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The Roommate Files: Case II, The Case of the Mysterious Smell

The Random Roommate—the thought is so scary that it’s easy to imagine a horror movie sharing the title. Sure it could go okay…but it could also go horribly wrong. One Her Campus reader shares her story about a random roommate situation that went sour…literally.

This Her Campus reader—we’ll call her Ruby—found herself entering sophomore year with a random roommate. Ruby said that she was “excited to make a good impression” and “bought her a little card.” Ruby went into her new rooming situation with an open mind and open heart, and her roommate—we’ll call her Grace—was “really nice” and the two “got along wonderfully.”

It always starts out nice—until “people stop being polite… and start getting real” as MTV’s The Real World has made all too clear. Ruby and Grace were becoming friends until Ruby noticed a “definite difference in hygiene protocols.” Uh oh.

Susan Fee, licensed professional counselor and author of My Roommate’s Driving Me Crazy!, notes that these hygiene problems are common among roommates.

“Our skin does smell like what we eat,” Fee noted as one hygienic problem people often fail to notice about themselves.

Ruby seemed to assume that the awful smell—of body odor and fish (EW!)—was coming from Grace. Unfortunately Ruby was too nice and dealt with the sensitive situation poorly by not saying a thing about it to her roommate because she loved her as a friend.

How she put up with the body odor/fish smell for as long as she did is unbelievable, but somehow she survived to tell her story…

In terms of general hygiene issues Fee calls our attention to a couple of things poor hygiene could be signaling.

  • Depression: “If I’m around a person who is not caring for themselves for at least two weeks straight I would bring it up to them in a self-care kind of way and say “I’m concerned about you. I’ve noticed that you don’t seem to be caring for yourself as much as you used to. I’m worried that everything is not ok,” Fee says. Not caring for yourself can be a tip-off to depression—perhaps as a result of a rough breakup or yet another D on a Biology test.
  • Lack of Standards: Sure, to most of us bathing is a regular thing that has been ingrained in us as long as we can remember. But Fee says that for some people bathing just isn’t a daily thing.
  • Financial Issues: “Not everyone has somebody helping them pay for college and not every single person has shampoo, soap, or toothpaste all of the time. They really don’t. A lot of kids are on scholarships and are completely out of their element at some schools where you’d think ‘what’s the big deal? You could wash everyday.’ But they can’t afford it,” Fee says.

But when it came down to it for Grace and Ruby, the stench was not a direct result of Grace’s hygiene issues.

“When fall break came, she was planning on taking a small trip to St. Louis, MO for two days,” Ruby explained. “Her weekend trip opened the room for me to do some deep cleaning! I started with my side and planted a ton of car fresheners in random places. Even though I knew I was violating her side of the room, I planted some hidden car fresheners on her side of the room. So, I put some behind her dresser, one taped underneath her desk, then I crawled under her bed to find the REAL source of the terrible smell.”

Ruby explains that underneath her roommate’s bed was a sack of potatoes she bought at the beginning of the year which had grown into “this giant sea-creature smelly object that is impossible to describe,” Ruby explained.

“The closest description I can think of is the appearance of people with the “tree man” wart disorder It was awful,” Ruby recounted.

So Ruby threw out the potatoes and blamed the discovery on a friend. Grace, rightfully so, was “furious about the invasion of privacy…but at least the room didn’t smell anymore,” Ruby said.

Fee sympathized with Ruby’s roommate issues but did not agree with the way she handled it.

“It’s better to invite the person to join you [in the cleaning] to begin with! If you use the word “we” you make the suggestion that it’s both of you that need to do some cleaning.”

Most importantly, Fee reminds us that violating our roommate’s privacy is NEVER the answer and that Ruby should not have gone through her roommate’s stuff to begin with.

“She should have apologized for that, that was wrong. It just shows that she’s not comfortable addressing an issue. If she had just been honest in the beginning and said ‘I smell something funny, do you? Is it ok if we start looking around?’ To have had her as a partner rather than going behind her back would have been better. But at that point she should have apologized,” Fee said.

Moral of the story: COMMUNICATION. Yeah it’s awkward to talk about the awful stench in your room, but you know what’s more awkward? Bringing a boy you like to your room for whatever reason and him saying “ew! It smells like fish and body odor in here. Peace out!”

Also, don’t go through your roommate’s stuff. That puts you at risk for an uncomfortable conversation with your Residential Housing Director about why you felt the need to rummage through someone’s stuff (for which there’s really no good excuse to save you from trouble).

So if your nice roommate smells, say something about finding out the source together! It will save your friendship and the contents of your stomach.

SOURCES: Susan Fee licensed professional counselor and author of My Roommate’s Driving Me Crazy!

Cara Sprunk has been the Managing Editor of Her Campus since fall 2009. She is a 2010 graduate of Cornell University where she majored in American Studies with a concentration in cultural studies. At Cornell Cara served as the Assistant Editor of Red Letter Daze, the weekend supplement to the Cornell Daily Sun where she also wrote for the news and arts section and blogged about pop culture. In her free time Cara enjoys reading, shopping, going to the movies, exploring and writing.  
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