Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Public Space and Private Perfume Preferences: Is There a Problem?

I have often been surprised at the fervor with which some people denounce the use of perfume in certain spaces, most often the workplace, where the perfume naysayers appear generally speaking to hold sway. As a perfume lover, I am inclined to bristle at the effective olfactory tyranny of some in response to the complaints of a few, usually people who claim to suffer from severe allergies, and some of whom probably do. I doubt, frankly, that all of them do, just as I doubt that all of the people these days who request gluten-free substitutions in restaurants are in fact afflicted with Celiac disease (wheat gluten intolerance), as its incidence in the general population is rather low (~1%).

One reason why I doubt that very many people suffer from allergies bad enough to make even a whiff of someone's fragrance a cause for undue strife or major illness is that many parts of the world in which we live, and especially cities, are chock-full of scents. I often poke fun at New York City, in particular, but if such hypersensitive persons were truly so severely allergic, then it would be miraculous that they should be able to survive in most any city, in the midst of so many smells, many of which are quite a bit more offensive and obnoxious, if not noxious, than even Christian Dior Poison or Thierry Mugler Angel, to name but two of the more notoriously over-applied perfumes still in rotation among perfume wearers today. 

Despite my skepticism about and consternation at the anti-perfume backlash, however, I must confess that a couple of cases cause me to pause before dousing myself with loud perfume and proceeding to waltz out the door to a library or other public venue.

The Case of the Stinky Homeless Man

When I first moved to Boston, I used to attend free movie night at Boston Public Library on Boylston Street, conveniently located a few blocks from the Prudential Center and Copley Square and accessible by the T (our subway system). The films screened were usually classics, and so it was basically like going to a theater without paying but also being afforded the opportunity to see something which was actually worth watching. Overall, it was a nice way in which to indulge my passion for classic films without spending any money, which was especially good in my case as I had moved to this city without first finding a job and was living only on savings at that time.

The lure of attending free movies in a public space was considerably greater back then, before I had acquired a large flat screen television to forever obviate the need and squelch what motivation I once had for leaving my humble abode in order to see worthwhile films. I hardly ever go to watch movies in public anymore, and I suspect that I am not alone, although some theaters are managing to survive, even in a world where DVD releases succeed new movie premieres in some cases by a matter of only weeks. Since acquiring an HDTV, I find it very difficult to muster up the motivation to make my way to public movie screenings, although art film events such as the Boston French Film festival at the Museum of Fine Arts occasionally coax me away from the comfort of my couch.

One of the most unforgettable aspects of watching movies on Wednesday nights at Boston Public Library was the spectre of the local homeless men, one of whom in particular would often come to the movie screening and bring with him his weeks—months? years?—of accumulated stench. On the occasions where he sat within a few rows or seats from me, it was necessary to relocate to another part of the room because the smell was simply unbearable. One night I was so nauseated that I actually left without seeing the film.

The failure to bathe sufficiently or frequently enough is certainly not the province only of homeless people, but it is probably true that transients, having neglected hygiene in some cases literally for years, tend to be the worst olfactory offenders in this regard. They do not appear to recognize the type or extent of the scent which follows them around, leaving permanent memory traces in some people's minds, including mine. There are other varieties of unpleasant human-generated scent, but in thinking about public spaces and the question of perfume, I find myself drawn over and over again to the analogy which unwashed persons represent.

On the one hand, no one has the right to force someone else to bathe more frequently than he chooses to. On the other hand, it seems antisocial and rude to foist the scent of one's unwashed body upon other persons in public places. The case of the homeless person who reeks unbearably of filth, sweat, dirt, and general body odor all mingled together to produce a noxious “perfume” of sorts is especially interesting to me because of the apparent lack of intention on the part of the person to offend. Instead, stinkiness is a natural consequence of a lifestyle which may or may not have been chosen by the offender himself.

I imagine that most homeless people have not freely and willfully chosen that lifestyle, although a small proportion of them may have. For the most part, they are down on their luck, in some cases unable to land or keep a job because of psychological and emotional troubles. Having spent whatever resources they once had, they now lead a day-to-day, animal-like existence, living hand to mouth at the mercy of sympathetic passersby.

Perfumed people who stink because of their choice of fragrance or because they have overapplied it have definitely made a conscious decision to scent themselves, the consequence of which is to offend some of those in their environs. But I do not believe that very many such people intentionally overapply their fragrance in order to offend other people. Instead, they seem closer to the homeless man who, as a result of having not showered in weeks, months, or even years, verily stinks.

