third).

And here's the really cruel part: the girls just aren't interested. If you're a 13- to 15-year-old boy, most of the girls in your age group will be chasing older (and less smelly and spotty) men, while the younger ones are far more preoccupied with Leonardo DiCaprio, Boyzone or their darling little ponies.

And even in the unlikely event that a girl of your age were prepared to cast a glance in your direction, she'd soon change her mind. If there's one thing girls hate it's blokes who take too much trouble over their appearance. It's so effeminate. So unattractive. !

Arts and Entertainment

photography
Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

art
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible