ode de parfum

In the dressing room I removed layer after layer of coats and sweatshirts, and the scent of my sweat and my skin filled the tiny compartment. In context, I don’t smell bad. I like the way I smell, my lover likes the way I smell, and the people who I spend most of my time with smell similarly.

In the context of a store full of formaldehyde out-gassing clothing, however, my scent stands out. I wondered whether the other shoppers in the store could smell me. I wondered if they were offended. I wondered if my smell was capable of giving them the headache that the store smell and perfumed-people smell was giving me. I doubted it.

I shimmied in and out of pants, most too tight or ridiculous to actually buy. I don’t usually sweat much, but the store was hot—the employees were walking around in the T-shirts that had already replaced the sweaters on the racks—and I was dressed for outside temperatures. All this is to say that I started to sweat like I had been jogging, and I started to think about standards of hygiene, sweat, and scents.

Once upon a time I showered everyday, but these days I shower maybe once a week, usually once every two or three. As I gradually stopped showering so obsessively, I started to dislike the penetrating aromas of many soaps and perfumes. There are still some I find pleasant, but it’s an area where I appreciate moderation. Excess gives me a headache, and when a group of people run past me on the track for the sixth time, and I smell only their deodorant and shampoo, then, well, wow.

Back then, I used at least five scented products daily. There was the shower gel, the shampoo, the conditioner, and the shaving gel. After the shower there was lotion, under-arm deodorant, and a spray of perfume on the nape of the neck. Oh, and there was also the mousse I put in my hair when I blew dry it straight. That means some days I used as many as seven. How many do you use?

When I stopped shaving my armpits I also stopped wearing deodorant (I’m not much of a sweater anyway). When I stopped shaving my legs I cut out the shaving gel and the lotion (when I stopped shaving my legs, the skin on them stopped getting dry). Not wanting to carry around a heap of bottles when I went somewhere to shower, I also cut out the conditioner (didn’t need it with shorter hair anyway) and the shower gel and used the same soap for both my skin and my hair. I can’t fathom how much money I’ve saved since.

A story from one of my platz-mates: at the doctor’s office she sat down in the waiting room with a handful of other patients. A woman to her right sniffed a few times and became agitated. “What smells like smoke in here? Do you guys smell that? I think something is burning! Maybe we should tell the nurse.” It was just the scent of wood stove on her clothes, unnoticeable at home, but in the sterile waiting room context it stuck out like two sore thumbs.

Another time I sat outside near the bonfire and listened to two women talk about how irritating it was to always come home from our summer concerts smelling like wood smoke. And I wonder, why is it that Summer Rain, Paris Hilton, or Twilight are more desirable scents than Wood Smoke, My Skin, or Your Hair?

Is advertising to blame? (Absolutely.) Is it “civilized” human’s desire to separate themselves from the animal kingdom? (Very probable.) Is it a puritanical desire to repress the sexual? (Maybe. You can read a blog contemplating that here.) Is it that cities mean living in such high concentrations of people that we are constantly forced to come in close physical contact with people we wouldn’t like (a situation that can become especially unpleasant when crammed together on poorly ventilated public transport) and must shower obsessively to make the situation tolerable? (This is probably what helped advertising get its sticky little fingers in the hygiene product door in the first place.)

When I think about the smell of un-scrubbed skin, I smile, and then I think of something Karlsson once said. Paraphrased, it went something like this: “My theory is that there are so many shitty people in the world because everyone showers too much. Nobody smells the way they actually smell, just like soap and perfume, and they end with a partner they never would have been able to stand being close to otherwise.”

An interesting theory, and though I doubt that the children that come from partners tricked by a delicious perfume could really be so shitty, I do wonder what effect a mismatched scent could have on a relationship’s health. (Though I kind of hope science never manages to wrap its stainless steel claws around. I can see it now, “‘Attraction’ Pheromone, Isolated, Perfume Companies in Bidding War for Patent.”)

In the end I don’t know that it really matters which we choose, but I do think it’s important to ask ourselves why we’ve chosen it.

The last time I scrubbed off all the dirt, a few friends came up to me almost ten hours later, sniffed a few times, and asked me what the hell was going on. “I had an interview.” Ooooh, they said, so that’s why you smell like that. The rest of the time it’s skin, unwashed hair, and wood smoke. Home.

0 Comments on “ode de parfum

  1. although i do shower on rather regular basis, i dislike most scented gels and bath products… some time ago i switched to unscented soaps like aleppo or marseille soap and it works just fine.

