Close up headshot of African American man cringing from bad smell.  Wearing blue shirt and blue and yellow tie.

Help! My Classmate Smells!

“There’s a person in my class who has really bad body odour. My classmates talk about them all the time, but I feel bad for the person, because I think they are completely oblivious. How can I help without hurting their feelings?” – Concerned Classmate

It’s great of you to want to help, because it would definitely be easier to do nothing and just talk behind their backs like everyone else. Here’s my take on it. I’ve noticed that as we get older, our body changes and sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with it. The message you want to get across to the person is that it’s nothing strange and we all passed through that stage. Sometimes a stronger deodorant, or the use of body sprays could help; or in the case of bad breath, using mouthwash, a change in toothpaste or brushing your teeth more regularly. They can try different ones until they find something that works. So that’s the message…but I get it. That’s not what you’re asking…

The BIG deal here (and your question) is, how do you bring up the topic in the first place? Some might suggest that if your main goal is to help them “get a clue”, you can embark on a kind of secret operation, where you leave an anonymous note revealing this great truth. Would they get the message? Absolutely! But now everyone they look at in class, or maybe even in school, becomes a suspect. “Who left this!” Sounds tormenting.

The BEST approach is to talk to this person one-on-one and share with them your own challenges with mastering body odor. You might say, “But I didn’t have challenges.” Maybe, but only because you probably had parents who caught it early! Trust me, it was a challenge for your parents! Can you hear them now? “Hello! Did you remember to put on deodorant?” “Oh my gosh! Did you brush your teeth this morning?” Anyway, the idea is to put yourself in this person’s shoes. Empathise with them. Difficult topics are always easier to get through if the person feels that you are not talking down to them or that they are not alone in this. Maybe, if things go well, you can start to suggest stuff, and even offer to get them some of what you use, so they can try it.

Now there is a risk involved in this. No matter how non-judgmental you are, it will be embarrassing for the person to hear this. Not everyone will respond the same way. Some people might get angry or upset or defensive or maybe even try to embarrass you in return. But be brave. Better they hear it from someone who genuinely wants to help than they continue to be scorned by everyone and remain oblivious. If you approach it with sensitivity, odds are that in time they will appreciate you for it.

Don’t forget, the key here is Confidentiality! Good Luck!

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