B.O. No

Professor's email at U of Houston about body odor, referencing some cultures, raises concerns about how to broach this delicate topic, if at all.

January 21, 2019
 
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A professor of engineering at the University of Houston is facing criticism for writing an email to graduate students about the importance of personal hygiene, singling out certain cultures in the process.

“People from different parts of the world have different food habits and many Americans do enjoy ethnic foods,” the professor wrote to all graduate students in the program. “People from India use lots of spices and people from other Southeast Asian countries use lot of garlic which has lots of health benefits. However, there is one problem. The body odor due to consumption of these foods becomes strong.”

Some students “do not change their shirts daily,” the email continues. “The shirt may not look dirty but has absorbed one's body odor after wearing it whole day. To make the matters worse, Houston is very hot and humid most of the year and the perspiration from our body adds to the odor problem further.”

The letter suggests what students “must do,” including using deodorant or light perfume and taking a shower every morning, even “if you have a quiz or test.”

“Most Americans shower twice daily once in the morning and once before going to bed,” the letter asserts. And if “you do eat spicy/garlicky food, please use mouth wash.”

“The person having the odor is the last person to know it,” the letter concludes. “However, it is not bearable for someone sitting next to you for hour and half or longer. So, please be considerate to others beginning today. Remember you are the ambassador of your country and do not want people to remember you as the one having bad odor.”

The professor who wrote letter has not been named publicly. But the email itself has attracted attention, including that of the local news station, Click2Houston. Some students have commented that publicly the letter is appropriate. But others have said they believe the note is racist and offensive due to the inclusion of certain cultural groups. And anyone who has ever visited a campus knows that college and university students in general aren't known for terrific hygiene.

The university said in a statement that personal hygiene is “a sensitive topic and every culture has accepted standards.” The message was shared with “good intentions and meant to help any student avoid a potentially embarrassing or awkward situation by making them aware of the hygiene practices that prevail in the U.S.,” it said.

“As the second most diverse public research institution in the country,” Houston added, “we are committed to fostering a diverse, inclusive and respectful environment for the [university] community to live and learn.”

Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, senior lecturer in literacy, culture and international education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said that in an apparent attempt to be “well-meaning, the email is full of microaggressions and factual inaccuracies.”

Not only does the letter imply that international students and, by extension, immigrants, from certain parts of the world are “the guilty party when it comes to body odor,” Ghaffar-Kucher said, it also casts Americans -- presumably white ones -- as “non-ethnic” people.

Admitting that she was “no expert” on the science of body odor, Ghaffar-Kucher said that she believed it was not all about one’s diet, and that genes play a role. Beyond that, she said, actual data suggest that most Americans do not shower twice a day (others have said the same in discussions about the email on social media).

Ghaffar-Kucher didn’t rule out the idea of discussing hygiene with students entirely. But she said that if the issue was serious enough to warrant attention, the professor could have simply said something shorter and to the point, such as, “Body odor is a universal issue that causes discomfort to those who are in close proximity to the odor. Therefore it is recommended that all students take a daily shower, use deodorant and wear fresh clothes every day.”

It’s “the tiptoeing around the issue by talking about the health benefits of garlic and spicy food -- and juxtaposing that with the factual inaccuracies -- that actually made it worse,” she said. “Because, ultimately, the message implied is that people of color, from Asia in particular, need to work on their personal hygiene.”

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