SMELL OR SCENT?

In my mind, smells are stronger than scents. But both are valuable to writers—and to those who just want to be aware of their surroundings. 

Writers are urged to use sensory details. By and large, hands, eyes and ears are often used but noses less so. This in spite of the fact that psychology tells us that the sense of smell may be the most impressionable sense—the one most likely to evoke memories or moods.

It’s also important for survival, especially smells like smoke or rotten food. Researchers have hypothesized that pregnant women’s morning sickness may be a result of a heightened sense of smell developed as a temporary defense measure.

Researchers have used math to give system and order to odors, though they can’t seem to agree on the system and order.

According to one lab, there are eight basic scents:

  • Floral
  • Fruit-like
  • Synthetic
  • Citrus
  • Green-vegetative
  • Woody
  • Spice
  • Rotten
Very different categories used by fragrance companies

Other researchers name ten basic scents:

  • Woody/resinous
  • Lemon
  • Non-citrus fruity
  • Chemical
  • Minty/peppermint
  • Sweet
  • Popcorn
  • Pungent
  • Decayed

Interesting as these categorizations might be—especially the little overlap between these two sets—people are likely to think of odors on totally different dimensions. Much of the work on odors stems from the 1980s work of psychologist William Cain, at Yale University.

Of course, marketers have found ways to capitalize on our associations with various scents. Listerine was used as a floor cleaners until the manufacturers started a campaign of social shaming against halitosis and added a “minty-fresh” scent. Laundry detergent, floor soap, toothpaste, pet food, trash bags, tea, and just about anything else you can think of has chemically added fragrances so consumers will associate the product with pleasant memories.

Shopping malls and amusement parks pipe various scents into the air at specific locations to encourage spending or guide traffic flow. Grocery stores often position bakeries or flower shops just inside the entrance so that shoppers are bombarded with smells of fresh flowers or baking bread (both departments often run at an individual loss).

FeelReal headset prototype

Film and game makers have tried to cash in on this as well, with mixed results. Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama were attempts to rig cinemas to release scents in time with scene changes in a movie. (This was not very successful.) Virtual reality developers are toying with the possibilities of headsets surrounding players with the smells of a video game as well as the sights and sounds.

Words that describe pleasant smells
  • Ambrosial
  • Aromatic
  • Bouquet
  • Delicious
  • Floral 
  • Fresh 
  • Fragrant

  • Perfumed
  • Rich
  • Savory
  • Scented
  • Sweet
  • Tangy
Words that describe unpleasant smells
  • Acrid
  • Damp
  • Fetid
  • Frowsty
  • Malodorous
  • Musty
  • Musky
  • Nasty
  • Nauseating
  • Noisome 
  • Overpowering
  • Pungent
  • Putrid
  • Rancid
  • Rank
  • Ripe
  • Sickly
  • Smelly
  • Sour
  • Stale
  • Stench
  • Stinking
  • Stuffy
Things that smell bad
  • Trashcans
  • Drains
  • Body odor
  • Sewage
  • Vomit
  • Spoiled milk
  • Rotting food
  • Public toilets
  • Diapers
  • Fish
  • Exhaust fumes
  • Blood
  • Open intestinal wounds
  • Rotten teeth
  • Old exercise shoes
  • Bleach
  • Manure
  • Morning breath
  • Plastic burning
  • Garlic breath
  • Bleu cheese
  • Locker rooms
  • Diapers
  • Wet dogs
  • Mildew
  • Old eggs
  • Nail polish
  • Mothballs
Newborns’ feet don’t stink too badly. Usually.
Favorite smells 

(At least in Great Britain, according to a Daily Mail poll)

  • Freshly baked bread
  • Bacon
  • Freshly cut grass
  • Leather
  • Cakes baking in the oven
  • The seaside
  • Freshly washed clothes
Live Christmas trees
  • Roses
  • Vanilla
  • Scented candles
  • Log fires
  • Lavender
  • Lemon
  • Chocolate
  • Barbecue
  • Cinnamon
  • Sunday roast
  • New car
  • Orange
  • Freshly washed hair
  • Coconut
  • Freshly cleaned house
  • Leather
  • Rain
  • Aftershave
  • Christmas cake
Coffee
  • Cotton
  • Shampoo
  • Cherry
  • New carpets
  • Marzipan
  • Musk
  • Popcorn
  • Furniture polish
  • Wine
  • New house 
  • Fresh flowers
  • New books
  • Lime
  • Doughnuts
  • Bonfires
  • Sun screen
  • Tea
  • Fish and chips
  • Cheese
  • Cookies
  • Gasoline
  • Matches
  • Strawberries
  • Lilies
Babies
  • NOTE: What one person finds pleasant might be unpleasant to another. Several of these “favorite smells” also appear in lists of unpleasant odors, such as fish and bleu cheese.
Words that smell like something
  • Citrusy
  • Coppery
  • Earthy
  • Fishy
  • Flowery
  • Fruity
  • Gamy
  • Garlicky
  • Leathery
  • Lemony
  • Medicine
  • Minty
  • Musky
  • Peachy
  • Smoky
The Perfume Makers by Rudolf Ernst
Words that modify smells
  • Aromatic
  • Cloying
  • Comforting
  • Delicate
  • Evocative
  • Faint
  • Heady
  • Heavy
  • Intoxicating
  • Laden
  • Piquant
  • Powerful
  • Redolent 
  • Reek
  • Savory
  • Whiff
Tasty
  • And if it has no smell: anosmic 
Name that scent!

Maybe, for the sake of efficiency (and word count) you want to evoke a smell with as few words as possible. If so, you might look for the world’s most recognizable smells—these according to Buffalo, NY radio WYRK.

  • Baby powder
  • Banana
  • Beer
  • Beach 
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Cigarette butts
  • Cinnamon
  • Clean laundry
  • Coffee
  • Crayons 
  • Dry cat food
  • Freshly mowed lawn
  • Gasoline 
  • Ivory soap
  • Juicy Fruit gum
  • Lemon 
  • Mothballs
  • Orange 
  • Peanut butter
  • Skunk
  • Thanksgiving turkey 
  • Tuna 
  • Vicks VapoRub
  • Wintergreen oil

Note: Women are generally far superior to men in identifying smells, even such “male-leaning”  smells like motor oil. In Cain’s work, women outperformed men in 66 of 80 trials.

Bottom line for writers: The nose knows—and now you do, too!

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: SOAP

Soap is incredibly easy to work into a scene or conversation. But, as a writer, why would you?

Because—like everything else—soap choices make an impression.  “Soap” usually refers to what is technically called a toilet or toilette soap, used for household and personal cleaning. Soap choices reflect at least two things: need and personal preference. 

Traditionalists

An exact recreation of the Ancient Mesopotamian soap-making technique

The very first cleaning agents were likely ashes from fires used to cook animals. Fatty acid (which would have dripped from the carcasses onto the fire) and a caustic agent (such as the lye in wood ash) removes dirt from skin and clothing. Soap-making processes have gotten a little more sophisticated in the 5000 or so years since then. I’ll start with two of the oldest soaps made in the United States and still available.

Lava Soap

Ground volcanic pumice works as a mild abrasive, ideal for sloughing off viscous grime without removing the skin underneath. Lava is a heavy-duty hand cleaner in soap bar form manufactured by the WD-40 Company. In addition to the typical combination of fatty acid and salt, Lava soap contains ground pumice, which gives the soap its name. The soap and pumice combination is intended to scour tar, engine grease, paint, dirt, whale oil, and similar substances from the skin.

The Lava Bar is a heavy-duty hand cleaner, developed in 1893 with pumice. Do-it-yourselfers, auto mechanics, coal miners, locksmiths, luthiers, and oil rig workers commonly use Lava to scrub off the traces of their work. The original Lava bar was gray and dried the skin. The modern version looks more attractive and contains moisturizers. 

Anyone with children can make good use of Lava soap.

So, what sort of person/character would keep Lava around the house?  If all you knew about the person was the use of this hand soap, what would you expect regarding age, occupation, gender, education, occupation, etc.? How might those expectations change if it was a well-worn bar of soap or a brand-new bar still in the box? 

Ivory Soap 

The sons of the original Proctor and Gamble were responsible for the creation of Ivory soap. James Norris Gamble developed the soap with the intention of making mild, effective soap inexpensive enough to be widely available.  The name Ivory was created by Harley Procter, who was inspired by Psalm 45:8 in the Bible: “All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces whereby they have made thee glad.”  In September 1879, Procter & Gamble trademarked “Ivory”, the name of its new soap product.

Ivory soap is not for dogs. No baths for dogs!

During production, Ivory soap has air whipped into the solution, making the bars buoyant. James Gamble developed the process of adding air during production. When bathing in a murky lake or river or in a tub of bathwater that has already been used by the rest of the family, having soap that floated was extraordinarily convenient. This gave rise to the slogan, “It Floats!” in 1891. In 1992, Proctor & Gamble marketed a new formulation that includes moisturizers but does not float.

Ivory is ideal for building hair horns.

So who uses Ivory?  This soap has a long-standing image of gentleness and purity. Small children, people with sensitive skin, cleaners who need to avoid residue, and many people who simply prefer inexpensive soap choose it for that reason. What sort of characters might have a bar of Ivory soap in their washroom or liquid Ivory handsoap in the kitchen?

Shaving Soap 
Straight-razor shaving is tricky, so it’s best to start practicing early.

Though it is not typically used as a regular body soap, I’m including shaving soap here for its traditional connotations. Shaving soap is sold as a hard disc or stick that is used with a wet shaving brush to produce lather. The lather softens the hair before shaving and forms a thick, protective layer between skin and blade. Modern shaving cream is more convenient than shaving soap, but it does not work as well for moisturizing or giving a close shave.

It is possible to use too much shaving soap.

So what sort of character prefers shaving soap to shaving cream?  Would you expect old?  Or old-fashioned? And would the shaver choose a basic, inexpensive brand like Williams ($1.49 per cake) or something more exotic, like Molton Brown ($65 for one cake in a wooden bowl)? How much is it worth to get a moisturizing lather blended with coconut oil to prep skin for a clean shave, with a top note of mandarin, heart notes of jasmine and violet, and base notes of musk, sandalwood and vanilla, all in a slick shaving bowl?

And what if it’s a woman using shaving soap? Why? And on what part(s) of her body?

Medically Necessary Soap

I guess the specially important washing doesn’t include after handling raw meat or using the bathroom.

As dermatologists like to remind us, skin is the largest organ in the body. Many skin ailments can be improved or even cured by using particular soaps.

Note: The information provided below is not intended for medical diagnosis or treatment. This is only intended for writing purposes and providing examples.