I was first made aware of the reality of olfactory fatigue on a day when a former colleague did not complain about but complimented me on my perfume, Marc Jacobs, which I was entirely unable to detect on myself so late in the day. In fact, when she asked me what I was wearing, I had to think back to what I had applied that morning in order to be able to answer the question!

In a recent comment on Perfumes of Geography: What's in a Place Name? here at the salon, Pitbull Friend observed that Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan could be accurately renamed “Eau de Homeless Person”! Many people of course like and choose to wear this perfume, so Pitbull Friend's pointed barb underscores the general problem of divergent reception of perfumes, caused by our different tastes, backgrounds, and sensitivities, and is one reason why the question of perfume and public space seems to me to be quite complex.

What is interesting in the cases of the overperfumed and the homeless person (or the person who wears a detectable application of Muscs Koublai Khan in the presence of Pitbull Friend!) is the paramount importance of the subjective experience of the various parties in question. The overperfumed person does not believe that she stinks any more than does the homeless man. In each of these cases, the unwitting culprit, if you will, has become habituated, inured to his or her scent. The perfumed person has been wearing her perfume faithfully, let us say, for some time and has developed a tolerance for it, leading her to apply more and more so that she herself can smell her own perfume. The effect for others may be not at all unlike the homeless man who decides to sit close to you at the movie theater, making it impossible to concentrate on what is happening on the screen—or even to breath.

At the same time, and as Pitbull Friend suggested in christening Muscs Koublai Khan with her own colorful moniker, one perfumista's treasure is another's trash, and one person's heaven sent scent is another's hell-engendered olfactory torture implement. The question, then, for perfumistas becomes: when we wear perfume in public spaces in the presence of persons for whom perfume is a source of unpleasantness on a par with what we find to be highly offensive body odor, are we conducting ourselves in the manner of the transient who pays no heed to the negative effects of his scent upon the noses of others? Having consciously chosen to perfume ourselves, are we not, however, culpable in a way in which the homeless man cannot really be said to be, at least if it is true that he did not freely choose his current deplorable living conditions—city streets and alleys—and his resultant state of filth?

The Anti-smoking Revolution

Second-hand smoke offers a second tinted lens through which to view the perfume and public space issue. Not so long ago, smokers ruled the day. Nonsmokers had to grin and bear it in restaurants and bars because the smokers, having purchased their cigarettes and pipes and cigars, had simultaneously purchased the power to use them where they wished. The powerful tobacco lobby acted to promote and perpetuate the sale of tobacco far and wide, creating nicotine addicts in such abundance that they were able to bind together in solidarity to effectively repel the complaints of the nonsmokers.

The power of the smoker bloc shrouded the weakness of its individual members—they could not live without the stuff—but they were supported in a capitalist system where whoever has the gold makes the rules, and tobacco growers and cigarette manufacturers managed to suppress legislative efforts to curb tobacco use. Second-hand smoke was an annoyance which nonsmokers simply had to tolerate.

There has been a complete about-face on the second-hand smoke issue as more and more people have been made acutely aware in recent years of the serious health hazards of smoking, and the number of smokers continues to dwindle. The medical costs of dealing with the health problems caused directly by smoking eventually became more of a motive force than even the profits enjoyed by tobacco growers and cancer-stick manufacturers.

Massive marketing campaigns and legislation requiring the visible printing of health advisories on all ads and packaging for tobacco products eventually gave rise to an increased consciousness among people about the scientifically documented dangers of smoking. As a result, the number and proportion of smokers in the general population has plummeted in recent times. 

A big part of this downward trend in the percentage of smokers, and the concomitant turning of the tables to accommodate nonsmokers, leaving smokers out in the cold—figuratively but also literally, as anyone living in a city with frost on the ground in wintertime can attest—can be credited to the levying by governments of taxes on tobacco products so steep that it has become prohibitively difficult even to become a smoker, requiring as it does a significant amount of cash on hand to do so.

I actually marvel at the fact that any poor people are smoking at all these days, given the prohibitive cost of doing so, and I'm not sure what explains the persistence of this habit beyond the ongoing perception of a sort of “coolness” still associated with this practice in some sectors of society. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the very people who really can still afford to smoke tend to be well-educated and aware of the dangers of developing an addiction to nicotine. Taken together, these forces—the generally improved information disseminated to potential smokers and the prohibitive cost of purchasing tobacco-laden implements of premature self-inflicted death—persuades many would-have-been smokers (in earlier decades) never to begin.

