Smell Me

[6 August 2008]

By Jennifer Byrne

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 Palace.com).  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.

Nice Perfume image found on Office Politics.com

I find it peculiar that while the other four senses seem to have clearly established boundaries, smell is still largely a free-for-all. Although certainly, we’re all forced to some extent to see, hear, taste and touch some evil, there are official and unofficial limits placed on what exactly is OK to share with each other without asking first.

For example, the law has some very definite things to say about unwanted touching, and “indecent exposure” restrictions serve to enforce each culture’s subjective sense of what is visually acceptable. Workplaces, schools and recreational establishments often delineate appropriate and inappropriate attire through dress codes, and the wearing of shirts and shoes is generally known to be a prerequisite for receiving service.  Unkempt properties are labeled “eyesores”, as though they were causing the formation of leprous wounds on the delicate eyes of all who behold them.

We can call the police if our neighbors are having an excessively good night (an uproariously cacophonic party, featuring relentless dance music) or if they’re having an excessively bad night (ear-splitting expletives and accusations of infidelity at 2AM).  Regarding taste, I honestly don’t know of anybody who has been literally forced to eat unpalatable food, but if they were, I would think there would be some type of recourse available (if nothing else, this could be parlayed into a successful career in reality TV).

Yet invasive public smells, while they may be profoundly unpleasant, never quite seem to reach the level of enforceable offensiveness. No matter how pungent the funk oozing from the glands of the negligibly groomed individual ahead of us in a convenience store line, we can’t really call him or her indecent, and we can’t enlist an officer of the law to make their upsetting odor go away. When we are assaulted by the malodorous stench of an unfortunate – and unwashed – homeless man lingering by the bus stop, we know that the only legitimate complaint against this poor guy would be loitering, which seems to be a fundamentally visual issue.

When our workplace makes the questionable decision to relocate the coffee machine directly adjacent to the bathroom, we must learn to either adapt to this confusing blend of delicious, repulsive and antiseptic smells (coffee mixed with Lysol spray on top of…well, you get the idea), or else give up coffee.  Unless the scent being promulgated is that of nicotine or tar, which is now banished to the outer rims beyond pubs and other establishments, it’s considered perfectly fine to force one’s (oftentimes questionable) effluvium up the nasal orifices of others. Simply put, there’s no such thing as a “nose-sore”. Perfume/cologne abusers seem to inherently know this, and take full advantage of it.

Why this disregard for the free and unlabored respiration of our fellow subway riders, theatre patrons and grocery store shoppers? Upon cursory examination, I could say that it’s yet another consequence of an individual’s need to get attention. In a social climate where everyone is shoving their MySpace into your space, how can anyone expect others to respect their olfactory space? Particularly among the younger generation, it seems the prevailing motto of “Look at Me!” has merely crossed over into another sense, and has become “Smell Me!”

This is one theory, a no-brainer, but of course, perfume and cologne abuse spans all age demographics, races, genders and creeds. It’s too simple to chalk it up to “those kids today”, especially since the worst offenders often come from the 60-plus demographic.

In Israel, researchers have come to a more complex, albeit possibly more controversial theory about the behavioralism behind excessive perfume application: women who wear too much perfume may be depressed. Scientists at Tel Aviv University recently linked depression to a “biological mechanism that affects the olfactory glands.” According to Prof. Yehuda Shoenfeld, a member of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, these findings indicate that “women who are depressed are also losing their sense of smell, and may overcompensate by using more perfume.”

According to the researchers, this diminished sense of smell may also explain weight loss during depression (a benefit I’ve apparently never been quite sad enough to experience).  So that coworker of yours might not just really like Midnight Fantasy by Britney Spears, she actually might be in a similar mental state as Britney Spears. If you subscribe to this theory, a surfeit of perfume warrants a call to Dr. Phil. It’s a cry for help, or rather, a waft for help. Apparently, Cosmopolitan magazine is deeply, deeply depressed, as well it should be.

Deteriorating sense of smell might also explain the copious use of perfume by older women, since the sense of smell reportedly declines sharply in the 50s. Age might bring with it another, less scientific source of perfume obliviousness: over-familiarity. Some of these older ladies have logged as many years with their trademark fragrances as they have with their spouses or partners, and just as they would with a spouse, they begin to take these smells for granted. After 40 years with the same perfume, they likely may no longer recognize or distinguish this smell that has become so much a part of them. This easily leads to over-application. 

I also wonder whether the geriatric female crowd might be seeking to compensate for the loss of youthful feminine beauty, which is unfortunately held at a premium, or to beat down any sense of impending decay. Also, and it pains me to say this – many of the older women of my acquaintance seem to go long periods without washing their hair. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

But how does any of this explain the overpowering, almost menacing glut of aftershave and cologne among men? I find it interesting that the Tel Aviv study made no mention of men and scent insensitivity. Whenever I’ve been in proximity to young guys embarking on an evening out, I have unfailingly had to endure a kind of olfactory assault that I call “cologne rape”. Often, I find that these are the guys who are gelled up and testosterone-loaded for a night of seduction.

For men, I think, massive cologne use has more of an agenda; it’s mission-specific. Certainly, there are guys who might enjoy a particular scent for their own aesthetic purposes; but I think this usage generally lends itself more to moderation. The type of guy who pours it on, in my strictly anecdotal experience, is the type who is looking to get lucky. This could also explain quite nicely the dearth of cologne among older gentlemen, whose testosterone levels have calmed down significantly.  I find that I, for one, am rarely knocked over by the overpowering musk exuded by a little old man.

Certainly, the advent of “metrosexual” guys who take a greater interest in personal appearance and body care might provide another demographic in cologne overuse. But mostly, I think, guys use egregious scent for one of two reasons: to neutralize body odor and to attract sexual partners. But what do I know? It could be a complex and nuanced expression of their modern existential angst, manifested as imperviousness to their own smell.

Yet another theory addresses the topic of perfume over-use from a nutritional angle. Scientists at the annual conference of the American College of Nutrition have suggested that the over-application of perfume or cologne may be related to a zinc deficiency. According to a study presented at the meeting, “those who over-apply scents have dramatically lower zinc levels than normal.” Zinc, which can be found in meat, dairy products, shell-fish, nuts, and beans, is also crucial to immune and neurological function.  It’s funny, though: when I was a kid, I remember hearing a silly mnemonic device-type rhyme about this particular vitamin: “If you stink, take zinc.” Apparently, some experts have believed for quite some time that Zinc could reduce excessive or uncontrollable body odor.

>This could tie in quite interestingly with the overcompensation in the form of excessive scent. Perhaps over-perfumers are seeking to offset an unfortunate natural fragrance. It’s either that, or the rhyme was a subtle way of telling people to take their Zinc so they will stop wearing so much perfume. If so, I think that message was entirely too subtle. The liberal dousing of various sachets is more prevalent than ever, as evidenced every time I walk down a street, step into an elevator, or open a periodical.

Next time I’m forced into chemical-induced sneezing fits I’ll try to remember: there are a lot of sad, Zinc-deficient people out there. And I’ll vow to be compassionate to their plight to my very last breath—which every breath will feel like when standing within a 12-foot radius of those who suffer so.  I may also take to wearing a gas mask.

Jennifer Byrne does not actively seek out pop culture, but instead absorbs it involuntarily, as if through a semipermeable membrane (actually, she gets it from her computer and TV). In Pop Osmosis she explores her own deeply conflicted reactions to will explore my own deeply conflicted reactions to many high and low pop culture phenomena to which she is exposed, from the genuinely intriguing to the stuff that might involve accessory dogs. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The National Ledger, and in various clever emails.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/smell-me/