Posts Tagged ‘summer’

by Tom George During the last two months the UK has seemed like a different place. With a prolonged heatwave unmatched since the summer of ’76, a feeling of meditteranean langour has settled over the…

Source: Walking on Sunshine – why the heat makes us happy

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female boxer Today the temperature has hit 29 degrees (that’s centigrade, my American friends) which is pretty ferocious anywhere in the UK but particularly so in a Northern town like Liverpool. Sitting here without a shirt and sticking to the back of my vinyl chair, I have little energy to do anything more than muse upon that familiar yet strange physiological phenomenon, sweating.

It’s the bodily function we have least control over. We can, at least briefly, control the impulse to urinate, defecate, vomit, sneeze, fart, cough or cry but when things get hot, our sweat glands get to work without consulting us.

For many people, it’s a regular cause of embarrassment. Sweating reveals us as essentially bestial – we talk of “sweating like a pig” – and many people carry anti-perspirants around with them every day, regularly blocking their pores, lest their uncontrollable animal body lets them down.

Of course we know that the actions of those two million tiny glands are our body’s cooling system, but it’s one that has had limited effectiveness since humans started wearing clothes, and now it’s only function is to mess up our hair and make us smell.

Airplane!Sweating is often triggered by anxiety; the nerve-wracking experience of a job interview is often accompanied by moist palms, while a best man’s speech at a wedding is not complete without a constantly wiped brow. It’s a disloyal bodily function that reveals your inner state to the outside world like a blush or a stammer. And when it strikes, whether as a result of anxiety or simply overheating, the discomfort is magnified by the embarrassment of damp patches under the arms.

Nevertheless, sweat also has plenty of positive associations – it is synonymous with honest physical toil and is also frequently highly erotic. Sweat is such a powerful signifier that if it didn’t exist, the advertising and movie industry would have had to invent it.

In the 1951 film The African Queen, Humprey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn make a hazardous journey down an African river in a tiny steamboat, both covered in a layer of sweat throughout the film. Sweat seems to dissolve the class divide between no-nonsense sailor Charlie and Rose the prim, dignified missionary, leading to an unlikely romance.

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn

Of course, respectable ladies didn’t sweat in that era (the film was set in 1914). In the polite parlance, they ‘glowed’, while gentlemen ‘perspired’.

During the pre-air conditioned years of the British Empire, sweating would have been a regular physical reminder to Europeans that they weren’t built for tropical climes; but of course it wasn’t only the ruling classes that suffered so.

The vast majority of colonial sweat was shed by Africans slaves forced to work through midday heat on cotton and sugar plantations. The black sweat and blood that built the United States and made the Empire rich stains our collective conscience to this day.

I happen to be blessed with a skinny frame, therefore I rarely sweat profusely. If I do, it normally happens on a packed bus on a summer day. Other people, usually the heavier ones, will be already have wet fringes and beads of sweat on their faces, even though the windows are open. When the bus is stuck in traffic with ruthless sun coming through the windows, the situation is a mild kind of torture and the only remedy is to pant like a dog!

So far this has been a great summer for sport, from the warm lawns of Wimbledon to the sticky heat of the World Cup in Brazil. Sweat is part of the iconography of physical performance, whether it’s the sweat-varnished torso of the boxer or the soaked hair of a rock vocalist sticking to his face. Here it is an index of heroic effort; it shows how hard they are working to entertain us.

Iggy Pop

Despite our uncomfortable relationship with sweating, ultimately one of the most relaxing experiences in the world is sitting in a sauna and just letting your pores do their thing. When you are wrapped in a towel gently stewing in your own brine, the worries of the world melt away. Those stressed out citizens on the bus might reflect that it’s not sweat that is the real enemy, but our modern lives.

And now for a nice cool drink…

 

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