Perfume haters who lobby for the prohibition of perfume in public space are concerned that many of the chemicals used in fragrances today have been demonstrated to cause health hazards on a par with exposure to second-hand smoke. Their argument is that they should not be in the position of endangering their own health because of someone else's willful decision to don a substance which will pervade the air of any space in which she travels.

I am sympathetic to the concern on the part of some people to avoid some of the substances included in perfumes today. Many of the chemicals do have pretty ugly health profiles, and I eschew them in my own personal perfume use. The question, then, is: should someone who avoids BHT, for example, be subjected to exposure to the substance simply in order to indulge another person's aesthetic caprice?

One possible solution to this problem, from the wearer's end, is to refuse to wear poisonous perfumes. This way one can prevent poisoning not only one's self but also others. The problem remains: which fragrances are the toxic soups, and which are innocuous liquids? Nearly anyone has horror stories of encounters with perfumes which induce vague feelings of malaise or even acute neurological distress.  But are those the poisonous perfumes? 

Once again, in considering personal perfume reception, it appears that one person's poison is another's panacea! I myself literally shudder at the thought of applying Estée Lauder Intuition or Isabella Rossellini Manifesto to my skin. I actually think that I would prefer to have my toe nails forcibly removed than wear Intuition again. Other people wear those perfumes comfortably and even reach for them in anticipation of the enhancement which it will bring to their day. A chacun son corps!

Some among the perfumes which I love, on the other hand, may well make some other people cringe. However much we may all love our own favorite perfumes, we are wired somewhat differently, and this manifests itself not only in our radically different evaluations of the quality of perfumes but also in our willingness to wear them. All of us quite naturally avoid the perfumes which induce in us undue strife, despite in some cases the praise of other people of the very same creations as great. It simply does not matter how much artistry has gone into a fragrance which makes us feel physically ill. That is the ultimate test of a bad perfume, it seems to me: its inability to be worn. While that may be an entirely subjective judgment, it is nonetheless authoritative—to us.

Ethics or Etiquette?

I am fortunate to have a large selection of perfumes ranging from intense mega-sillage elixirs which I myself cannot even don with the hope of getting anything done, to light, skin scent-like colognes whose presence I barely detect, if at all. I realize that some people who complain about perfume are simply complaining for the sake of complaining, because they want people to jump at their beck and call and to modify their habits at their behest.

Nonetheless, I approach the question of public space scent from the most charitable possible vista. I assume that there really are people whose ability to function well may be severely impeded by what to them is perfume-infused air no less polluted than a room full of second-hand smoke. For this reason, I reserve my intense, big projection perfumes for use at home, where I can be sure that no one will be bothered by the scent.

At the same time, when I encounter someone wearing the metaphorical equivalent to “Eau de Homeless Person,” I make a concerted effort to “put daylight” between us, to invoke a phrase unforgettably ascribed to U.S. President Barack Obama by presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney. I operate under the assumption that such people do not know any better when they behave in socially unacceptable ways.

I do not conduct myself thus only in order to avoid conflict. No, I have an ulterior motive as well. By exercising discretion in my choice of perfume in public spaces, I avoid giving the perfume haters more grist for their mill. Similarly, while assuming that over-perfumed persons do not know what they are doing, I do not voice my disapproval because I refuse to give the perfume police and anti-perfume activists more evidence for their view that all perfume should be banned from public spaces. Nothing of the sort is true, of course, so strategically speaking, this approach makes the most sense to me.

In saying all of this, I should clarify, by way of conclusion, that I do not believe this to be an ethical issue at all. I do not believe that other people's even poisonous perfume is inflicted on those around them in concentrations sufficient to cause them harm. At the same time, as I have remarked before and will no doubt again, it seems quite clear to me that there is no natural right to perfume. Perfume is a luxury, pure and simple, and we are fortunate to be among the small percentage of humanity capable of enjoying this luxury. It is a privilege, not a right to perfume one's self, and no one is wronged by being deprived of something which was never his right in the first place.

Because we are among the tiny, incredibly privileged portion of humanity to enjoy the opportunity to indulge in the perfuming of ourselves, we should do so with discretion in public spaces, ever aware that it is our honor to do so. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard than the homeless man at the library and comport ourselves with civility among our fellow human beings, whatever that may require, and even when their perceptions differ radically from our own. 


  1. Very interesting piece! I enjoyed reading it. The sentence, "That is the ultimate test of a bad perfume, it seems to me: its inability to be worn," is profound. I agree, and first and foremost, a perfume should smell good! But the word "good" is subjective. Therein lies the rub.

