It's part of the human condition. So just why is sweat so embarrassing?
I’m willing to bet a lot of money that each and every one of us has had a negative reaction to sweat.
This reaction might fall anywhere on a spectrum from a one-off blush when you notice wet patches under the armpits at a social do right through to crippling social anxiety every time you think of exercise.
And if you’re female, chances are that you get embarrassed more easily than any man.
Anyone can experience it, from the most confident social animal through to those of us unfortunate enough to suffer from agoraphobia. It’s probably one of the few things for which we can find common ground.
Like most of our bodily functions, we find sweat icky. If you work up a sweat and stop, it turns cold and starts to feel uncomfortable on the skin. But that’s not nearly so bad as the embarrassment it causes in us.
The trouble with sweat is that a) we all do it and b) we all find it icky- at least some of the time. If you work up a sweat and then stop moving, it turns cold and starts to feel uncomfortable on the skin. Those damp clothes we pealed off after that brisk walk start to pong if we don't put them straight in the washing machine.
But the physical downside of sweat is not nearly so bad as the psychological hold it has over us in the form of acute embarrassment and social taboos.
We think sweating is icky
This instinct to recoil from sweat gets in our way, because sweating is an essential part of the human condition.
If you raise your heart rate enough to get a benefit from that aerobic exercise, then you will sweat. Sweat is wet and sometimes smelly (technically, sweat itself isn’t the cause of the pong, but let’s not get distracted.) You will very likely see the results of your exertions on the armpits of your shirt at the very least. I often get patches of it underneath the boobs, around the top of my belly.
Sweating’s actually a skill!
This might sound a bit odd at first. If you go to an urban gym on about 5th January every year and hang around the treadmills (which I’m not suggesting you do, by the way), you can spot people who have just piled into a crazy aerobics programme from zero. People who are completely unused to aerobic exercise often don’t really sweat. They might get really, really red in the face and feel uncomfortably hot, but they don’t really sweat at all.
I’ve experienced this myself and it really is quite uncomfortable. Sweating actually feels much better (provided you can keep the stuff out of your eyes - hello 80s Jane Fonda headband).
The more you exercise, the easier the sweat flows. The more it flows, the more it shows.
... and the more it shows, the more self-conscious we get about it.
Why do we fret about something that’s good for us? Our society does not like the sight of sweat, especially on women. We are conditioned to believe that sweating is ugly, not ladylike, anti-social. Men don’t escape completely, either. While it’s OK for men to sweat when they’re in the gym, outside of it - not so much.
Society associates sweating in fully public situations as a sign of poor health management, uncontrollable obesity and a lack of social awareness. Profuse sweating can, of course, be an indicator of poor health where gentle movement gets the heart pumping more ought to.
Why do we hate it so much? I don’t know how scientific this is, but I suppose our lizard brain might be feeding us a bit of logic which goes: person sweating when they rise from a chair = unhealthy = not good breeding partner/co-parent for my children.
So we can blame our genetic spider-sense for giving sweat a bad rap? Yeah, let’s do that. It’s as good a reason as any. But that’s really unfair on the sweat, because it actually plays a huge part in the unique human condition.
We evolved to sweat
When you consider how the human race has evolved and survived up until now, mistrust of sweat just doesn’t make sense! Being able to sweat is not just healthy - it’s a key to human survival.
Prehistoric people hunted by following herds of animals for mile after mile. Although they were far from being the fastest runners in the animal kingdom, they had the endurance to follow prey for days on end.
By being able to sweat, people could keep cool while their predatory rivals overheated and had to stop and rest. Our relative hairlessness (which we do find culturally attractive!) allows us to sweat when we need to keep cool. This helped us to keep on running down that reindeer until it gave up in exhaustion.
Sweat put dinner on the table. Well, on the stone, anyway.
Then we learned to be self-conscious
Then we got culture and sweat turned into one of the bad guys. We’d rather risk our health than risk being laughed at for having damp patches under our armpits.
If I cycle to some sort of social event or meeting on a hot day, I spend quite a long time beforehand choosing suitable clothing so that either a) sweat won’t really show or b) I can cover myself up when I get there. I’m as affected as the next person by our culture.
And we invented the 9-5
And as for that brilliant idea about using your commute as a chance to get exercise...
I used to have a job within cycling distance of my home. But until my employer did a deal with the company next door to let us use its shower facilities I didn’t even think of getting the bike out to go to work. Then of course when I did start commuting by bike, I had all my bathing paraphernalia to take with me (no lockers) and a wet towel to dry afterwards.
Spending a sweaty day at work isn’t really on for a lot of people - even those who aren’t at all concerned about What Other People Think. The “rules” of the working environment are unfortunately pretty strict and fickle, and falling foul of them can in extreme cases even hurt your earning power.
Can we get over the negative and embrace the positive?
I’m not optimistic about anyone's chances of discovering you’ve got an employer who invests in facilities for their employees any time soon. Sadly, we're not going to change society's reaction to sweat any time soon.
That said, I really believe that looking at sweat with fresh eyes and appreciating it for its own sake is a positive step. It connects you to your ancestors and helps you keep cool, even if it doesn’t make you look cool.
When it comes to dealing with mental demons, I'm not a fan of hacks or slogans. At best they're condescending and at worst they pay no respect to the genuine problems people can have with getting out to exercise. I haven't got any quick fixes up my sleeve, nor do I believe there are any.
The only path to progress is to try to do stuff. And then try to do it again, whether or not you succeeded or failed the first time. Then try to do it a third time, and so on, and so on. This is how I brought my own dislike of sweat under control.
I do still worry about it if I'm meeting other people. But if I’m going straight home after exercise, I no longer care about the wet patches. At least not since I ditched one particular pair of running tights which gathered sweat in such a way that it looked as if I’d wet myself badly every time I went out in them. But do you know what? When I finally realised what I looked like in them I didn’t even care if anyone else had noticed!
Me 1 social pressure 0.
I still got rid of them, though....