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.