    The question of perfume ethics, wearing or not wearing fragrances to please oneself at the risk of offending others, gets a little murky I think when one addresses the default setting for perfume: to smell. For some people, simply smelling anything is unpleasant. Noticing these people is an interesting task, but I've met a few who never comment on something that smells good - like perhaps the smell of pancakes being cooked, or freshly-baked bread - but always comment when something smells anywhere even slightly south of "good," like a Yankee candle in the window, or newly-Windexed glass. They're immune to common Western-acculturated positive fragrances, and hyper-sensitive to common everyday (often synthetic or fabricated) fragrances. These are people who cringe when "perfume guy" enters the room, and quietly grit their teeth when he sits down six feet away. These are the Whoopi Goldbergs of the 21st century.

    Complicating things further is the problem of archetypical male fragrances, cast from the aromatic fougere mold of bright, strident, often "loud" materials that carry across air as effortlessly as gulls fly the warm front off the sound. Even one or two sprays of some of these things (Lapidus Pour Homme is a good one) means your house has been re-fumigated. But try telling this guy to switch to something lighter, if it's his favorite and he's worn it since 1988.

    It's a complicated world for us fragrance lovers!

    1. Excellent points, Bryan! You are right: the question is very complicated. I love your example of the person who is hypersensitive to "artificial" scents and voices loud complaints but is apparently anosmic to (and silent about) the positive scents—which of course are also "unnatural", in some sense.

      I may have to write a follow-up to this post, now that you've effectively raised the question of the function of perfume. As we know from fragrance community website forums, many people perfume themselves precisely in order to draw attention to themselves. Why else would they be soliciting suggestions for "panty droppers"! (-;

      Your example of men's colognes is especially apt. They seem to be constructed so as to project. (Lavender, anyone?) Perfume has not always been a personal indulgence, as it is to many perfumistas today. In order to really penetrate this issue, I'll need to examine more closely the many uses (none of which are abuses...) of perfume.

      Thank you so much, Bryan. It's always a pleasure to read you, "Perfume Guy". (-;

    2. No, thank you, for such thought-provoking posts!

  2. People who complain about others wearing perfume are to me the equivalent of people building nuclear shelters under their homes in the 50's or 60's: the idea of creating a microcosmos within which one can be safe. Both people choose to neglect that right on the brim of this microcosmos lies a universe that cannot be controlled. Nobody really wears perfume with an intention to annoy people and I think every one of us has at some point overapplied perfume just because they were so happy to smell the mist coming out of the bottle. If the smell of a perfume offends people how come they are not offended by exhaust pipes exhaling within feet of their faces? Or is smog allergen-free?

    I must admit that I do smoke but I hate the smell of cigarette on clothes and I do not mind at all smoking prohibition in public closed spaces. However I fail to see the rationale of prohibiting smoking in public open spaces, especially in cities like Los Angeles or even Athens, where the same people who walk happily in smoke-free parks and squares (?) are completely unaware and tolerant when it comes to the hideous quality of air they breathe. What is really beyond any kind of logic is that many of them actually drive monstrously polluting SUV's! Why aren't they also lobbying for the prohibition of fossil fuel burning cars? Is it just that the petrol and archaic car technology lobbies are stronger than tobacco and perfume lobbies? Or is it just that their need for safety has to be fulfilled in any way possible, even at the expense of reason?

    In closing I would like to share with you a true story. A friend of mine, owner of a niche perfume shop in Athens, once told me that she used to be a smoker but gave up. Eagerly I asked her if this had changed her perception of perfume. She told me: "No, it has only changed my perception of the world". I looked at her baffled but she explained: "Every time I felt stressed I would light a cigarette and I would enclose myself in a bubble where nothing could touch me. I cannot do this anymore". I realised that this is exactly the way cigarette works for me too. I do not know if this has to do with the properties of nicotine or with the forced, rhythmic control of breathing (some call it yoga) but there is something comforting in the process. This bubble smokers enter when they light a cigarette is not very different than the invisible bubble of clean air surrounding a non-smoker New Yorker.

    1. Hello, Christos! Yes, hypocrisies abound. I, too, find it perplexing that people should be prohibited from smoking in open spaces with vast volumes of air circulating about. When I first took note of the ban at train stations, even outside by the tracks, I was taken aback. I recall when smoking was first prohibited inside trains, and the smokers would all stuff themselves, so to speak, at the short pauses between destinations. I wondered how they would manage under the broader ban.