Dermatologist Recommended
The best way to judge a dermatologist’s qualifications is by the size of her bustle.

Perhaps your character will do their own research, determining their particular needs and methods of treatment. What sort of person does this? For general use, dermatologists recommend AveenoDove, Olay, and Basis. Skin cleansers are better for sensitive skin, such as Cetaphil, CeraVe, and Aquanil. Deodorant soaps are often very harsh and drying.

Treatment of Skin Conditions
It is widely recognized in the medical community that dog slobber is the most effective treatment for every skin ailment. And for depression.

Many skin conditions can be treated topically with soap. Rashes from poison ivy, insect bites, and mild eczema can be relieved with oatmeal soap. Aloe Vera can help with sunburn and acne. Antibacterial soap has been in the news quite a bit lately. There is evidence that the symptoms of severe acne, athlete’s foot, scabies, ringworm, psoriasis, plantar warts can be relieved with prescription-strength medicated soap.

The research on specific drugs and usages is not conclusive for all of these conditions, so be sure to dig around in peer-review medical journals before including details in your writing.

Fancy Soap

Sampling of Soap Types
Me? Nah, I don’t need a bath, thanks.
Aleppo Soap

More information on all of these soaps is available online. Every type of soap has a different texture, smell, weight, and other characteristics that can add sensory detail to your writing. Would your character have a signature soap? Chose to make a statement—to self or others?

Expensive Soaps
You could also leave a whale on your front lawn to let all the neighbors know where you got that amazing soap!

Status symbols only work if other people know about them. Some of the most expensive soaps have distinctive scents. They may provide (mostly subjective) beauty benefits. Prominently displayed wrappers or overseas packaging left ever-so-casually where guests might see them

  • Qatar SoapA bar of this soap produced by a family-run business in Lebanon might make you think twice about washing too often. Infused with gold and diamond powder, a single bar costs $2,800 (£1,700; 2,050 euros).
  • El-Nino (Kenya) Soap: The soap is part of the Kenya government’s strategy to provide aid for victims of El Nino weather catastrophes. Each piece will retail for $375 (Ksh 37,500). However, it is not yet clear if this soap will be manufactured in Kenya, Lebanon, China or Migingo.
Chocolate Mud Mask?
  • Cor Soap: Cor was produced by Plank, a company that manufacturers yoga-themed products. Each bar will set you back $125 (KSH 12,500). The ingredients that made Cor expensive are the following:
    • Chitosan to even out skin tone
    • Sericin — a silk extract — to trap moisture and provide UV protection
    • Four types of collagen to help maintain skin structure.
    • Silver, a known antibacterial agent 
  • Cle de Peau BEeaute Synactif Soap: A facial cleansing soap that removes impurities from pores and lifts away makeup and dead skin to reveal purified skin filled with translucence and suppleness. $100.
  • Erno Lazlo Famous Black Bar: $38 for those who want to go for something a little less high end.
    • Dead Sea Mud: Restores skin’s own mineral levels; infused with 26 minerals and has a signature black color that transforms to white foam.
    • Glycerin: Attracts and holds hydration for a more moisturized, glowing complexion.
    • Palm and Palm Kernel Oils: Regulates skin’s oils and reinforces its defenses against outside stressors.  
Mud Mask!
  • Dragon’s Blood Cold Process Soap: Loaves / Bars for those who want to sound high end on a budget.  Loaves of soap are cut into bars and packed with your own custom label. Dragon’s Blood soap comes in custom sizes, colors, etc. for large orders. The famous fragrance contains “top notes of amber, vanilla, and patchouli. Also has hints of orange and other fruity base notes.” Sample 4.5oz. Bar ($3.50 / unit)

Bottom line for writers: Soap can flesh out a character, either subtly or in a more marked way. Think about it!

SUPERSTITIONS

By definition, superstitions are irrational beliefs that objects, actions, or circumstances not logically related to an outcome nevertheless influence those outcomes. Every Friday the 13th, I think of superstitions. In the past I’ve blogged about superstitions related to Fridays and to 13s. The superstitions below have nothing to do with the date directly, but there is a belief that negative things happening on Friday the 13th are worse than they would be on other dates.

The Superstition Mountains in Arizona

There are myriad ways to slice and dice the universe of superstitions, including by country or by topic (e.g., love and marriage or hearth and home).  Indeed, there are whole books of superstitions out there, and who knows what’s on the internet.  But anyone wishing to pursue the topic can do so easily.

Clearly, this blog can give you only a tiny taste of the superstitions out there. So here you go, alphabetically:

