Smell Me

by Jennifer Byrne

6 August 2008

Regarding the ‘fume’ in perfume, and society's acceptance of forcing one's effluvium up the nasal orifices of others.

Growing up, I had a great aunt who worked at the perfume counter at Macy’s. To me, it was a very glamorous job, brimming with sophistication and feminine intrigue. She would bring my sister and I little sample vials of various scents, teaching us to dab small amounts of it on our wrists and behind our ears, areas she called the “pulse points”.

Alternately, she taught us the even more fascinating method of spraying the scent into the air, waiting a few seconds, and walking into the lingering mist. We loved the pageantry of it, and would practice both the understated dab and the dramatic saunter into a spectral cloud of Chanel No. 5. For us, these were exercises in which we could imitate gentility and refinement, playing at the mysterious rituals of adulthood. Maybe we didn’t fully understand these practices (I especially didn’t understand the need for perfume behind my ears, an area of the body that seemed to receive an inordinate amount of focus in general, especially at bath time) but we liked the way they looked.

Now, of course, I realize that my aunt’s instructions were more than just pretensions of glamour; they were practical attempts to prevent what has since burgeoned into a gag-inducing trend: the egregious over-application of perfume.

To some extent, we’ve all been affected by the overuse of scent: there’s that coworker who doesn’t seem to realize that no, you haven’t had a lingering cold, you’re being slowly, systematically asphyxiated by her cloying bombardment with Estee Lauder’s Pleasures; there’s the club-going young guy in the parking garage elevator who vividly, and painfully, brings back 1993 with his pituitary-fueled onslaught of Drakkar Noir; there’s that aunt whose arrival at family gatherings doesn’t need to be registered visually, since Elizabeth Taylor’s Diamonds and Rubies usually gets there a few minutes before her. And we all know what it’s like to go to a movie theater and have the agreeable scent of buttered popcorn overpowered by one individual’s excessive fondness for Calvin Klein’s Euphoria

Sometimes, the exorbitant perfume wearer isn’t even human – even dogs are now being saturated in their owner’s questionable aesthetics through dog perfumes (see Paw  Now, we all know dogs love smells – but they prefer smells of a more, uh, “organic” variety, if you will.  Come around any pooch I know with a bottle of Liz Claybone or Timmy Holedigger (yes, these are real names), and they’ll sneeze, blink, and recoil in distaste. Then they’ll proceed to seek refuge and roll in the enchanting bouquet of the nearest road kill carcass.

And of course, you can’t open an issue of Vanity Fairwithout being fumigated by an unholy amalgam of various colognes and perfumes, each scent trying to dominate the other within the shared advertising space.  Excessive perfume and cologne use has, as I see it, become a worldwide epidemic. The symptoms of this epidemic are manifold, but the sneezing and frantic gasps of those nearby provide a good diagnostic start.

It seems that many people don’t realize that scent is not meant to be the olfactory equivalent of a billboard, announcing itself indiscriminately from miles away. Perfume and cologne are meant to be more subtle, more intimate, intended for those who are permitted close proximity. Perfume and cologne establishes the parameters of one’s personal space, and is therefore not meant to intrude into the personal space of others.

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