What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I am a Profuse Sweater.
I come by it honestly, at least. Both of my parents can claim the same title; one grandfather in particular was famed for his ability to perspire. Give me even a modest increase in humidity coupled with a temperature above 78 degrees F, and unless I am sitting very still, odds are good I’m going to start sweating.
It's mostly my head that sweats, for whatever reason, and with assistance from gravity it supplies its annoying dampness to the rest of me. This also means my hair takes the first hit -- since I wear my hair curly, it doesn’t really affect the style but it does become sort of obviously damp. Then I get self-conscious. Which probably makes me sweat more. Repeat ad nauseam. It’s little wonder that I spent my teenage years in Florida despising hot weather, until I moved to Boston and experienced actual seasons and developed a reason to appreciate the warmth of summer.
My most dramatic sweating trauma happened fairly recently, though. Last year, I went to Jamaica to work at a free annual health clinic my father has been helping to organize for practically a decade. I thought my biggest struggles on that trip would be the obvious ones, like facing dramatic rural poverty, trying to understand the patois dialect I had little experience with, or even just not having Internet access.
I was wrong -- I adapted to all that more easily than I expected. Even the two daily hour-long bus rides, which I was sure would have me fighting my propensity to motion sickness, were manageable. The hardest part was actually the sweating, something that hadn’t even crossed my mind before I went.
I mean, it’s Jamaica. It’s the Caribbean. I knew it would be hot. I just didn’t realize how hot. I would begin each morning showered and dry, but within the first hour in the stuffy still air of the church function hall where my work went down, I was soaked. Like literally drenched as though someone had tipped a bucket of water over my head (which I would have welcomed, to be honest).
My embarrassment quickly faded once I realized that by the time my clothes were soaked through once, no one else could really tell how damp I was unless they actually touched me -- sweat marks don't stand out so much when your entire outfit is wet through. A bandana worn kerchief-style over my head hid my saturated hair.
Understand, this wasn’t vanity; I didn’t really care about my appearance in terms of looking good, so much as I didn’t want to obviously stand out any more than I already did. Because even in that heat, working my ass off, I was embarrassed to be so sweaty.
All I really had to face was the personal discomfort, which -- given that I was working active 11-12 hour days in no air conditioning, with no access to a change of clothes, and only a brief lunch break -- was more significant that I could have anticipated. Even the most high-tech wicking fabric would have been no match for my sweating capacity in that heat. I brought the sweat on more quickly than it could possibly evaporate. If I had a moment to sit down -- which didn’t happen often, in fairness -- I would hear myself audibly squish.
Evenings we were hosted for dinner on the roof of a local restaurant, and when the sun went down and the temperatures slowly became more tolerable I would sit and shiver in my damp clothes. When I got back to our room at night, I could literally wring out my bra in the bathroom.
After the first day of this, exhausted and frustrated, I sat quietly on my bed trying not to cry, telling myself, Where the fuck is your perspective, Lesley? You’re this upset because you sweated a lot? LOOK WHERE YOU ARE. I’m not proud of it. Even now I find it embarrassing that I was so despondent. It was just incredibly uncomfortable, being in wet clothes all day. I came to accept it over the eleven days we were there but still, I rememeber marinating in my own juices while feeling as though I was being LITERALLY COOKED with a certain terror.
In my everyday life, I spend hot days in air-conditioned comfort, and much of my heavier sweating is relegated to exercise and outdoor activities, like sunny walks in the city or days at the beach. Or the Harvard Book Store's annual warehouse sale last weekend, which was both hot AND crowded and had me fishing random napkins out of my bag to repeatedly mop my face with. I kept looking around thinking, Why is no one else sweating as much? Or maybe they are, and I'm just not noticing it?
If you asked me straight-out whether my sweat-related embarrassment keeps me from doing things I want to do, I’d probably say no -- but in reading up on sweat-related subjects to write this, I’m not actually sure if that’s true.
I do sometimes avoid sweat-making social activities in the summer. And if I'm out and sweating a lot, I will occasionally find myself reluctant to make eye contact with other people because, ugh, I am so gross right now, what must they think of me? I have shopped for clothes by guessing at how likely they were to noticably change color when part of them were made damp. And many are the times that I've risen from a seat, in an outdoor cafe or on public transportation, and been a little mortified to see a shadowy butt-print left behind, delicately rendered in my own personal condensation.