A
Spaghetti harvested on April 1st is full of extra nutrients.
  • April 1, April Fool’s Day
    • To be fooled by a pretty maiden means the man will marry or befriend her.
    • To lose one’s temper over a practical joke will bring bad luck.
    • A wedding on this day means the woman will be the family boss.
    • Being born on this day means lucky in business and unlucky in speculation.
  • Apron Dropping
    • A girl might meet her fiancé.
    • It may signify having two husbands.
    • It might mean illness or early death.
    • It might mean many children or no children.
    • It may mean spinsterhood.
    • Perhaps it portends desertion by a husband.
B
  • Bats are very good omens, denoting happiness, peace, long life, wealth, and virtue.
  • Birds are associated with both good and bad spirits, and are portents of things to come.
    • A bird in the house or tapping on a window is an omen of death.
    • Injuring a robin or disturbing its nest brings bad luck.
      • A friendly robin is a portent of a long, hard winter.
      • The first robin seen in spring portends good luck if it flies up, bad luck if it flies down.
      • A robin’s nest near the house brings good luck.
      • Seeing a robin in the morning portends a visitor the same day.
    • A swallow nesting in the eaves of a house brings good luck.
      • A swallow abandoning its nest is a sign the house will burn down.
      • A swallow skimming near the ground is a prediction of rain.
      • If a sparrow builds a nest under your window, you will take a trip.
    • Turtle doves near the house prevent rheumatism.
    • Eagles are said to carry off lambs and small children.
    • The cry of a peacock under a window predicts a death in the house.
    • Seeing a hawk is an omen of victory or success.
    • Seeing a crow in flight is time to make a wish; if the crow doesn’t flap its wings, the wish will come true.
    • Magpies (or jackdaws or crows, depending on where you live) mean different things depending on how many you see:
      • One for sorrow,
        Two for joy,
        Three for a girl,
        Four for a boy,
        Five for silver,
        Six for gold,
        Seven for a secret never to be told.
    • To break the curse of seeing a lone magpie, salute the magpie.
  • Bread
    • If bread falls butter side down, hungry company will come seeking food.
    • Eating bread crusts will make your cheeks rosy.
    • Two people saying “bread and butter” after someone or something comes between them will break the spell of bad luck.
    • Waving bread and sugar around a wound will make it heal faster.
C
  • Cards
    • A black ace falling on the floor during a bridge game is a sign to stop playing.
    • Singing during a card game is bad luck.
    • It’s unlucky to play cards on a bare table.
  • Cats
    • A cat washing its face is a sign of a visitor coming.
    • A black cat crossing one’s path is an omen of very good or very bad luck, depending on the culture.
    • A strange cat following you or making a home with you brings good luck.
    • If you wake up to a cat on your chest, it means the cat was under the influence of evil spirits and was trying to steal your breath as your slept.
  • Cutlery
    • If a knife falls on the floor you will have a gentleman visitor.
    • If a fork falls, it will be a lady visitor.
    • Crossing knife and fork is a bad omen.
D
Friday’s child
  • Days of the Week
    • Good or bad luck depends on the day of the week.
      • Monday for health
        Tuesday for wealth
        Wednesday the best day of all
        Thursday for crosses
        Friday for losses
        Saturday no luck at all
    • A child’s entire life is influenced by the day of the week on which they were born.
      • Monday’s child is fair of face
        Tuesday’s child is full of grace
        Wednesday’s child is full of woe
        Thursday’s child has far to go,
        Friday’s child is loving and giving,
        Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
        And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
        Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.
  • Dogs
    • A yellow dog happening to follow your tracks is a sign of good luck.
    • A dog howling in the night, especially at the moon, is a harbinger of death.
    • A dog predicts rain by lying on its back or eating grass.
E
  • Ears
    • Sailors held the belief that a pierced ear with a ring in it improved eyesight.
    • More generally, piercing a child’s ears will improve eyesight.
    • Size
      • Small = stingy
      • Large = generous
      • Long = long life
    • An itching left ear portends sadness or bad luck; itching right ear means someone is speaking well of you.
  • Eggs
    • Two yolks in one egg means great financial prosperity is on the way.
    • Refusing an Easter egg is an invitation to lose the friendship of the person offering it.
    • Rabbits lay eggs at Easter time.
    • Eggs blessed at Easter are supposed to ward off illness.
    • When cracking Easter Eggs with a friend, the one whose egg cracks first will have good fortune.
  • Eyes
    • If your right eye twitches, you are going to hear good news. 
    • A twitching eyelid means someone is thinking fondly of you.
    • A person with brown/ blue/ hazel/ green/ grey eyes brings bad luck.
    • A person with heterochromia (eyes different colors) is a witch or a demon.
    • Grey or blue eyes can see the future.
F
  • Fingers
    • Friends crossing index fingers over one another and making a wish will have their wish granted.
    • Crossing your middle finger over your index finger either brings good luck or is a sign of lying.
    • A person with a ring finger longer than the index finger is sure to be wealthy.
    • If a person points a finger in the direction of a graveyard, they must bite their finger to avoid inviting death.
  • Fingernails
    • Broad nails show that a person is generous.
    • Long fingernails reveal a lack of thrift.
    • Short fingernails mark a liar.
    • Specks on fingernails correspond with the number of lies told.
    • Cutting a baby’s nails before the first birthday means the child will become a thief. (Bite them off instead.)
    • Cutting nails on Friday is bad luck.
    • Cutting the nails of a sick person means that person will never get well.
  • Funerals
    • Handkerchiefs used to wipe tears at a funeral must be buried with the coffin or thrown away.
    • Singing, laughing, or talking too loudly at a funeral will wake the dead.
    • Not crying and singing funeral hymns loudly enough will anger the recently departed and wake the dead.
    • A man not wearing a belt to a funeral will bring death home with him.
G
  • Gloves are not good!
    • Picking up a glove is to risk bad luck.
    • Dropping a glove brings bad luck.
    • Giving someone gloves invites the breakup of the friendship.
    • Hitting someone with a glove, even accidentally, means wishing for their death.
  • Graves
    • Dig graves facing east toward Gabriel when he blows his horn.
    • Tools used to dig a grave should be left nearby for several days.
    • If someone shivers for no apparent reason, someone is walking over his/her grave.
    • Open graves are ill omens.
    • Leaving the site of a grave before the gravediggers lower the coffin means another death will follow.
    • Some cultures require a corpse to be buried in a standing position, holding weapons at the ready.
  • Gifts
    • Sharp objects given as gifts will turn on their new owner.
    • Giving certain numbers of objects (such as flowers or cookies) is unlucky, varying widely around the world.
    • In some areas, giving any unreciprocated gifts is unlucky.
    • Most of these gift taboos can be avoided by repaying the giver with a symbolic trifle, such as a penny or a piece of bread.
H
Crossed hands! No more babies!
  • Hands
    • An itchy right hand means money is coming.
    • An itchy left hand means money is slipping away.
      • Rubbing an itchy left hand on wood and wishing for money will break the spell of losing.
    • An itchy right hand means that a friend is coming.
    • Hand itching means you will shake hands with a stranger.
    • Itchy hands also means that you will be entertaining company.
    • Itchy palms means the receipt of unexpected money.
    • Every town and village in the world seems to have a different variation of hand signs to ward off evil.
      • Thumb holding middle and ring finger against the palm with other fingers extended.
      • Holding the hand with the palm flat and all fingers pointed forward, folding each finger against the palm separately and sequentially.
      • Tucking the thumb between the index and middle finger with all fingers pulled into the palm.
    • Binding anyone’s hands together will condemn them to a life of misfortune.
    • Folding or crossing one’s hands causes infertility.
  • Hens
    • Setting a hen on the first Monday of the month brings good luck.
    • Setting hens on Sunday night brings successful hatching.
    • If 13 eggs are set, 12 will be pullets and 1 will be a rooster.
    • Long eggs hatch roosters; round eggs hatch pullets.
  • Hiccups
    • Having the hiccups means someone is remembering you fondly.
    • Each hiccup is an attempt by a demon to draw your soul from your body.
I
Extreme ironing. People do this. Voluntarily. I don’t know why.
  • Ironing
    • If the tail of a man’s shirt is ironed (or starched) will make the man harsh.
    • An ironing board falling across a door is an omen of death.
    • Ironing the backs of clothes is bad luck.
  • Injury or Illness
    • Stepping on a crack will break your spine.
    • Sleeping with wet hair will make you sick.
    • Women sitting on bare cement will become infertile.
    • If your shadow falls on a graveyard or a funeral procession, you will become gravely ill.
    • Blowing in a baby’s mouth will cure colic.
    • The presence of a net beneath a trapeze or high-wire act will cause the performers to injure themselves or fall.
J
  • Jar of water with a knife in it behind the door will protect a building against the devil.
  • July 25, wet or dry, is the day to plant turnips.
  • Jumping
    • Jumping over a baby means they won’t grow very tall.
    • Couples jumping over bonfires together will have peace and good fortune for a year.
    • Jumping exactly as the clock strikes midnight for New Year’s will bring good luck in the coming year.
K
  • Knife
    • If someone gives you a knife it will cut the friendship unless you “buy” it by giving a penny, pin, etc.
    • Leaving a penknife open brings bad luck.
    • Handing an open knife to someone will lead to a quarrel.
  • Knocking on Wood
    • Knocking on wood before starting a project is inviting good luck.
    • Knock on wood after bragging/boasting to prevent future failure.
L
  • Ladybug / Ladybird
    • It’s bad luck to kill a ladybug.
    • A ladybug landing on you will bring good luck.
    • A ladybug flying off you will take away all your troubles with her.
    • More than 7 spots on a ladybug’s wing means famine.
      • Fewer than 7 means a good harvest.
    • Make a wish with a ladybug in your hand and the direction she flies shows the direction your luck will come from.
  • Lips
    • Itchy lips means someone is speaking ill of you.
    • Itchy upper lip, someone tall will kiss you
      • Itchy lower lip, a short person will kiss you.
    • If you bite your lip while eating alone, you have a great kiss ahead.
M
I guess neither of these two will get married. Their dad will be very happy about that!
  • Marriage
    • Unmarried people who sit at the corner of a table will never get married.
    • Girls who want to get married should write the names of three prospective spouses on slips of paper and slide them under their pillow. She then discards one at night, one in the morning, and the remaining paper will have the name of her future spouse.
    • Married women are very lucky wedding guests. The longer she has been married, the more luck she brings to the new couple.
    • A man who walks between two women will have an unhappy marriage.
  • Moles or Warts
    • On the forehead near the hairline is a sign of bad fortune.
    • On the chin or ear is a sign of wealth.
    • On the breast is a sign of poverty.
    • On the throat is a sign of good luck.
    • A mole on your arm, live on a farm.
    • Having lots of moles indicates future wealth.
  • Mirrors
    • Breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck.
    • Looking at your reflection in a broken mirror brings permanent bad luck.
    • Standing between two mirrors allows spirits to steal your soul.
N
  • Nine
    • Count nine stars for nine nights and on the last night one’s lover will be revealed.
    • Find nine peas in one pod, hang it above the door, and the next person through the door will be one’s spouse.
  • Nails
    • A nail dropped on the floor can only build crooked houses.
    • Carrying an iron nail will ward off evil influences and demons.
    • Looking at a coffin nail while carrying a body to a graveyard invites death.
    • A rusty nail stuck through a lemon will keep away the evil eye.
O
Superstitious architects design buildings without a thirteenth floor.
  • Omens of Misfortune
    • Spilling salt on the table.
    • Burning bread.
    • A rooster crowing at night.
    • Killing a spider.
    • Stepping over a snake.
    • Dropping a comb.
    • Stepping on sidewalk or road cracks.
    • Laughing before breakfast.
    • The number 13.
  • Owls
    • Hearing a screeching owl is an omen of bad luck.
    • An owl perched on a house predicts death to someone within.
    • In Wales, the hoot of an owl signaled that an unmarried girl had surrendered her chastity.
    • Owls are sacred in some parts of India because their eyesight is phenomenal.
    • Owls signal approaching death.
P
  • Pearls
    • A ring set with a pearl is unlucky.
    • Pearls signify tears.
    • A gift of pearls will bring tears and sadness to the recipient.
    • Finding a pearl in an oyster is a sign of good luck.
  • Phrenology
    • A high forehead is a sign of a reflective mind.
    • A high forehead is a sign of leadership.
    • Large eyes signify benevolence and wonders
    • A wide skull indicates pugnaciousness.
    • Large heads contain large brains, signifying high intelligence.
Q
  • Saying the word “quiet” will cause all hell to break loose.
  • Quail
    • Seeing a quail is a sign that a goal can be attained only if the seer acts immediately.
    • Seeing a quail in flight is an omen of danger or death.
    • Dreaming of a quail is a sign that love, good fortune, and victory are coming.
  • Quarters
    • Putting a quarter into a pot of black-eyed peas will bring good luck and money.
    • Adding a quarter to a tip jar will make it fill faster.
    • Tucking a quarter into a purse or wallet given as a gift means it will always have money in it.
R
  • Red Hair
    • Redheads are emotionally unstable and of terrible temper.
    • A redhead who tends a cheese vat will produce curd not fit to eat.
    • The appearance of a white horse heralds the appearance of a red haired girl, and vice versa.
    • Seeing a redhead first thing in the morning is a sign of bad luck.
  • Rats
    • Rats leaving a house signifies bad luck.
    • Rats entering a house bring good luck.
    • Rats won’t go through a soaped hole.
    • Catch a rat, paint it garish colors, and release. It will drive other rats away.
S
Indian Rat Snake (Grey and Yellow)
  • Snakes
    • Hanging a snakeskin from the rafters will protect a house from fire.
    • Killing the first snake you see every year will guarantee victory over any foe.
    • Seeing a snake cross one’s path or dreaming of a snake are bad luck.
    • Pregnant women who are frightened by a snake will give birth to a child with a constricted neck.
    • A snake will never bite a pregnant woman.
    • Tying a snakeskin around the waist of a woman in labor will ease childbirth.
    • Feeding women in labor a drink containing the powdered rattle of a rattlesnake will ease childbirth.
    • Carrying a snakeskin is generally beneficial to health, effective against headaches and extracting thorns from the skin.
    • Carrying a snake tooth will ward off fever.
    • Carrying a snake tooth is lucky when gambling.
    • To avoid getting bitten by a snake, wear an emerald.
    • When a snake’s head is severed, it will not die till sunset.
  • Singing
    • If you sing before breakfast, you will cry before the day is done.
    • If you sing before you dress, you’ll have trouble before you undress.
    • If you sing before seven, you’ll cry before eleven.
    • If you sing before you eat, you’ll cry before you sleep.
  • Sailing
    • It is unlucky to have an umbrella bought aboard.
    • It is unlucky to drive nails on Sunday.
    • Whistling aboard ship brings bad luck.
    • If a bee or small bird lands on the ship, it means good luck.
    • If a hawk, owl, or crow lands in the rigging, it means bad luck.
    • A horseshoe nailed to the mast protects against witches.
    • It is unlucky to set sail on Friday, lucky to set sail on Sunday.
T
I think this one is pretty safe. No hideousness here.
  • Thumbs
    • A baby who sucks its thumb will grow up to be hideous.
    • A thumb turned backward indicates an inability to save money.
    • Thumb pricking means something bad is coming along.
    • Thumb itching indicates visitors are coming.
  • Three
    • Closely associated with the Holy Trinity in several world religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam.
    • Some pagan traditions celebrate the trinity of land, sea, and air to make up earth.
    • Third time lucky/third time’s the charm.
    • A person will resurface three times before drowning.
    • If three people make up a bed, one of them will fall ill.
    • Good things and bad things come in threes.
  • Theater
    • Shakespeare’s Macbeth is so unlucky that people avoid saying the name in a theater, referring to “the Scottish play” instead.
    • Whistling onstage or backstage is bad luck.
    • Wishing a performer good luck will bring the opposite, hence the common “Break a leg!” wish before going onstage.
    • A terribly dress rehearsal means the performance will be excellent, and vice versa.
    • Failing to salute the resident ghost (every theater has at least one) will cause it to be angry and take revenge.
U
  • Umbrellas
    • Carrying an umbrella will ward off rain.
    • Opening an umbrella in the house is bad luck.
    • Holding an open umbrella over your head in the house will lead to your death within a year.
  • Upside Down
    • Turning a picture upside down brings bad luck to the person or place in the picture.
    • An upside down photograph or picture turned to the wall invites lurking evil spirits to attack the subject of the picture.
    • Turning a photo of a person to face the wall or the floor will protect you from evil influences caused by that person.
    • Slippers or shoes left upside down on the floor will cause trouble on the next journey.
  • Underwear
    • Wearing new underwear on a first date will doom the relationship.
    • Wearing underwear inside out will improve test or exam scores. 
V
  • Visiting
    • Visit on Monday and you’ll be visiting out every day of the week.
    • Guests, like fish, should be thrown out after three days.
  • Violets
    • Violets grow where tears have fallen.
    • Drinking tea made from violet petals cures heartbreak.
    • Dreaming of violets means you’ll come into money or marry someone younger.
    • When violets bloom in the autumn, an epidemic is coming.
W
If only he hadn’t whistled inside, his Mother might be happier…
  • Washing
    • Wash and wipe together, live and fight together.
    • If a woman gets wet while washing clothes, she will marry a drunkard.
    • A woman who wants beautiful hair should wash it in water from March snow.
    • Washing laundry on Saturday or Tuesday is bad luck.
  • Whistling
    • A whistling girl and a crowing hen always come to no good end.
    • If little girls whistle they will grow beards.
    • Whistling in the house invites bad luck.
    • If someone whistles inside a house, they will become financially irresponsible and lose money.
  • Weddings
    • A bride jumping out of bed and landing on both feet on her wedding day bodes well for her married life.
    • The bride and groom seeing each other before they meet at the altar will doom the marriage.
    • An iron horseshoe carried by the bride will bring good fortune to her extended family.
    • A thunderstorm during a wedding is an omen of bad luck.
    • A snowstorm during a wedding is a lucky omen.
    • A Sunday wedding is a good omen.
    • A Friday wedding is a bad omen.
    • Marrying on the last day of the year is especially auspicious.
    • Wearing pearls on your wedding day tempts sorrow, tears, and an unhappy future.
X
Y
  • Yawning
    • Yawning during prayers is a bad omen.
    • Yawning without covering one’s mouth allows the devil entrance.
  • Yellow
    • Giving yellow clothing as a gift will bring bad luck.
    • Wearing yellow clothing to any kind of test will cause a poor performance.
    • When speeding through a yellow traffic light, a driver throwing a kiss to the roof of the car will avoid accidents and police.
Z
  • Zero is a whole number as well as an even one, and thus a lucky digit.
  • Zebra
    • Seeing a wild zebra means you are spiritually safe from harm.
    • A zebra licking your hand can mean danger is coming or someone is holding onto bad memories.
    • The black and white of a zebra indicates good and bad.
    • Dreaming of a zebra means one is facing situations that are difficult to control.
    • Follow a zebra to find water.
    • More stripes on the front legs of a zebra than on the back is an omen of a baby, possibly twin boys
    • One zebra is a sign of good luck and blessings. Seeing two zebras in the morning is an omen of illness and maybe two bad harvest seasons.
    • A running zebras is an omen of an ample harvest.

