Friday, June 27, 2014

Why We Stink!

Humans can be a stinky species. Let’s face it, our bodies are quite adept at producing odors, many of them fairly rank. From orifices to crooks and crevices, our bodies give off a range of scents that can titillate or torment, depending upon conditions.

One of the most odoriferous places I’ve ever encountered is the London Underground. During the summer of 2002, I was completing my museum internship at the Natural History Museum and was a frequent traveler aboard the Tube. And because London is such a multicultural city, its public transportation provides a vast range of bodily aromas. B.O. abounded, as did the smell of unwashed hair and feet. Cooking spices lingered on breath and skin, intensified by the stifling heat of the subway, making it feel as if we were trapped in a steaming pot of tandoori. When the train finally screeched to a stop and the doors flew open, fresh air would rush in as the aromatic mob rushed out.

We’ve already covered the intricate dance between nose and brain in October’s Something Smells, so I thought we would explore our body’s amazing ability to produce odor. Let’s start at the head and work our way down…
We’ve all experienced bad breath (either personally or in our partner), especially in the morning, when the bacteria that infiltrate our mouths have had hours to multiply unchecked. Those bacteria, if left to their own devices, can cause gum disease, which in turn can cause chronic bad breath, technically known as halitosis. But gum disease is only one cause of a stinky mouth. What you eat can also affect your breath, especially foods that stink on their own. Onion and garlic not only pass through your mouth and down your gullet, they are also absorbed by your bloodstream where they travel to your lungs and are eventually exhaled. Not a good scenario if intimacy is on the agenda.

Other harbingers of halitosis include conditions such as diabetes and acid reflux, poor fitting dentures that trap food, and the worst offense of all – SMOKING!! Not only are you destroying your lungs, you’re also destroying the nasal passages of those you kiss. There’s nothing worse than French kissing an ashtray.
Moving down the body, we arrive at those classic stinkers, the armpits. Your body has two types of sweat glands which serve two different functions: the eccrine glands, which cover most of your body, and the apocrine glands that reside beneath the hairier regions, such as the armpits and groin. As your body heats up, the eccrines cool you down by secreting fluid onto the surface of your skin. The apocrines, however, are triggered by stress and respond by producing a milky fluid into your hair follicles. Although the fluid is odorless, it blends with bacteria on your skin to produce that common and oh-so-pungent aroma, body odor.
Moving south, we arrive at the genitals. Here, our paths diverge, for odor in the nether regions depends on whether you sport a penis or a vagina. They each have their own aromatic obstacles.

Women are all too familiar with issues of odor, for whenever you possess a warm, moist, cavity, sooner or later, it’s going to stink. Normal sweating and fluctuations in your menstrual cycle can cause odor, but if it persists, bacteria are probably to blame. The most common cause of vaginal odor is a lovely condition known as bacterial vaginosis – an uprising of the normally occurring bacteria in which they overrun the V, leading to a smelly situation. Poor hygiene can also cause a stench, and many women respond by douching 'til the cows come home. Big mistake. Douching can lead to other problems by further upsetting the bacterial tug-of-war. A bit of advice: if you smell like the docks, it’s time to call your doc.
And although you guys are vagina-free, it doesn’t mean you can pass the smell test. Remember our buddies, the apocrines? They kick into overdrive when you’re emotionally stressed (or excited!) and the furrier you are down there, the more apt you are to smell. What do the experts recommend? You can bump up your personal hygiene routine, wear loose clothing (preferably cotton), and whip out the hedge clippers to keep things tidy. 

We finally arrive at the feet. Yes, foot odor is a common malady and even has a super-scientific name: bromodosis. Feet stink because feet sweat. In fact, there are more sweat glands on our feet than anywhere else on our bodies! And the more we sweat, the more we stink. To make matters worse, some folks suffer from hyperhidrosis, aka, excessive sweating.
But just like our smelly mouths, pits, and genitalia, there are remedies for smelly feet. Changing your shoes, wearing cotton socks, and using powder to absorb moisture can thwart foot odor. In fact, all of these stinky situations can be remedied with proper hygiene.

Your body is a complex organism, fueled by millions of chemical reactions taking place as you eat, sleep, and go about your daily routine. So it’s no surprise that some of those reactions produce funky smells.

So brush your teeth, take a shower, trim your hairy regions, and change your shoes and you too can be odor free. Your body - and those around you - will thank you.

Catch you next week!

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Evolution of the Bra


This morning while I was getting dressed, I realized that throughout my entire adult life, I’ve worn the same type of bra. It’s really a grownup version of a training bra: stretchy material that comfortably conforms to that most difficult of female physiques – the broad-shouldered, small-breasted tomboy variety.

