As a teen in the early 2000s, I had yet to question gender specificity in terms of perfume or cologne. But regardless, that generic woods-meets-spice cologne became a currency: if a guy wore it, we assumed he obviously understood how to impress young women. And before long, that telltale smell would become a trigger of school dances and makeout memories. We equated the scent with boys because boys primarily wore it -- but we were also unknowingly conditioning ourselves to think of fragrances as gender-centric.
Back in high school, a friend and I were getting over two young idiots when we went shopping and landed amongst the aforementioned cologne. We picked up the bottle and reminisced -- but then the bottle began leaking and doused us each in an avalanche of terrible memories. And despite using sample papers to sop up the drops on our bags, we made the slow, sad realisation that until we became numb to the scent, we would forever be confronted with the ghosts of dudes we made out with in McDonald's parking lots. Plus, our bags smelled like boy.
By continually equating women to scents like flowers and men to the woods and/or flames, we immediately play into the myths of male masculinity and feminine fragility.
But we’ve come a long way from 2002, bless us everyone. And while some ads may target specific genders with the campaigns they create or the celebrities they tap to front them (like a famous woman fronting a sweet-scented perfume), to hail a scent as inherently male or female is as passe as the one-smell-for-all approach we lived by in high school. Especially since the mainstream beauty and fashion industries are finally beginning to understand that one’s identity is not defined by their sex. And if scents are used to help someone define who they are, why stick a male/female label on it?
For many of us, scents serve as an extension of self, or even a celebration (or resurrection) of the selves we’d like to be all the time. And while sometimes we feel most powerful in florals or sweet teenage throwbacks, other moments call for musk or spice or a smell that leans towards what we’ve previously equated with the traditionally masculine. Which means we’ll end up diving into the “fragrance for men” realm or picking up something relatively ambiguous.
But the walk across the aisle isn’t the issue. The issue is actually our own ideas about the way we expect men and women to smell. By continually equating women to scents like flowers and men to the woods and/or flames, we immediately play into the myths of male masculinity and feminine fragility -- which is especially bizarre since neither scent signed up to align with either. (I mean, flowers aren’t weak and everybody benefits from fire, thanks. Plus, both are things that just naturally exist on the planet.) But we should know better and spritz smarter, especially since only the only thing perpetuating this distinction is gender-based marketing -- and even experts know that. In 2012, Anna Lindqvist’s findings were published in the Journal of Sensory Studies when she revealed that the targeted gender of a scent didn’t matter to blindfolded participants. They liked what they liked, regardless of who it had been marketed to. Meaning that we’ve all been conditioned to believe men and women “should” smell a certain way.
But that’s why there’s been a push to create a third option: unisex scents. Or, scents that nestle comfortably between the worlds of traditionally male and traditionally female. Which is totally fine and I’m very much into: by creating a brand new category of perfumes, we all benefit because we get a slew of new options. But while celebrating genderless perfuming, we still need to stop and acknowledge that all perfume can be categorised without gender -- they’re for people. Plain and simple.
Thinking back to high school, I don’t think I’d have stopped liking a boy who didn’t wear what everybody other guy was wearing. And I know I wouldn’t started liking one because he walked into English wearing That Brand™ out of the blue. I remember sitting next to a high school crush one day, totally psyched we were so close that I could pick up the scent of clean laundry on his shirt. And I remember when I went to his house, he gave me a t-shirt he didn’t want, and I slept with it for weeks because it smelled like his room. For me, it wasn’t the gender specificity of the scent, it was what it represented: a guy I liked, the idea that maybe he liked me too, the fact I made him laugh when I was sure he hated me. Just like when my friend and I spilled cologne on ourselves, we were upset because it forced us to remember how everything had been okay once.
Scent deserves to be more than the sum of what a marketing department assumes gender should be.
The most powerful scents have never been ones that categorise themselves, anyway. They’re the ones that align with our memories or what we’re drawn to on a certain day or after a particular event. I’ve bought more perfumes that remind me of a specific time in my life or that signal a fresh start than I’ve bought perfumes to feel girly or pretty or like whatever a woman is supposed to smell like. I’ve never thought twice about picking up something marketed to a man, nor have I been attracted to some dude because he smells traditionally masculine. (Because honestly, I don’t even know what that means.)
Scent deserves to be more than the sum of what a marketing department assumes gender should be. Scent defines a huge part of our lives. And while gender may be a part of our lives, I can honestly that regardless of who wears it, Swiss Army is terrible.