Bottom line: The superstitions listed here are shared by many people, but every culture and person has different beliefs. Anything can become a personal superstition if something unrelated is associated in time or place with a dramatic event or outcome (such as lucky socks or particular foods). Consider how someone might come to feel anxious and fear bad things will happen if s/he loses a carved wooden heart. If you are writing about an entirely fictitious culture, you can invent whatever superstitions you like!

NATIVE AMERICAN FUNERALS: CELEBRATE OR MOURN

I’ve written before of the benefits for writers as well as for readers in expanding your cultural horizons. With Halloween upon us, what better time to discuss cultural variations in death, dying, and what to do after? A particularly tragic element of the current pandemic inspired this particular blog post.

Although not comprehensive, COVID-19 statistics indicate that the death rate for American Indians/Alaskan Natives is 3.5 times the rate for non-Hispanic white people. The upshot is that I was moved to explore beliefs, traditions and customs related to death among native peoples.

I used the plural on purpose.

There are 574 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States. I was surprised to learn that the labels nation, tribe, band, pueblo, community, and native village all are applied to ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse groups of people. Approximately 229 of these nations are located in Alaska; the other federally recognized tribes are located in 35 of the lower forty-eight states.

No slight to Alaskan Natives is intended, but this is a blog—albeit a long one—not a book, so I can only skim the customs and ceremonies of Native Americans. Further information about death and burial customs among tribes in Alaska is available on the Alaskan government website, several articles on JSTOR and other scholarly archives, and among training materials for healthcare workers who might be present at the end of life.

BTW, beyond the 574 federally recognized tribes, there are state government-recognized tribes located throughout the United States.

According to Michele Meleen, many tribes share beliefs about death and burial in general.

  • Each person has a soul or spirit that leaves the body after death.
  • Traditional burials take much longer than a modern funeral, up to several days, because the spirit of the person lingers before moving on.
  • Family and tribe members must help the spirit along its way through rituals and ceremonies.
  • Autopsies are avoided if at all possible because cutting open the body might prevent the spirit properly beginning its journey.

According to Klaudia Krystyna, there are further similarities in what varying tribes believed.

  • Most Native Americans worshiped an all-powerful Creator or spirit.
  • They believe in deep bonds between earth and all living things.
  • They also unite in a belief about an afterlife, with death beginning the journey that is a continuation of life on earth.
  • Many believe in reincarnation, coming back as another person or animal.
    • The type of person or animal depends on one’s deeds when alive, a bit like the Hindu cycle of reincarnation.

That said, in reality, the death practices in each tribe are unique. In today’s society, there is a tendency to view the immense variety of Native American cultures as all the same. Kara Stewart, a Sappony author and teacher, discussed the issues involved in authentic writing in an interview on The Winged Pen. As she said, “With over 567 very different sovereign federally-recognized nations and hundreds more sovereign state-recognized nations, nuance is everything.”

Given the number of tribes of Native Americans, what follows is just a sample of traditional Native American practices prior to the arrival of Christianity.

Navajo (Diné)

The Navajo tribe, also called the Diné, are the largest American Indian Nation. Currently, the Navajo nation covers approximately 17,544,500 acres in parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The tribe is divided into more than 50 families whose lineage can be traced matrilineally.

The religion and beliefs of the Navajo, like the Sioux (below), are based on animism.

One of the common Navajo beliefs about death was that the deceased goes to the underworld when he or she dies. Precautions must be taken to ensure that they don’t return to the world of the living. Navajos were very reluctant to look at a dead body. Contact with the body was limited to as few individuals as possible because contact with a corpse can bring sickness, misfortune, or even death.

If a person died at home, then the dwelling and everything in it were destroyed. Therefore, when death was near, the person was taken outdoors, or to a separate hut, to die. Family members and the medicine man stayed until close to the end. Shortly before death, everyone except for one or two individuals left. Those who remained would be the closest relatives of the dying person, those most willing to expose themselves to evil spirits.

Navajo Hogan in Monument Valley

Four men did all of the tasks involved in the burial of the body.

After death, two men prepared the body for burial. They wore only moccasins. Before starting, they smeared ash all over their bodies to protect them from evil spirits. Before burial, the body was thoroughly washed and dressed. It was believed that if the burial was not handled in the proper fashion, the person’s spirit would return to his or her former home.

While the body was being prepared, two other men dug the grave as far a possible from the living area. The funeral was held as soon as possible, usually the next day. Those four men were the only ones present at the burial.

The dead person’s belongings were loaded onto a horse and brought to the grave site, led by one of the four mourners. Two others carried the body on their shoulders to the grave site. The fourth man warned those he met on the way that they should stay away from the area. Once the body was buried, great care was taken to ensure that no footprints were left behind. The tools used to dig the grave were destroyed.

Sometimes the property of the deceased was disposed of by burning. In any event, none of it was left at home.

According to some customs, after the body was cleaned, the face was coated with chei (paint made of soft red rock, crushed and mixed with sheep oil) for protection during the journey. The body was dressed in his or her best clothes, hair tied with eagle feathers symbolizing the return to the homeland.

Another variation in customs: three family members wrapped the prepared body in a blanket and laid it across the back of a clean horse. One man leads the horse to a suitable burial place (such as a secure cave). At the burial place, the dead person was interred with saddles and all personal belongings. After the body was buried, the horse was slaughtered and buried as well, to aid the deceased on the journey to the afterlife.

There was also the custom of burying the dead as far north as possible, to help the soul move on to the next journey more quickly.

According to traditional Navajo beliefs, birth, life, and death were all part of a natural, ongoing cycle. Crying and outward demonstrations of grief were not usual when someone died, because showing too much emotion can interrupt the spirit’s journey to the next world. The spirit could attach itself to a place, an object, or a person if the proper process was interrupted.

Sioux/Dakota

The Sioux Nation is the second largest Native American Nation, comprised three major divisions based on language/dialect: the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota (Yankton-Yanktonai).

The Sioux tribe (like the Navajo) believed in Animism, that the universe and all-natural objects—animals, plants, trees, rivers, mountains, rocks, etc.—have souls or spirits.

Sioux did not fear the souls of the dead. In general, the Sioux believed that death was the beginning of another spiritual journey. They held that the soul of the deceased lingered four days before leaving for the next resting place.

Traditionally, Sioux people put the body of the dead person in a tree, or on a scaffold in a tree about eight feet above the ground.

The remains were left there for a year, and treated as if still alive. The body was dressed in the best clothes, and surrounded by personal property. Fresh food was provided for the soul.

Today, many Sioux practice both traditional and modern Christian death rituals. (See below.)

Cherokee

For the Cherokee, the funeral begins with prayers led by the shaman. During the service the shaman prays on behalf of the deceased and offers spiritual lessons to the living. The funeral ends in prayer and the body is carried to its final resting place on the shoulders of the funeral procession.

Chippewa/Ojibwe

The Chippewa are known in Canada as Ojibwe, Ojibway, or Ojibwa. They lived mainly in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ontario, occupying large areas of land. Their way of life belongs to the northeast woodland cultural groups. Their population in the United States ranked fifth in the indigenous tribes, behind the Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw and Lakota-Dakota-Nekota peoples. One well-known scholar who wrote extensively of the Chippewa way of life was Sister M. Inez Hilger, O.S.B.

In the Chippewa culture, they believed that the spirit would leave the body after it was buried, rather than at death, so they preferred to bury it immediately. Simultaneously, they also traditionally believed that it would take four days to achieve a happy death for the spirit of the dead. These two beliefs drove their rituals, as family members considered it their duty to help the spirit move forward.

Ojibwe wigwam, 1904

If someone died in the morning, the body would be buried the same day to help the spirit reach the happiness sooner. If the body had to be kept overnight, people would go to the victim’s house, not only to spend time with the grieving relatives but also to be with the person who was lying there.

A pow-wow was held at the deceased’s home the night after the burial. Before dark, a fire was lit at the head of the grave, and this fire was lit every night for four nights to help guide the spirit.

At the end of the fourth day after burial, a medicine man presided over a feast and was responsible for giving away all the deceased’s belongings. Each person who received an item must give a new piece of clothing in return. All these new clothes were wrapped in a bundle and given, along with a dish, to the closest living relative. This person then handed out the new clothing to those he/she felt worthy.