For years, I’ve pumped and swum my way to a sturdy, muscular frame. Of course, much of that was dictated by the thirteen years I spent as a firefighter-paramedic, where I hoisted myriad tools, equipment, and patients on a regular basis. And even having left the field of emergency services, I still adhere to a rigorous workout regime.

But all those years of working out did little for the development of my female upper regions. Alas, I still sport the chest of a prepubescent teen and shall forever be relegated to the training bra.

Bras have truly evolved over the centuries. They are a reflection of fashion, function, and sexuality and are designed to lift, support, and separate those most essential female accoutrements, the boobies. So I thought it’d be fun to travel back in time and witness the evolution of this imperative undergarment. Let’s take a look…

Bras were believed to have evolved over the last hundred years: a result of women's kicking their corsets to the curb after centuries of miserable cinching. But in 2008, a couple of archaeologists stumbled upon four linen brassieres tucked within an Austrian castle dating back to the 1400s, pushing the invention of the bra back another five hundred years. These ancient undergarments resemble their modern counterparts, some even sporting intricate decorations of lace. They’re tattered and torn, calling to mind men’s jockey shorts, which are traditionally worn until they disintegrate.

In 1913, a corseted Mary Jacob was wrestling her way into a frock when she decided there had to be a better way. Using a ribbon and two handkerchiefs, she constructed a rudimentary bra (use your imagination), squishing and flattening her breasts into what is described in the literature as a “monobosom” (again, use your imagination). Word of her handy-dandy invention quickly spread , so a year later she patented her creation and capitalized on her busty achievement.

Around this time, World War I was winding down and the corset was on its way out. The metal that lined those miserable contraptions was needed for ammunition and tanks, so women everywhere gratefully complied. Styles were changing, too. The curvaceous figures of the corseted era were being replaced by the boyish, flat-chested flappers of the Jazz Age (damn, I would have been popular). Women were chopping their hair and shortening their skirts. They didn’t have time to mess with corsets. Besides, when you’re up all night drinking bootleg whisky and bebopping to Louis Armstrong, breasts just get in the way.

In 1922, in a small dress shop in New York, Enid Bissett, along with Ida and William Rosenthal, were hard at work perfecting what would become the modern bra. They devised a two-cup device that was held together with elastic and sewn into the dresses they designed. They soon realized they were sitting on a gold mine, so they stripped the bras from their dresses, sold them outright, and the Maidenform Bra was born! Since women come in all shapes and sizes, they devised the alphabetical designation for cups. The letter is based on how many ounces of booby the cup will hold: “A,” about eight ounces; “B,” thirteen; “C” can contain twenty-one bodacious ounces; and the daddy of all cups, “D,” can hold a whopping twenty-seven. That’s a lot of breast! I wonder where my bras rank?... I’m thinkin’ somewhere in the tablespoon realm.

An interesting side note: It was the American author, Mark Twain, of Huckleberry Finn fame, who devised the oh-so-clever elastic strap and metal clasps. He envisioned applying his elastic-clasp combo to an array of undergarments, but the pantaloons industry was in its death throes, so he stuck to bras.

But I digress...

About forty years later, human ingenuity took another giant leap forward. No, I’m not talking about the moon landing, I’m talking about the invention of the Wonderbra. With streamlined cups and a plethora of padding, even the “A” -leaguers could sport a bit of cleavage. But the real breakthrough came in 1977 when Roy Raymond founded Victoria’s Secret. Although Frederick’s of Hollywood had been around since the 1940s, many were too embarrassed to venture inside. Victoria’s Secret provided a safe haven for the bashful; and their catalogs, masturbation fodder for teenage boys everywhere.

But have you every stopped to ask yourself why?? Why do we wear bras? And more importantly, why do we consider “the natural look” obscene? Yes, bras hold everything in place, which becomes more important as the years tick by, but it’s disturbing that something as natural as unfettered breasts is deemed lewd and indecent.

I’m sure the menfolk would be in favor of a braless revolution. As for me, I’d participate, but I doubt anyone would notice…

 Me as a kid. Not much has changed...:)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Up From the Bogs...

My friends know me well. They are aware of my fascination with all things dead, thus my office is littered with their ghoulish gifts. There are the numerous objects sporting skeletons: from coffee mugs, to post cards, to bone-shaped candles. And then there are the actual dead critters that line my shelves: the beautiful skulls of alligator, raccoon, and turtle, along with my latest acquisition – from the leftovers of a physician’s anatomical collection – a bowl made from a human skull set atop a pelvic bone. It’s a beauty.

