A stinky bogus trend story: The New York Times Styles section strikes again.

Media criticism.
Nov. 1 2010 4:59 PM

A Stinky Bogus Trend Story

The New York Times Styles section strikes again.

A bathtub. Click image to expand.

Will the New York Times Styles section please change its name to the New York Times Bogus Trend section?

Styles, which appears on Sundays and Thursdays, has previously tortured readers with bogus trend stories about dudes who love cats, chicks who are proud of their flat chests, fellas who think being chubby is hip, hotties who wear special contact lenses so that their eyes look like saucers, and New York babes who ride bikes.

The section mines the bogus vein again with a Sunday piece deceptively and bogusly titled "The Great Unwashed" (Oct. 31). The story's deck—in the print edition only—states, "Some people have all but abandoned the idea of soap, shampoo or deodorant and yet still manage to have friends, relationships and office jobs."

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The text of the piece dials that categorical headline and deck back, way back, destroying the idea that "a contingent of renegades" who resist the "culture of clean" exists. Indeed, the story brims with accounts of its subjects' washing and deodorizing strategies. The only thing remotely unusual about the story's subjects is that they don't wash as often as some other people.

Jenefer Palmer, the story's first subject, showers three times a week or less. Todd Felix showers daily, but with an unscented body wash. Bethany Hoffmann Becker reports on her Facebook page that she uses wipes after running but showers before getting into bed. Blake Johnson bathes every other day. Tara Freymoyer shampoos with Herbal Essences. And Alice Feiring bathes four times a week. Not a single subject of the story claims to have completely abandoned washing.

A couple of subjects confess to sometimes cleaning their smelly parts with a soapy washcloth or a baby wipe. There's a name for this kind of bathless personal hygiene: It's called a "sink shower." Why its practitioners should be excluded from the ranks of the washed is beyond me. Likewise, one of the story's subjects uses a "natural deodorant" and another uses a "sliced lemon" on her armpits. In my book, anything you rub into your underarms—be it mothballs or gunpowder—to smother smell qualifies as deodorant. If you're a user, you don't belong in a story about nonusers.

Conveniently enough for the Times, almost none of its subjects appears to work a sweaty job. Except for the times their bosses have yelled at them, they've probably never perspired on the job in their lives. The Times story includes a cosmetics executive, an actor who also works as an online producer,a paralegal, a law-school applicant, an eyeglass salesman, a property manager, and a wine writer. Maybe the story's engineer sweats on the job, but he's silent about his bathing regimen—his only comments are about giving up deodorant. A slightly less bogus headline for this story would read "Some People Who Don't Have To Bathe Every Day Don't."

If the underlying subject of the Times story is body-odor management, it leaves unexamined the dominant role unwashed clothes—as opposed to unwashed bodies—contribute to one's stinkiness. (To test my thesis, I invite you to bury your face in a basket of six pairs of your dirtiest underwear. If you survive the infusion, get back to me.) Folks who bathe daily but wear the same unwashed clothes over and over quickly turn ripe. Folks who skip bathing for a few days but still don freshly laundered garments every day radiate a relatively charming fragrance. I'll bet that every bath-averse person named in the story puts on clean clothes every day and that a good number of them slip on something different at the end of the work day.

I hope this critique doesn't inspire the Times to run a bogus trend story titled "People Who Never Wash Their Clothes."

******

The first of many stinkers to encourage me to write this bogus trend piece was reader Levi Fishman. Thanks, Levi! Send your stink to slate.pressbox@gmail.com and take a whiff of mine on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word stink in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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