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
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The Independent Culture
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. !