      Obviously, these procrustean prohibitions are about more than just limiting second-hand smoke. These are paternalistic measures designed to keep people from developing severe health problems in later age. Again, I see some hypocrisy, or at least inconsistency, in allowing people to kill themselves with alcohol but not tobacco or other drugs.

      To be honest, I think that people should be able to choose their own poisons, so to speak, so long as they do not foist them on others. So, yes, I see no reason why people should not be permitted to smoke in public spaces located under the open sky. You are right, the scent of smokers' smoke outside is next to nothing compared to the air pollution caused by cars.

      I have never been a part of smoking culture, but I have often wondered whether it was not just as you have described, a space in which people seek refuge in just the way that a musician might lock herself in a practice room...

    2. I should add as a follow-up confession that I have always loved the smell of freshly lit cigarettes. The scent of the smoke off the tip is to me simply divine. I also love the smell of just-struck wooden matches... (-;

  3. This is such a great conversation starter of an article! I wholly agree that perfume is a luxury and great privilege to wear, just as running water and bathing facilities are luxuries often taken for granted. I think many Americans consider it a first amendment right perhaps, to smell as one pleases. Nevertheless, just as many workplaces can (and do) have policies against use of perfume, hygiene is also considered mandatory in office, and service settings, as well as most industries involving interpersonal relating :P I try to perfume myself in a conscientious way, though I know many perfumes I love could be worn just as well with a couple dabs or spray, but I love to spray or dab myself three times. And sometimes it projects! One problem is that we don't have a tactful way to openly discuss odors without greatly personally offending each other, and and even if we did, personal expression still wins.

    I will tolerate Mr. Stinky Axe Cologne as I might a homeless man who never bathes--for a short period of time, finding a way to keep a distance if possible. I look at it as the price of personal expression that some malodorous experiences will always be a part of the whole spectrum of our smell-o-sphere (or whatever it's called!)
    And what a variety of fragrances and lack-of-fragrances people wear around here! If I were creating a workplace policy for fragrance I would have a workshop with testing and discussing perfumes and chemicals that are high-end, low-end, natural, artificial. Having a discussion about smells would be the first step to olfactory self-awareness. Then maybe a "sillage policy" if there are too many complaints, or if asthmatic issues arise.
    Perfume might be a luxury, but it is not to be relegated to the smoker's treatment. Secondhand smoke isn't as harmful as air pollution caused by cars, but I argue that driving should be taxed rather than smoking to be socially rendered "more acceptable" once more. As long as there is a place where smokers can go outside, addicts will be able to choose their poison freely--just as alcoholics and frugal drinkers carry flasks. The scent of my body is my choice though--and I proudly choose to shower daily and perfume myself extravagantly! I think it was in Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie that some character mentioned that even the poorest of the poor had the luxury of a clean body bathing in the Ganges. I have no idea whether that is true, but I do know that for that one homeless man you have encountered who is deadened to his own sickening stench, there are many others who will find a way to clean their bodies, who don't give up their last hopes despite some harrowing misfortunes.

    PS Pitbull Friend's experience of Muscs de Koublai Khan was much more negative than mine. I find it "borderline" and don't love it on my skin, but I experience some pleasantness in combination with the scary skanky aspect. I have become more fascinated by "skank" scents later in my parfumista time though...

    1. Dear Kastehelmi,

      Have you ever considered a career in Human Resources? I ask because, well, look at this: you just sketched out an entire HR program!!!!

      Thank you so much for this delightful response, which is filled with wonderfulness. Here's my personal favorite:

      "I will tolerate Mr. Stinky Axe Cologne as I might a homeless man who never bathes—for a short period of time, finding a way to keep a distance if possible."

      You are so right: we don't have the resources to discuss personal odors (whether perfume or other) in public. It's all quite dichotomous: if someone can smell you, it's either very positive or very negative, so people tend to say nothing, although not usually for my reason...

      I feel pretty certain that most people are "deadened" to their own scent, as you put it. Some people have a much stronger "eau de self" than others—which brings up the question of skin chemistry all over again, and how personal scent affects how a perfume will play out once mingled with all of the other substances found on the skin.

      I'm glad that you agree about perfume being a privilege. I've been thinking about pursuing this line further here, as I've seen many reviews expressing a sort of pseudo-righteous anger, which makes no sense to me. If no one has a right to perfume, then no one has a right to great perfume, and no house or perfumer is wrong to produce juice which we do not happen to like. For heaven's sake, no one is forcing anyone to apply the stuff! Hmmm.... the wheels are turning.

      Thank you so much for your stimulating reply, Kastehelmi—I look forward to reading you here again soon!


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