The Joy of Sweat
W.W. Norton & Co., $26.95
The telltale darkened patches under our arms before a presentation. The cold slide of a clammy handshake. Sweat reveals what we often want to hide: our nervousness, fears and exertions, all with the slight odor of what we last ate.
But maybe it’s time to find “serenity instead of shame” in sweat, argues science journalist Sarah Everts. Through her delightful book, The Joy of Sweat, Everts delivers what she calls a “perspiration pep talk” that drips with science and history.
Everts’ plunge into sweat is full of energy, and her open curiosity about our much-maligned bodily secretion leaks onto every page. Temperature regulation through sweat, she notes, is a trait few species can boast. Every drop tells the tale of our evolution — our ability to keep our cool has literally kept us alive and thriving.
The book offers plenty of fascinating facts: Traces of drugs and diseases appear in our perspiration. Tiny drops of sweat create the fingerprint smudges used to identify us. Sweat may even hold clues about the nutritional content of what we eat.
While sweat “keeps us honest,” Everts writes, it also raises questions. For instance, how long until companies start mining the potential data dripping off people’s foreheads? Forget the smell of stinky feet — we may soon have to worry about the privacy implications of sweating in public.
But Everts is never too serious. She gamely gets her armpits professionally sniffed, and she joins naked, sweating audiences for sauna theater. She even goes smell-dating, working up a sweat in a crowd so potential mates could sniff for love — or at least, attraction.
These stories amuse, but a more profound point lingers. People collectively spend billions of dollars each year deodorizing, wicking sweat away and pretending with all their might that it doesn’t exist. The Joy of Sweat shows how this demand was created by deodorant and antiperspirant makers who sold sweat as a problem in the first place. The clear advertising spin will make readers reflect on how much of our hygiene habits are the result of manufactured humiliation. By highlighting history, Everts shows that any perceived problems of sweat are most often cultural, not biological. Sweat simply is “a body trying its best to do its thing,” she writes. And if we let that message seep into our minds (and out our armpits), we too can revel in the joy of sweat.
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