The deceased’s loved one keeps the dish and carries it for one year to every meal he or she attends. It is filled with food to honor the deceased.

Kiowa

According to Toby Blackstar, a Native American funeral director, the Kiowa believe in-ground burial is the only acceptable way to release a body after death. They believe the Creator birthed the body from the earth, so it must return to the earth through decomposition.

For the Ponca Tribe within the Kiowa, there is a fear of the deceased which drives their death rituals. They are afraid the dead will resent them and the ghost will haunt anyone with his/her possessions. So, the tribe burns all of the deceased’s possessions, even if they are valuable. Any remaining family members who shared a house with the deceased person then moved into a new house.

Comanche

The burial customs for early Comanches were pretty simple. The body was not kept long prior to a proper burial. The deceased would be wrapped in a buffalo robe (or, later, blankets). The body was placed on a horse and taken to a burial place such as a cave or crevice in a rocky canyon. Burial sites would be in areas such as the Wichita Mountains and the slick hills or limestone hills of southwest Oklahoma. Personal items of the Comanche were placed in with the body and rocks were carefully placed on top to cover the deceased. It wasn’t until the Comanches came into contact with the early missionaries that they began burying their fellow Comanches in cemeteries.

Choctaw

From the middle to late nineteenth century, the Choctaw favored burying their dead directly in the ground. The deceased was buried in a seated position. Seven men placed seven red poles about the grave, with thirteen hoops of grapevines and a small white flag.

Iroquois

As a general practice, these tribes buried their dead in graves and traditionally took a more vengeful approach to death. They practiced revenge through torture of the person responsible for a loved one’s death, but these practices evolved into required payments of money rather than life. Taking a man’s life cost ten strings of wampum and taking a woman’s life cost twenty because she was valued for her ability to have children.

If a loved one was killed by a person from another tribe, the matriarch of that person’s family could ask tribal warriors to take a prisoner from the tribe of the murderer. These mourning wars often involved a planned raid on another tribal village for that sole purpose.

Once captured, the matriarch would choose whether the prisoner was adopted into her family or tortured based on her level of grief. If torture was chosen, all village members had to take part as a signal of ending the person’s old life. The Iroquois valued strength in numbers, so the tortured prisoner would often get adopted into the tribe as a replacement for the person they lost.

At some point in history, these mourning war practices were replaced by the Condolence Ceremony, particularly for clan and tribal chiefs. During this ceremony, members of several tribes would come together to mourn the loss as a nation rather than just the deceased’s family mourning a family member on their own.

These sacred ceremonies have not been well documented because they are deeply personal to Iroquois tradition. What is known is that leaders of another tribe were charged with conducting the ceremonies which included recitations of actions individuals could take to grieve the loss as well as comforting words. A string of wampum was presented by all the nations as one for each specific recitation, which could vary by tribe and circumstance.

From Then to Now

When Europe began to colonize America, European settlers brought great changes in Native American culture.

Eventually hundreds of tribes and ancient traditions disappeared.

The “mission” of Christian missionaries was to change the tribe. In 1882, the federal government of the United States attempted to ban the religious ceremonies of Indians and said they were “against public decency and morality”. Since the 19th century, some Native Americans have converted to some form of Christianity—becoming Catholics, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or whatever.

Although modern Native American death ceremonies have changed radically, often these practices still contain elements of traditional beliefs. A current ceremony often mixes traditional practices with elements of Christianity or other religions.

Chippewa Nation Flag

Tribes who converted to Catholicism celebrate All Souls’ Day on 1st November, commemorating the dead. Related to the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos, on this day Native Americans would leave food offerings and decorate their homes with ears of corn. The Chippewa way of death is similar to Hindu.

One modern practice by the Oneida Nation is the Community Death Feast. These annual feasts are held once each spring and once each fall to honor those who have died. Each person in the community brings a traditional food like corn mush, wild berries, wild rice, or venison to share with the whole group. One plate is filled with some of each shared dish and placed in a private area just before sunrise as a token for the dead.

One expanded example of the old being melded with the new: modern Sioux burials last four days before the dead are buried. The casket is rolled up a short ramp onto a scaffold eight inches above the floor, in the middle of the room. Flowers are arranged around the casket.

Family stand near the coffin. Mourners greet them, and gifts for the deceased (e.g., knives and shawls) are placed in casket before burial. The moderator reads the obituary, talks about the life experience of the deceased, and invites the people participating in the funeral to talk about their experience with the deceased. Then prayers start praying, and all participants pray, and sing an honor song in the traditional Sioux language. The participants walk counterclockwise in the hall.

At night, a thin layer of purple lace is laid on top of the opening of the casket to prevent evil spirits from taking the spirit of the dead. This is a common practice among the Santee Sioux because bad spirits are most active at night. The Santee Dakota, known as the Eastern Dakota, was established in 1863 and reside in the extreme east of the Dakotas, Minnesota, and northern Iowa. The last watch is held at midnight, and everyone stays overnight. At least one family member has to stay with the deceased overnight until the burial.

The next three days are the same as the first day, with the obituary, praying and songs of honor. After each ceremony, friends and family take turns paying their respects to the deceased, giving him/her “spiritual food” called wakan or pemmican to help the spirit move along the journey.

When the casket is lowered into the grave, those who carried the casket each shovel earth into the grave. People who wish to sprinkle a handful of dirt onto the casket. The men carrying the coffin had the job of filling the grave. More prayers and songs follow. Finally, everyone leaves to enjoy a last meal together.

BOTTOM LINE:

Sacred Native American traditions and ceremonies are most often preserved in oral history, and taught to the next generation by word of mouth. These ceremonies and beliefs are not always documented outside of oral tradition. Each medicine person specializes in different ceremonies. When someone dies they take that knowledge with them. Over the last several decades, the Diné/Navajo medicine people has gone from a thousand to just 300. The coronavirus threatens the few who remain. Potentially, COVID can decimate both populations and culture among Native American peoples.

Additional Information

EARLY BIRDS AND NIGHT OWLS

Folk wisdom would have us believe that we all should be early birds: they get the worm, after all, and they are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Indeed, research indicates that there are real differences between the early-to-bedders and the late-to-bedders.

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Being up and ready for the day correlates with EBs getting better grades and having a better chance of getting a good “regular” job. 

More coffee, please!

In one way, at least, early birds (EBs) have a big advantage: most social life takes place during the day, and EBs can take full advantage of that. Getting to medical appointments, grocery stores, and business breakfasts are not hardships.

In addition, at least one study found that EBs anticipate problems and try to minimize them. Being proactive in this way is linked to better job performance, greater career success, and higher earnings. They set goals and plan to meet them.

Mixing coffee with beer makes it perfect for breakfast! Thanks, Coronado Brewing!

Overall, EBs are much more likely to exercise, and as a result are less prone to health problems, everything from obesity to depression. Perhaps that’s partly because most outdoor activity takes place during the day anyway!

However, not everything is roses for EBs. For one thing, their days are all downhill. They get no “second wind” late in the day. As sleepiness pulls, an EB’s performance lags. In addition, EBs need more sleep, and if they don’t get enough, it really drags them down.  Still, it seems a small price to pay for all the good stuff I just talked about.

So why wouldn’t everyone want to be an EB? First of all, what one wants isn’t always what one gets. People are biologically predisposed to be either an EB or a Night Owl (NO). Frederick Brown (Penn State psychologist) refers to EBs as early risers and NOs as late setters and comes out strongly on the side of genetic determination. In fact, in 2003, researchers discovered a “clock “ gene. EBs were more likely to have a longer version of this Period 3 gene.

And there is a real downside to being a NO—including being more prone to a whole host of mental and physical health problems, especially depression and obesity. Not surprisingly, they tend to die sooner than EBs.

Not bedtime. We’re not tired. Definitely not… tired…

Perhaps the increased likelihood of mental health issues are a byproduct of being generally and literally out of sync with society’s rhythms.

NOs struggle with social activities. Yes, there are all night restaurants,  gyms, and movies, but if NOs’ family and friends are on a different schedule, they face the choice of pressing/stressing themselves to accommodate or suffer from self-imposed isolation and loneliness.

It sounds like being a NO is a total bummer, but not so! Research has discovered several benefits to getting up with the owls.

Changing one’s sleep pattern often requires large amounts of caffeine.

Somewhat surprisingly (to me), NOs have more sex—which could lead to being productive in non-work-related ways! 

“It’s almost midnight. Let’s order pizza!”

One’s sleep patterns and preferences are expressions of one’s circadian rhythm: this is the rhythm of one’s body processes over the course of approximately 24 hours. In fact, the word “circadian” comes from the Latin words circā (approximately) and diēs (day). All living things—even plants—have them. (If there is life on Mars or Venus, then all bets are off!)

Left to their own devices (i.e., with no external cues as to time of day), humans tend to settle into a “natural” cycle of about 25 hours within a waking/sleeping day.

Fortunately, adjusting by an hour is fairly easy.

On the issue of enduring wake/sleep rhythms, there is lots of variability. Approximately 1% are diehard EBs and another 17% are diehard NOs, with everyone else being somewhere in between. The “tweeners” have an easier time making bigger adjustments in their sleep cycles.

It’s 2am. Time for everyone to wake up because I’m hungry!

There are age-clustering effects, too. High school and college age people, regardless of bio-rhythms, tend to stay up late and sleep in. The opposite is true of the elderly.

All sorts of outside factors have major chunks of control over when we wake and sleep, regardless of preferences. Many NOs must adapt to workplace schedules, or demands due to spouse or children. Consider how one’s body’s preferences would adapt to these work schedules.

  • 9-5:00ers
  • Night shift workers
  • Swing-shift workers
  • Parents
Sleep deprivation in fire fighters can be very dangerous. They get cranky when they’re tired.

People do what they have to do, sometimes for years at a time. Not surprisingly, swing-shift workers have the hardest time of it, and the more often their shifts change, the more disruptive it is. (If one’s work shifted by an hour a day, it would be easy to handle… but I don’t know of any examples.) If one works 7-3:00 followed by 3-11:00 followed by 11-7:00 and then repeats the cycle at lengthy intervals, the adaptation is easier than random shifts and/or short intervals.

At least the ambulances are pretty comfy for a nap.

Sleepers following a swing-shift work schedule face additional mental and physical hurdles. Researchers have identified a sleep disorder specific to employees on these schedules: Shift Work Sleep Disorder.

  • Prone to chronic sleep deprivation
  • Slower reaction time
  • Decreased focus
  • Impaired decision making

Many of the people whose jobs require focus, speed, high-level decision making, and operating under extreme stress also have to work on swing shift schedules.