  2. When I lived in France, I shared a bathroom with a bunch of other people and often didn’t have access for a daily shower. After a little while not showering so frequently, but maybe once every few days, I noticed that I didn’t smell as much. There’s something about not scraping off all human small, oil, dirt, etc, that makes the body produce less of it. When I finally took a shower, I smelled bad! I think showering less is better for your body. It makes your skin softer, your hair softer, and it saves water! woot.

  3. You come back to this theme quite a bit. Have you ever considered studying oenology and going pro? You’ve obviously got quite a nose. 🙂

    About smoke…woodsmoke is lovely. But smoking? I have colleagues who reek of ashtray, and it’s horrible. If they only knew how disgusting it was.

  4. You wrote: “Is it “civilized” human’s desire to separate themselves from the animal kingdom? (Very probable.)”

    Um…animals actually wash themselves regularly.

  5. About wood smoke – I absolutely love it. But, and I think that’s the part most people find irritiating, it sticks. Just as cigarette smoke (ergh).
    Sit one evening by a bonfire, and the (lovely) smell will take several days to dissipate on its own.

  6. Thanks for all the comments guys. And yeah, I’m not a fan of cigarette smoke smell either. Wood stove I think I find all the more pleasant because it makes me think of being warm and cozy.

    Teenah: I’m not saying I’m against washing, or that washing is unnatural, but that all of the chemical faux scent stuff is. What I meant to imply was that by making ourselves smell like *insert perfume name here* we are covering up our normal skin smells, our human (and thus animal) smells. That is why I suggest that all the excessive perfuming could be seen as an attempt to separate oneself from the animal/non-chemically doused human. Hopefully that explanation was more articulate than that one sentence up there.

  7. I pass by your blog quite oftenly since I found it and I am really fascinated about how much things we share. For me, I stopped using deodorant and quit daily showers a couple of years ago, and I came to the same conlcusion, that my skin feels a lot better. To use lovely scents though, is nothing I would despise.

    Creating beautiful perfume is a high art, it is creating something that works oftenly unconsciously in the brain, psychology often, for your nose must be the most rudimentary yet highly spcialized of your senses. however, must scents everyone uses is chemical waste and should not be confused with really good natural perfume.
    for myself and my lover I prefer to smell hair and skin as it is. But also I like my hands smelling like lemonpeel, coffegrounds and strawberry-juice. you smelling like what you just did is just a pretty good thing.

    see you.

  8. Hepi: I agree about the lovely scents. Strawberry juice, coffee grounds, and lemonpeel…mmmm, yum. I think the best scents are those that add to your own scent rather than intending to cover it up, and I agree with what you said about natural scents vs chemical scent stuff. I am a big fan of a few dabs of jasmine oil myself. Glad you come by often, thanks for reading.

    What I’d really like to learn is how to make my own soap. Someday soon I will, and then you guys will be hearing about my smell obsession once again… Anyone have any good tips book/blog/people recommendations for learning??

  9. Mmmm, I just got home (well, almost home) and put on my pants that smell like home. 100 parts wood smoke and 5 parts burnt salmon skins. I was so happy to smell normal again I told my friend and she was like, “mm, you smell like moose.” Peoples noses are confused by all the perfumes!

    I use baking soda, vinegar, coconut oil, and rosemary essential oil is my concession to the town smell cult.

  10. just google for diy soap, i saw plenty of instructions on the web, but could not be bothered to try them. I just don’t need tons of soap, but doing less did not seem to be worth the effort.

    and yeah: it is about adding something to your own smell. true. true. that’s the interesting thing, to add and balance, not to cover up..

    though being still kinda crusty these days and heavily recycling and DIY infected, I don’t think it is bad to have some more elaborate ways to celebrate your being. I mean: You take the effort in precise writing and I enjoy reading it, so if one likes to produce and another one likes to enjoy precisely and beautiful made clothes, scents, art, food, furniture, jewelery or whatever.. it’s good. also you enjoy and support other peoples art & good work. I don’t have a problem with that. since I do art and design stuff, I have to live off something. but I vouch more for some “proper good stuff for everyone” ethics in design instead of producing more pricey kitsch.

    – and did you read the suesskind book about perfume?

  11. 🙂

    I read your blog a lot but never really comment but finally I just want to say that I LOVE all the subjects you write about – you’re spot on with my thoughts on So many different subjects, it’s great!

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