But some of my favorite oddities are found on my windowsill. There reside the corpses of a giant spider, a hairy moth, and the crème de la crème, my mummified lizard collection. The lizards had the misfortune of becoming trapped in our office basement. They were fairly fresh when found and I had the joy of watching them mummify over the accompanying weeks. Now their desiccated little bodies adorn my windowsill and keep me company throughout my busy day.

Mummies are cool. We’re all familiar with the classic Egyptian mummies: those meticulously tended bodies surrounded by a litter of elaborate grave goods. But what I find even more fascinating are the mummies produced by nature. I’m talkin’ bog bodies.

As a bioarchaeologist, I’ve spent years studying the skeletons of ancient Floridians. Most of my research has focused on the remains from Windover, a seven-thousand-year-old pond cemetery from which 168 well-preserved skeletons were excavated. (See April’s Ancient Agony). The pond provided the perfect environment for the preservation of bones: a neutral pH and a thick, anaerobic layer of peat in which the bodies were carefully placed.

Bog bodies are from similar settings. They too come from “wet sites,” yet the peat bogs that have produced these bodies, namely sites throughout northern Europe, tend to be acidic due to the presence of Sphagnum moss. The moss prevents bacteria from decomposing soft tissues, leaving behind skin, internal organs, and clothing, and providing virtual windows into the past.

The bogs are not formal cemeteries. Most appear to be the dumping grounds for those who met violent ends. Because of the remarkable preservation, many still exhibit the tools of their demise. Leather thongs used for asphyxiation, garrotes for strangulation, and ropes for hanging are recovered, still encircling the necks of their ancient victims. And when I say ancient, I mean ancient – some even date back ten thousand years.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of these amazing bodies.

Way back in 1879, the remains of a woman were discovered in a bog in Denmark. She apparently died over two thousand years ago, her body marred by repeated hacking wounds, her right arm torn from her body. A similar fate awaited a sixteen-year-old girl who was strangled and dumped in a bog in Holland. She was recovered in 1897, still wrapped in her worn, woolen cloak, the cloth used to strangle her still bunched around her throat.

Straddling the borders of western Germany and the Netherlands is Bourtanger Moor. Today, the moor is a vast nature preserve, but back in 1904, the bog produced the shriveled remains of two men, found side by side. We don’t know how one of the men died, but the other suffered a stab wound large enough to cause his intestines to escape up through his chest. Not a happy ending for this duo.

But one of the most famous (and well-preserved) of all bog bodies was discovered in 1950 by a peat cutting crew near the village of Tollund in Denmark. Tollund Man, as he came to be known, was a middle-aged man, just over five feet tall, who died around 400 B.C., apparently from strangulation. The four-foot-long braided leather strap used to choke him was left in place; faint indentions are still visible in the skin around his neck. He sports a small cap made from sheepskin, worn fur-side-in, probably to keep his head warm through the frigid Denmark winters. Two delicate leather straps hang from each side of the cap and you can just picture him securing them beneath his chin on cold, windy days. A leather belt still adorns his waist; the rest of his clothes were dissolved by the bog.

His face is extremely lifelike, as if he had simply stopped for a quick nap. His eyes are closed, his face relaxed. Even the stubble on his chin is intact and if you stare at him long enough, you can almost imagine his eyes fluttering open as he awakens from his two-thousand-year siesta. The excellent preservation extends beyond the superficial. His stomach and intestines provided clues to his last meal, which took place about twelve hours prior to his death. Thirty different types of plants were identified, including oats, barley, and flax. Two adventuresome archaeologists in 1954 took it upon themselves to recreate Tollund Man’s last meal, but their efforts were rewarded with a dish described simply as “dreadful.” Gotta give them credit for trying…

And Tollund’s face isn’t the only body part that is beautifully preserved. His feet are perfect wax-like renditions, his toenails still visible. He spent much of his life barefoot. The pads of his feet are well worn and show scars from previous injuries. His body is tucked on its left side, his legs curled, arms bent. Parts of his skeleton remain, the bones protruding along his extremities, his ribs visible beneath his glossy flesh.

Archaeology, and more specifically, bioarchaeology, can reveal much about the past through the skeletons left behind. And when those skeletons happen to remain fleshed, they provide a more intimate glimpse of ancient life. To look into the face of an individual who lived thousands of years ago, before cars and planes and computers, is a truly wondrous experience.

So the next time you’re traipsing through a bog, be on the lookout. You just might stumble upon the past.