Plus, hospitals are super creepy at night. So are power plants.
  • Power plant operators
  • Emergency medical technicians and paramedics
  • Doctors and nurses
    • Emergency room staffers and residents are more likely to work night shifts and swing shifts
  • Emergency hotline operators (911)
  • Police
  • Military personnel

Whatever structures are imposed, our NO or EB tendencies endure, even into old age. Remove external structural constraints/demands and one’s true nature comes to the fore again.

Bottom line: You’ll be happier and perhaps healthier if you can shape your life to extract as many benefits as possible from your natural tendencies!

Gemma Correll understands me!

CAN COVID CAUSE OCD?

Someone coughed. Just burn it down and start over.

Last Sunday I talked with a woman who said, “COVID is making me so OCD!”  She’s been working from home for months, in a state that is tightly locked down.  With her normal summer activities disrupted, her isolation has been filled with painting the baseboards and other wood trim, hanging her growing son’s clothes hooks higher, and weeding flowerbeds for hours.

“I get down on the floor to exercise and all I can focus on is the pulled place in the rug.  And then I look out the window and feel like I ought to be out there raking leaves, even though they’re only half down.  And this morning, I rearranged books size and color as well as type.

“See?  Completely OCD.”

Ready to go outside to fetch the mail!

OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) is a label that’s tossed around loosely, like beautiful or crazy. The woman I talked to is a good example.  OCD is casually applied to people who are finicky or particular about some one thing (e.g., straightening picture frames) rather than people with serious mental health problems that interfere with living a healthy, comfortable life. 

Technically, OCD applies only to people who use obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors in an attempt to deal with anxiety and fear. It’s a coping mechanism—another way to get through the day.

Dropped the mail. Better burn it.

Today, OCD is viewed by researchers as a spectrum, much like autism. It often develops in people with a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders and mental illness, and this is the group most likely to develop true OCD in response to COVID. For these people, when the threat diminishes, the attempts to reduce the threat do not go away—and may worsen.

Not a healthy coping mechanism

Ideally, people with OCD receive treatment (usually a combination of medication and behavioral or exposure therapy) to deal with the condition. One of the major goals of treatment is learning not to try to avoid their fears. Instead, patients with OCD work to balance exposure to triggering conversation and information with healthful activities such as exercise, spending time outside, developing good sleep habits, etc., while doing things in line with personal and work-related goals.

It’s always important to coordinate the princesses on one’s dress with the princesses on one’s mask. The mask works better that way.

The spread of COVID has caused a spike in anxiety and fear for everyone (with the possible exception of some diehard deniers). The constant need for vigilance has forced nearly everyone to change daily habits, focus on ways to stay safe and well, and then to act on them. People who compulsively watch the news or spend hours on social media typically are more fearful.

Very young children do not need to wear masks. They are sticky petri dishes of germs and no mask could ever help with that.

Many people previously diagnosed with OCD are suffering greatly. Medical experts’ advice to wear a mask, wash hands thoroughly and often, avoid touching their faces, avoid being around sick people, disinfect surfaces most often touched, and socially distance requires a lot of attention throughout the day. People with a germ phobia may be unable to attend to anything else!  

Ideally, the OCD sufferer will do but not overdo: for example, to wash hands for twenty seconds and no longer—to focus on having done the hand washing, not on feeling clean. Tip: if you wonder whether you are over-doing it, you probably are.

A germ phobia as related to OCD is obvious. But according to Dr. Rachel Ginsberg of Columbia University, there are several possible impacts of the pandemic on OCD patients.

“Other types of OCD that can be triggered by this pandemic include somatic obsessions (concerns with illness or disease, such as headaches), sensory-focused symptoms (obsessing over sensations in the body or perceived feelings on the skin’s surface), feelings of over responsibility and inappropriate guilt (e.g. related to spreading the illness), and harm OCD (e.g. fear that one will be responsible for something terrible happening, such as unknowingly causing others’ death).

Umm… This doesn’t seem quite right.

Additional OCD symptoms might include magical thinking, superstitious fears, fear of harm coming to self or others because of not being careful enough (fear of spreading germs if you were unknowingly COVID-positive or asymptomatic), and religious obsessions or excessive fear of right vs. wrong.

Moreover, OCD symptoms may include needing to know or remember information related to updated guidelines, and related excessive information gathering and checking. In addition to handwashing and cleaning, compulsions that might present or worsen could include mental reviewing (of where you have been, how far you stood from someone else, what you might have touched), needing to tell/ask/confess to others, superstitious behaviors, and health-related compulsions (e.g. asking for excessive reassurance from doctors about health symptoms).”

Dr. Rachel Ginsberg
Some people just refuse to change their hygiene habits for any pandemic!

For some people, the pandemic is just proof that they were right all along: the world is truly a dangerous place. For mentally healthy people, this danger will pass when the pandemic passes: they are highly unlikely to develop lifelong OCD. In non-OCD people, when the threat diminishes, the compulsive threat-based behaviors will diminish.

Bottom Line: People are different. (You heard it here first!) In this instance, people will vary widely in the extent, severity, and duration of COVID-triggered obsessions and compulsions.

READING HABITS: EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE ONE!

Most medical professionals agree that a reading habit is much healthier than a cocaine habit or a heroin habit (the ones that don’t are the same dentists who don’t suggest brushing your teeth).  For one thing, reading is good for your physical and mental health.  You probably know at least some of these benefits of reading every day, but just to review briefly:

  1. Improves brain connectivity
  2. Increases vocabulary
  3. Increases comprehension
  4. Readers are more able to empathize with others
  5. Aids sleep readiness (if it’s a physical book)
  6. Reduces stress
  7. Lowers blood pressure
  8. Lowers heart rate
  9. Helps reduce depression
  10. Reduces cognitive decline with aging
  11. Lengthens lifespan 

So, everyone should read, and it should start at an early age. According to doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, parents should start reading to/with their children from infancy through elementary school years.

  • Builds warm, happy associations with books
  • Increases the likelihood that kids will enjoy reading in the future
  • Reading at home boosts school performance later on
  • Increases vocabulary
  • Raises self-esteem 
  • Builds good communication skills
  • Physically strengthens the human brain
  • Builds attention span

What Should You Be Reading? 

Eating a book ensures full absorption and comprehension.

Whatever you can get your hands on!  Even before they know how to read, children will learn reading habits such as which way to hold a book and finding familiar pictures or letters on a page. It’s important to expose kids to books both above and within their current reading ability, in a wide variety of genres.

If you want some guidance on what is age-appropriate for children, you can get advice on-line and/or in actual books.  Each grade level in school typically requires students to pass reading skill tests before passing to the next level. Libraries are an excellent resource for book suggestions for children of any age or reading ability.

Every child learns differently and at a different pace. Whether in real life or in your writing, it is entirely too easy to limit children by expected levels or shame a child for not conforming to expectations.

Types of Readers

When it comes to reading habits, to each his or her own.  To use a biology analogy, the “family” of readers includes numerous “genera.” In some instances, there are even “species.”

Just about every reader belongs to more than one species to a greater or lesser degree. Many people adjust their reading habits as circumstances allow, changing when children are born or a job change requires a different commuting style.

High Need-for-Achievement Readers 
Whoever has to read this should be paid. Well paid.

These readers read almost exclusively within their professional area, e.g., mathematics journals or business publications or medical research papers, etc. These readers may or may not enjoy their reading, but they read nonetheless. Some professions, such as teachers and paramedics, require continual study and testing to maintain up-to-date certifications to practice.

OCD Readers 

If you start a book, you finish that book, no matter what. Anything else feels like failure. For more information about the difference between obsessive compulsive disorder and quirky fixations, check out this post I wrote about the character possibilities of each.

Spiritual Readers 
Alcoholics Anonymous encourages its members to read from a variety of religious and philosophical texts as part of completing the program.

Although this group includes those who read (and study) the Bible, it also includes anyone whose goal is spiritual enlightenment and growth.  Many Muslims read and recite the entire Qur’an during Ramadan every year as a form of meditation. Writings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh are widely read by people of many faiths.

Book Groupies 
The dog is always a receptive audience but usually doesn’t contribute much to the discussion.

These readers want someone to talk with about their reads—which can be more or less academic. Depending on how books are chosen, they are likely to end up reading things they would never have chosen for themselves, which can be good—or not so much. Book groups often have a specific focus, such as current fiction, or botany books, i.e., anything from the genre preferences.

Friends’ Reads 

Much like a book group, except it’s whatever one’s bridge buddies, neighbors, family members, et al. are reading, recommending, and/or lending. Depending on the interests of friends, this can lead to a very eclectic reading list. Reading what friends recommend or enjoy can strengthen social bonds by encouraging discussion of books read in common.

Bestseller Addicts 
Many libraries create their own best-seller (best-borrowed?) collections.

These readers are up-to-the-minute at the water-cooler and/or cocktail hour. They often operate on the presumption that if it appeals to enough people to be a bestseller, a book will appeal to themselves as well. The traditional gold standard here is The New York Times. The Times tracks the following categories:

  • Hardcover fiction
  • Hardcover nonfiction
  • Combined print & e-book
  • Paperback trade fiction
  • Combined print & e-book
  • Paperback nonfiction

Note: These bestsellers divisions take account of readers’ format preferences and allow for combining with one’s genre preferences.

Genre Loyalists 

These people know what they like and stick to it: a genre is characterized by similarities of form, style, or subject matter. Accordingly, pretty much any category of book is a genre—and I’m probably missing some here, but you get the idea:

  • Literary fiction 
  • Mystery/detective fiction 
  • Thriller
  • Horror
  • Historical fiction
  • Romance
  • Humor
  • Western
  • Bildungsroman
  • Science fiction
  • Fantasy/fairy tales
  • Magical realism
  • Biography
  • Autobiography
  • Memoir
  • Exposé/tell-all
  • Creative non-fiction
  • Nature writing
  • Environmental activism
Genre Junkies 

Often read more than one book a day, limited to a specific genre, sometimes a limited number of preferred authors.  Genre Junkies tend to prefer genres in which a plethora of books are available. A fan of books about Arctic Circle Siberian reptile varieties is likely to run out of material much more quickly than a fan of paranormal dystopian romance fantasy books.

Binge Readers

Exactly what it sounds like. These people often skip meals and sleep when a book is particularly hard to put down. Accomplished binge readers may even learn to walk, dress, cook, and feed the dog without putting down the book in their hand.

The Eclectic 

Reads anything and everything: blogs, poetry, nature, non-fiction, fiction, sci-fi, or whatever. An interesting book from thirty years ago is no lower on the list than the absolute latest best-seller. Eclectics are often bright, inquisitive, and frequent readers.