Biologically speaking, sweating is a fascinating process, functioning as our bodies’ own personal cooling system. When we produce sweat, the moisture on our skin evaporates and helps us shed excess body heat before it can do any damage. Sweating is also good for the skin, as it opens the pores, and being a form of excretion, rids the body of wastes (“toxins” is the trendier word for it I guess, but whatever). Sweating even helps your circulation and may boost your immune system. It’s a normal and beneficial thing our bodies do, even though we may not always be happy about it. (Indeed, some people can't sweat normally -- this is called anhidrosis -- and this is actually a dangerous condition.)
The medical term for excessive sweating is hyperhidrosis, and it can take two forms: primary focal hyperhidrosis and secondary general hyperhidrosis. The primary sort tends to only affect certain parts of the body -- the head, or the hands and feet, for example -- and is not generally considered a health issue, although the embarrasment it can inspire may certainly affect the quality of life of people who have it, such that many even pursue surgery to end it. Doctors don’t really know what causes primary focal hyperhidrosis, although it may be genetic.
Secondary general hyperhidrosis is not localized sweating, but excessive perspiration that happens uniformly all over the body, and can actually be a sign of a more serious underlying condition, especially if you find yourself sweating profusely all over even when you’re NOT engaged in an activity -- such as if you’re just sitting on the couch, or having extreme night sweats in your sleep. This can signal conditions from diabetes to menopause to thyroid issues.
But for most of us, sweating is not really a health issue so much as it is a social one. Although I hadn’t really considered it until now, I do limit certain activities in hot weather not because I dislike heat or sunshine, but because I don’t want to feel weird about all my sweating, or at least, my sweating in circumstances where nobody else seems to be sweating as much. Sweating at the gym or on the beach is fine. Sweating while shopping in the city or, um, doing a public book reading or speaking gig? Sort of less cool.
Simply put, sweating is not simply a biological process we all accept. It has cultural weight. We think of it as embarrassing to sweat too much, that sweating is unsanitary and gross, and that heavy perspiration even during active exercise signals poor physical condition on the part of the sweat-producing person.
This last point, at least, is far from conclusively proven. A few years ago, an oft-cited study that looked at differences in sweating between biological sexes threw such assumptions about perspiration and fitness into question. The study, put together by researchers at two universities in Japan, found that fitter people actually sweated MORE, and started sweating sooner upon beginning exercise, than their less-fit counterparts.
The supposed reason for this is that people who are more physically fit have bodies well trained to respond to an increase in activity and body temperature quickly, whereas those who were not particularly active took longer to work up a sweat, even when their core temperature had risen significiantly. This result seems to be supported by another 2012 study that found that fit men do sweat more than unfit men.
Then again, in 2011, a Canadian study found just the opposite: the amount a person sweats is simply a matter of the extent of the activity and the total surface area of their body. So who the heck knows whether sweating really has anything to say about the physical fitness of the sweater. At the very least, our popular notion that sweaty people are out of shape people is far from a proven fact.
I’m trying to get over my own sweat aversion. Yesterday, having finished working out, a big circle of sweat on the front of my top and with my hair dripping, I took a picture and shared it online. I’m not suggesting this is particularly brave or impressive, but it was an effort to confront my perspiration-induced embarrassment by making my soaked-ness a public reality.
This is how I look a lot of the time if I’m being active and it’s hot out -- or even if I’m being active indoors on a treadmill. And I kinda did feel better having done so. Shame, no matter its provenance, is exhausting to live with, and I’m tired of feeling embarrassed and ashamed of the fact that I SWEAT A LOT and my hair gets wet and my shirt gets damp and why am I even bothered by this when it’s a natural and normal thing most bodies do, and indeed, is even necessary to our health and survival?
So there you go. I’m a profuse sweater, and read into that what you will. I don’t care, and I’m not apologizing for it anymore. How about you?
Lesley is trying not to get sweat all over Twitter: @52stations