Here's an exciting read on the subject featuring our buddy from Tollund!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why We Kiss

Recently, the media was abuzz over a newly drafted NFL player. What set tongues wagging was not the four-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year salary or the ingrained violence of pro football. Intolerants everywhere were outraged that the rookie shared a celebratory kiss with his partner, who just happened to be another man.

The squawking was immediate and profound, all of it over a simple kiss. I bet their heads exploded as they imagined the private celebration that took place later between Michael Sam and his partner, Vito Cammisano.

All the hubbub got me thinking about the significance of kissing. Why do we do it? How did it arise? What compelled our ancestors to press their lips together and go for it? Let’s explore.

Kissing surely predates its appearance in the written record. I’m betting the ancients were swapping spit long before writing was invented, since Neolithic entertainment was limited to tending goats and polishing your adze. Some of the earliest references come from India. Sanskrit texts dating to over three thousand years ago describe kissing, as does the famous (and oh-so-erotic) Kama Sutra, although the kissing is probably thrown in to provide a break from all those sexual contortions.

The industrious Romans even devised categories to describe their kissing. A kiss on the cheek? That was called an osculum. A kiss on the lips? A basium. And deep kisses were referred to as savolium. Not exactly words to make you swoon but, then again, kisses were also used in their business transactions, thus the saying, “Sealed with a kiss”!

Kissing may have its origins in feeding. Many animals are known to chew food and then pass it directly to their young. Psychologists theorize that in humans, this practice may have stuck around as the child got older, morphing from a necessity to a means of bonding. Ironically, the same muscle that allows an infant to latch on to the breast also enables us to lip lock. The orbicularis oris runs around the outside of your mouth. Not only does it allow you to pucker up, it also allows to contort your mouth to speak (unless you’re a ventriloquist).

The orbicularis is only one of many muscles that engage during a kiss. The lateral pterygoid pulls your jaw open while the masseter and temporalis ease it shut. But some of the most important muscles for kissing reside within your tongue (why bother kissing if you don’t go French?). The styloglossus, the palatoglossus, and the hypoglossus allow you to explore the interior regions of your partner’s mouth (among other areas), but here’s a word of advice to you boys: when it comes to the tongue, less is more. There’s nothing worse than an overzealous “thruster,” so play it cool and apply in moderation.

As we all know, the bliss of kissing is not confined to your mouths. Within seconds, your whole body jumps on board. Sensations race along the nerves of your mouth, tongue, and face, electrifying your brain, which gratefully dumps hormones and neurotransmitters into your bloodstream. Dopamine and serotonin provide that blissful rush, oxytocin intensifies your feelings of affection, and adrenaline makes your heart go pitter-patter. It’s a beautiful physiological symphony. It can also be a calorie-burner. One hour of kissing burns around twenty-six calories; nothing to brag about, but it beats the treadmill.

Kissing can improve your health, along with your relationship. Regular kissing has not only been shown to increase intimacy, it may also promote a healthy heart by reducing stress.

And we are not alone in our propensity to kiss. Apparently our buddies, the bonobos, whose sexual exploits we explored in May’s Sex Evolves, engage in the occasional smooch, as well.

Kissing plays a fundamental role in most cultures. According to the Bible, Judas was paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus with a kiss. The 1896 film by our own Thomas Edison, of telephone fame, was the first to premier a kiss on the wide screen in a movie blandly entitled “The Kiss” (not very creative for a famous inventor). And a creepy side note: a print of Mick Jagger’s lips sold for a whopping sixteen thousand dollars. Those smackers even sport their own Facebook page!

Your culture also dictates the context of kissing. Some countries, like China and Japan, are not big on physical contact, so public kissing is considered a no-no. In Western Europe, kissing has become the normal part of a meet-and-greet. And in Muslim countries, kissing is reserved for those of the same gender, which is practically unheard of in the good ole U.S. of A. Men kissing men?? You might as well ask them to put on a pair of pantyhose… which is really a shame. One of the things I loved about traveling through Italy was seeing men greet each other with a kiss to the cheek. So refreshing.

And apparently there are many different ways to kiss. The most expansive website I found boasted fifty different techniques, from the “freeze kiss,” where you add a piece of ice to the mix, to the “buzzing kiss,” which entails vibrating your lips and cheeks while humming next to your partner’s face. The ice, I can handle, but any “buzzing” partner of mine is going to get the fly-swatter.

A kiss is indelibly intimate. Sex itself can be an impersonal affair - ask any prostitute - but there’s something about a kiss that transcends the physical boundaries that separate us. So pucker up and enjoy the rush!

Happy kissing and I’ll catch you next week!