Ping-Ponging

Some readers have multiple books going and bounce back and forth among them. The bedside book, the lunch break book, the evening book, the boring book they know they should read for some obligation but just can’t seem to make it through… I haven’t seen any formal studies on the subject, but I would imagine that ping-ponging readers would be very good at multi-tasking.

Mini-Readers
Mini Reader and Micro Reader?

Some people have such packed schedules, they can seldom read for more than fifteen minutes at a time. A person who is able to keep track of characters and plotlines despite snatching only small doses has to have a pretty-good memory.

Night Readers

Generally caretakers or parents, some readers have to wait until their charges are asleep before picking up a book. Parenting and caregiving are both stressful occupations, and reading during naptime or after bedtime can provide absolutely necessary stress relief for Night Readers.

Self-Rewarders

Some people use reading as a form of reward, much as others might promise themselves a piece of chocolate or pair of shoes for completing an unpleasant task. Anyone who enjoys reading could be a self-rewarder: a doctor can only read the latest sci-fi bestseller after reading the latest medical journals; a parent can only read after finishing the laundry; a binge reader has to put the book down until dinner is finished.

Strugglers
Will Smith is just one of many dyslexics who encourage others to keep reading despite the difficulty.

As a visitor to a blog about writing and reading, you are probably someone who enjoys reading on some level. However, reading is difficult and not enjoyable for many adults. Some researchers estimate that 1 in 7 adults in the US are functionally illiterate; dyslexia, disrupted schooling, dyspraxia, and many other reasons could lead to a person reaching adulthood with only enough reading skill to be able to function in society.

When? Where?

Besides what we read, our reading habits include when and where we read.

  • Transit readers: they read on planes, trains, automobiles, and subways. Very careful transit readers may be able to read while walking; audio books make this much easier.
  • Bed-time readers: exactly what it sounds like.
  • TV readers: while one’s partner/house mate/family members watch something unappealing on TV, they hang out companionably and read.
  • Vacation readers: weekends, holidays, and vacations, kicking back with a good book. 
    • Not recommended because it isn’t daily.
  • Boredom readers: any waiting room or line that goes on forever.

Modern Options

Last but not least, how do we read?  Today there are more options than ever. There’s no reason not to read every day! The three basic options:

This seems a tad irresponsible…
  • Physical books: the traditional option, most researched, with best/most positive effects on health
  • E-books (available on devices from smart phones to tablets to computers to dedicated devices such as Kindle and Nook). Often the choice of people with vision issues (any book can be LARGE PRINT), frequent travelers (who once went abroad with a dozen books or more weighing down the luggage), and anyone who likes having a light-weight, portable library at hand.
  • Audio books: the choice for someone who wants to do something else simultaneously (e.g., go to sleep, knit, make dinner). Can contribute to distracted driving, so don’t do that while behind the wheel. Audio books are also indispensable for people with impaired vision.
Do other formats have the same health benefits of physical books? 
It’s clear from this child’s reckless and dangerous nighttime e-reading that someone has not kept up with their subscription to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

A study by Beth Rogowsky at Bloomsburg University “found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously” using e-readers—and the test was limited to comprehension. It’s too complicated to get into here, but you can check it out. By and large, the effects of reading physical books daily are well-documented. E-books offer some but not all of those benefits. Audiobooks are the great unknown.

Bottom line: develop or nurture your daily reading habits. There is much evidence that it’s good for you, and no negative side effects on record.

HOW THIS BLOG ENDED UP IN THE BAHAMAS

Sometimes a writer (and I’m not alone here) starts out to write one thing and something entirely different emerges.  My metaphor for this is heading for Maine and ending up in the Bahamas.  That’s what happened to this blog.  I started out to write TELLING TIME, about using food to set or reveal the time in which the story takes place.  What I had in mind was a timeline for foods and cooking equipment.

For Example, by 1900

As many of you know, I collect cookbooks, and have done so for decades. As I pulled relevant references off my shelves, I discovered over a dozen books specifically on the history of food and cooking. 

No more than an hour or so into this effort, I realized three things:

  1. Readers might not be as enamored of lists as I am.
  2. The list would go on forever!
  3. Such a blog wouldn’t be helpful in the general scheme of things.

And that’s when I headed for the Bahamas, and turned this blog into a Better Know Your Character effort.

Assuming you don’t want to draw entirely from your own life and experience, there’s a book for that. 

You can get food and cooking information for any time period you need, in as much detail as you need, and for virtually any place you need.  If you write across time periods and/or locations, one of the books covering a broader range would be a good choice. 

Cookbooks for Specific Geographic Needs
  • By region, for example New England, Northern India, the Balkans
  • Any state in the US
  • Virtually any country or territory
  • Virtually any city
    • I say virtually here because I don’t have every one. But given that I have books for Paris; Tbilisi; Detroit; Pittsburgh; Los Angeles; Denver; Rochester, NY; and Westminster, MD (to name a few), I’m confident you could find what you need.
  • Plantation cooking
  • Australian Outback cooking
  • Wilderness cooking
  • Pacific Island cooking
  • Appalachian cooking
Cookbooks by Time Period
  • The American colonial kitchen
  • By decade since at least 1900
  • Food and cooking during war.
    • For example, The Doughboy’s Cookbook (common foods and cooking in the trenches of World War I) or M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (cooking during WWII rationing).
    • Cooking during wars or other conflicts often focus on deprivation.
      • The recently published CCCP Cook Book: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine has recipes Russian cooks developed or adapted to deal with food shortages throughout the Cold War.
      • During the Civil War, there was a time when there were no pigeons left in the city of Richmond because all had been killed for the table.
Cookbooks by Ethnic Heritage
  • African American
  • Native American
  • Results of mixed heritages
    • West African and French influences in Cajun cooking
    • Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian influences all along the Silk Road
  • Any cuisine by country of origin

Everyone has to eat sometime (except alien cyborgs).

What is your character’s attitude toward food? 

Cover all three aspects of attitudes: think, feel, do.

What does home cooking mean to your character? 

The answer to this question can tell all sorts of things about your character besides ethnicity:

  • Approximate age
  • Social class
  • Family of origin
What is involved in meal preparation?

If your modern character is making a meal, does s/he start with raw ingredients or put a prepared meal in the microwave? Does the answer change if company is coming? Is it a family meal? Do other family members share your character’s attitudes toward food and cooking?

What does your character eat? 

Strictly a meat and potatoes person? Omnivore? PescatarianVegetarian? Vegan And why?

  • Religious prohibitions
  • Animal rights
  • Health considerations
  • Cultural habits
  • Availability
What health concerns does a character address with food?

Many medical conditions are caused by unhealthy eating habits or require dietary adjustments to treat fully. Depending on the diet, this character may have cookbooks addressing the concern, request substitutions when eating out, or be unwilling to eat or cook around others.

  • Lack of a nutrient, such as calcium, Vitamin D, sodium
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Celiac disease
  • Lactose intolerance

Consider also the possibility of mental health concerns when eating or preparing food. A character with alcoholism, compulsive overeating, bulimia nervosa, etc. would likely display signs of those disorders that might be noticed by others. On the other hand, a character with severe depression, body dysmorphia, or OCD related to food might avoid social situations involving food altogether.

Food is for everyone

Whether your character lives to eat or eats to live—or is somewhere between the extremes—it’s difficult to write realistically without food coming into play somewhere, sometimes, at least occasionally. Making those mentions specific to your story/character is a big plus.

Bottom line advice to writers: Bring food and/or cooking into your story to add realism, specificity, and richness.

FAT OR PHAT

In modern slang, phat is roughly equivalent to excellent. Fat is a loose label that can refer to normal, overweight, obese, or extremely obese—or body parts that the speaker considers overly large. Fat or phat depends on where and when—and whether TV is available. 

According to The Body Project at Bradley University, “Although thin bodies are the ideal in America today, this is not always the case in other parts of the world. In some countries larger bodies are actually preferred because they are symbols of wealth, power, and fertility.” Here are their highlights.

Tahiti

  • In Tahiti, researchers in the 19th century observed chosen men and women engaging in a ritual process called ha’apori, or “fattening.”
    • Those selected to participate were usually young men and women from the upper echelons of society. 
    • During the fattening process, they would reside in a special home where relatives fed and cared for them so they would grow large, healthy, and attractive.
  • This ritual is no longer practiced today, but Tahitians still find large bodies attractive. This may be due in part to a diet rich in carbohydrates and coconut milk.

Nauru

  • In Nauru, large bodies were traditionally associated with beauty and fertility.
    • Young women were fattened up in preparation for child bearing.
    • Young men were fattened in preparation for contests of strength.
  • Fattening rituals had both social and biological benefits.
    • Feasting brought the community together and helped unite them.
    • The additional calories given to women of childbearing age increased the likelihood of conception and healthy birth and lactation.
  • Such fattening rituals ended in the 1920s.

Fiji

  • In Fiji, larger bodies are symbols of health and connectedness to the community. People who lose a lot of weight or are very thin are regarded with suspicion or pity.
    • In a 1998 study in Fiji, 54% of obese female respondents said they wanted to maintain their present weight, while 17% of obese women said they hoped to gain weight.
    • Among overweight (although not obese) women, 72% said they did not wish to change their weight, while 8% of these women hoped to gain weight.
  • Both overweight and obese women expressed a high level of body satisfaction.

Jamaica

  • A 1993 study in Jamaica found that plump bodies are considered healthiest and most attractive among rural Jamaicans.
    • Fat is associated with fertility, kindness, happiness, vitality, and social harmony.
    • Some Jamaican girls even buy pills designed to increase their appetite and help them gain weight.
  • Particular emphasis is placed on generous hips and hindquarters.
  • Weight loss and thinness are considered signs of social neglect.

The body project reports: “In recent times, even many societies that once favored larger bodies seem to be moving toward thinner bodies as the ideal. Why? One factor is that with globalization and the spread of Western media, people around the world are receiving the same message that we do in America: that thin bodies are the most attractive.”

  • In a landmark 2002 study, researchers reported the effects of the Western mass media on body ideals in Fiji.
    • When researchers visited one region of Fiji in 1995, they found that broadcast television was not available. In that region, there was only one reported case of anorexia nervosa.
    • Just three years after the introduction of television, 69% of girls reported dieting to lose weight.
    • Those whose families owned televisions were three times more likely to have attitudes associated with eating disorders.

Other Countries Where Big is Beautiful

Kuwait
52% of Kuwaiti women over 15 are obese.  Extra weight was historically seen as a sign of health and wealth.  Additionally, the idea of women exercising is a taboo.

American Samoa
Anthropologists believe Samoans may have developed a genetic predisposition to store extra calories in fat tissue as a result of millennia of food shortages.  Heavy women (and men) are simply the norm and therefore embraced.

South Africa
The end of Apartheid did not mean South Africans adopted European size ideals to replace the correlation of weight and wealth. More recently, AIDS has become so prevalent that the societal association between weight loss and illness has contributed to South Africa’s negative view of thinness. 

Afghanistan
Female fertility is highly associated with excess pounds, particularly among the most traditional nomadic tribes in Afghanistan. Today, burquas conceal most of the body’s shape, but round faces and soft hands are immediate signs of attractiveness.

Mauritania
Female obesity is so synonymous with beauty and wealth that young girls are sometimes force-fed if they do not exhibit sufficient appetites.  Women often take antihistamines and animal steroids to induce appetite.  Exercise is frowned upon, and women are frequently divorced for their inability to sustain excessive girth after childbirth.

Changing Body Ideals

As The Body Project so clearly documented, body ideals are fluid. The changes over time are apparent, most obviously since 1900. 

From the Stone Age to the Renaissance, fat was beautiful, thought to reflect both health and wealth. Consider the early Fertility Goddesses (such as Venus, Ishtar, Brigid, Parvati, Hathor, Ashanti Akuba,) as an ideal:

  • Prior to 1900, in China, the stigma of thinness was so strong that thin people had trouble finding marriage partners. Special bulking diets were consumed to make sure those of marriageable age would be attractive.
  • Elite pubescent Efik girls (in Nigeria) spent two years in fattening huts, which were exactly what the name implies.
  • The Tarahumara of Northern Mexico idealized fat legs. Both women and men were considered more attractive or prosperous if obese.

Plus-sized beauty ideals are everywhere in old art. For example, “The Bathers” by Renoir (1887) is typical. Rubens, Titian, Memling, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and their fellow artists were all appreciative of the breadth of their subjects’ forms.

At the turn of the 20th century, Lillian Russell, weighing approximately 200 pounds, was a sex symbol. Women carrying extra weight were considered beautiful and fertile. Overweight men were perceived as powerful. There was even a club just for men who weighed over 200 pounds.

Connecticut Fat Men’s Club in 1866

Although during the Roaring Twenties in the U.S. the ideal body for women was “boyish” (flat chest and narrow hips), by the 1950s the ideal female body was significantly heavier than today. (Think Marilyn Monroe.)

Miss America pageant winners
The most beautiful woman, according to different populations.

Degrees of “acceptable” weight vary among cultures, regions, even ethnic groups. A number of studies report that African-American women were less likely than white women to obsess over their weight or to view their body as an enemy. Black women, as well as Hispanic women, didn’t start to express dissatisfaction until they were borderline obese. White women expressed dissatisfaction when they were at the high end of normal/borderline overweight.

From the 1960s to 2020, the ideal body has been some degree of thinness, even as there is a wave of obesity around the world.

Obesity and Physical  Health

I won’t dwell on physical health because it’s common knowledge. Obesity is bad for one’s health, increasing the likelihood of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoarthritis, infertility, fibroids, gastro-intestinal problems, and sleep disturbances. Recent studies have indicated that overweight patients who become infected with COVID-19 are more likely to develop life-threatening complications. 

Stereotypes of Fat People

Numerous surveys have demonstrated that the American public is biased against people who are overweight and obese. 

Negative attitudes toward fat people are dominant, pervasive, and difficult to change in both children and adults.

According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, physicians hold numerous biases. “A survey involving a nationally representative sample of primary care physicians revealed that, not only did more than half of respondents think that patients who are obese were awkward and unattractive, but more than 50 percent believed that they would be noncompliant with treatment. One-third thought of them as “weak-willed” and “lazy.”

Another study found that as patients’ weight increased, physicians reported having less patience, less faith in patients’ ability to comply with treatment, and less desire to help them. Other studies have added to the evidence that bias against patients who are obese is common in health care settings.”

These findings are particularly scary in light of the relationship between obesity and health problems summarized above—and in light of the fact that the majority of Americans are overweight or obese.

Fat people are thought to have no willpower, no self-control. Although expected to be good humored and laid back, they are also thought to be gluttons.

Tess Holliday (left) was mocked for wearing this dress on the red carpet. Several other (thin) celebrities were admired for wearing the same dress.

Anyone can identify prejudices held by people in general, and the media—particularly TV—exacerbate the problem.  Greenberg et al. reported on their findings of television actors’ BMI after analyzing 5 episodes of the top 10 prime time shows.

  • In comparing television actors’ BMI to that of the American public, they found that only 25 percent of men on television were overweight or obese, compared to almost 60 percent of American men.
  • Almost 90 percent of women on TV were at or below normal weight, compared to less than 50 percent of American women.
Korean pop stars (such as Xiumin from EXO) are held to absurd body weight standards, often being forced by managers and publicists to remain in a perpetual state of malnourishment.

Popular television shows that include people who are obese portray them as comedic, lonely, or freaks (think Mike and Molly).  Rarely if ever are they romantic leads, successful lawyers or doctors, or action stars.

In addition, The Biggest Loser promotes the perception that obesity is caused by individual failure rather than a mixture of individual, environment, and genetic sources.

  • Miscellaneous negative attributions
    • Rejected
    • Lazy
    • Slow
    • Sick
    • Low self-confidence
  • Indeterminate attributions
    • Hungry
    • Quiet
    • Shy
  • Although the negative attitudes are predominant, some positive traits are attributed to fat people
    • Happy
    • Sweet
    • Playful
    • Intelligent
    • Honest
    • Likely to fulfill promises
    • Kind
    • Generous

Fat and Employment

Male Body Ideals Through History
  • Negative attributions (see above) make employment particularly difficult for people who have some extra pounds.
    • Fat people have a harder time finding employment
    • Even when employed, fat people earn less than their thinner counterparts for the same job
    • They are less likely to be promoted
    • They get smaller raises
    • They’re more likely to be thought to be slacking off 

Fat and Mental Health

Even Plus-Size Models are photo-shopped to be nearly unrecognizable.
Karizza Photographer
  • In a nutshell, the more overweight a person is, the more likely that person is to have mental health problems.
    • Partly it’s because people incorporate the negative stereotypes held by society.
    • This, in turn, can cause-isolation-poor body image 
      • Low self-esteem
      • Depression
      • Anxiety
      • Bulimia or anorexia
Some people are totally comfortable in their bodies, not caring what anyone thinks.

Women in general react more strongly than men to negative comments and the lack of positive comments. Overweight women are much more likely to be hurt by criticism of their bodies than overweight men are.

Bottom line for writers: Whatever the body type of characters, make a conscious decision on whether to draw on stereotypes or go against them.

BETTER KNOW YOUR CHARACTER: POTENTIALLY DEADLY

How would your character respond to potential death? Throughout time, people have faced illnesses and situations from which they knew, expected, or feared they might die. The possibilities are nearly limitless. Here are a few examples.

Situations
  • Prisoner of war-torture-prisoner on death row
  • Slavery
  • Famine/starvation
  • Exposure to extreme heat or cold
  • Domestic violence
  • Lost in the wild
  • Having a stalker
  • Being old
Illnesses
  • COVID/epidemic/pandemic
  • Bubonic plague
  • TB/consumption
  • Smallpox
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Malaria
  • Seasonal influenza
  • Cholera
  • Rabies
  • Pneumonia
  • Infectious diarrhea
  • Ebola
  • Variant Creutzfeldt
  • Jakob disease
  • Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)
  • Leprosy
  • Cancer

Common Responses

A glance at these examples reveals that deadliness depends, not only on what but also on location, time period, and resources (medical and otherwise). As with so many things—all things?–responses vary. Here are some of the most common responses.

Denial

The label says nearly everything. The person, one way or another, says, “It just ain’t so.” Symptoms are ignored, dismissed as symptoms of something less serious. If actually diagnosed, the person thinks that a mistake has been made. 

For example, a woman attributes her shortness of breath to asthma or pneumonia. When referred for X-rays, she doesn’t follow through. One Sunday, when she doesn’t make it to church, other congregants find her unconscious and call the volunteer EMT squad and take her to the emergency room. The preliminary diagnosis is pneumonia. Five days later, she dies of lung cancer that has metastasized to her brain and other soft organs.

Resignation

This is, basically, what will be, will be. Not motivated to seek or follow medical treatment. There are some religious sects that chew medical treatment, on the belief that God will heal or not, “His will be done.” Often life is carried on as close to normal as possible, sometimes the person does as little as possible, waiting for the outcome.

Resistance and Endurance

The epitome of this response would be Senator John McCain, a war hero who survived years of imprisonment and solitary confinement.

Fight

For a disease, this person would actively seek treatment, the latest treatment, even alternative treatment. 

An example would be a man diagnosed with lung cancer who agrees to participate in an experimental trial. After two seizures in which he nearly dies of heart attacks, he leaves the trial, takes what ameliorating treatments he can find, and dies a year later, looking like an Auschwitz survivor.

For events such as exposure to heat or cold, it means physically fighting to survive, calling on whatever skills are available

Make the Best of It

This is a person who accepts the diagnosis, looks at the data on prognosis with various treatments, and moves forward. Here are a couple of examples of women with breast cancer.

  • The first had an optimistic outlook. She had a lumpectomy, radiation, one infection followed by another, a second surgery, followed by months of treatment for a persistent non—healing wound. During those treatments, she spent hours a day, five days a week in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. A year after the original diagnosis, she was offered plastic surgery to repair the surgical scars. After a year of life bound by the medical establishment, she opted to redecorate instead: she had the scarred area tattooed. Eventually that original tattoo was expanded and entirely encircled her torso. She reveled in reclaiming her time and her body, and celebrated five years of without a recurrence.
  • The second woman, in her early fifties, had a less positive prognosis. There was evidence that the cancer had metastasized, so she embarked on a course of chemotherapy, every three weeks for months. Her approach to coping was to take a few days before each chemo treatment—while she felt the best—to check something off her bucket list.- Six years before her best friend’s body had been cremated, and she had promised to scatter the ashes in Arizona, so she flew from Massachusetts to Phoenix and fulfilled her promise. She went zip-lining in Costa Rica, spent time at the beach, danced on the beach at night and went skinny-dipping, went hang gliding off the cliffs in California. Not able to take a safari to Africa, she took her children on a private safari at the local zoo, went parasailing in the Bahamas, and got a tattoo—not to be seen in public
Try to Stay in Control

Sometimes the anxiety of the unknown and feeling out of control of one’s own time and body leads to an attempt to take control of the unknown by committing suicide.

Self Medication

Trying to avoid the reality, and/or pain, alcohol and/or drugs can make the wait time more bearable.

Questions for writers: What situation would—most reasonably—be potentially deadly for your character? And how would your character handle it?