My great-aunt Mary collected samples of perfume. On top of her bedroom dresser, she kept a fishbowl of those little booklets with vials inside. Whenever my family visited her, I’d say ‘hello’ and immediately head to her room. She’d sometimes come with me to make sure I didn’t play in the good stuff, but most often, she’d pick something special out for me to try and help me open the vials so I wouldn’t waste them. My mother always had jars of perfumed lotions from Avon. The thick cream left my arms and legs greasy, but I loved how good I thought I smelled. None of the scents suited me, I quickly realized upon adolescence, and by the time those teenage years hit, I no longer wanted to smell like the musky wealth found in luxury women’s magazines. I wanted to smell sweet. I still do. Keep your earthy patchouli, your floral musks. They smell lovely, but I want to smell edible, even if that means foregoing the expensive bottled scents of a mature woman and settling for those 3-for $24 deals found in every mall in middle America.
When I was younger, family television time meant watching shows like Solid Gold and Puttin’ on the Hits. Both shows focused on performances based on the popular music at the time. Solid Gold featured an in-house set of dancers. Puttin’ on the Hits was more of a reality show, a competition for lip-syncers. Regardless of the show we watched, every time a male dancer tossed a woman in the air and she wrapped her legs around his neck or a male dancer held a woman aloft with his hand on her bum, my father would quip, “I hope it’s fresh.” Every single time. My mother rolled her eyes and made his name an exasperated sigh. Between my father’s terrible joke and the frequently-parodied douche commercial of the era in which young women confessed to their mothers that they were having a not-so-fresh feeling, I learned very early on that the worst offense a woman could commit was to smell bad, especially “down there.”
I learned very early on that the worst offense a woman could commit was to smell bad.
My first attempt at finding my own scent as a child was Love’s Baby Soft, which was all about making the baby powder scent of infancy sexy. (I’m GenX. It was a different time then). Love’s Baby Soft was everywhere. I could join my mother in any pharmacy and know it would be there, tucked in its own gift box, and cheap enough that my mother could treat me to it without too much of a fuss. I sprayed and sprayed and sprayed. I sprayed it on my pillows after reading in a magazine that a woman should spray her man’s pillow with her perfume to keep him company (and to keep away any unwanted guests). I sprayed the stuff on my clothes, and as soon as it seemed like it was starting to fade, I sprayed some more. I made myself sick of it.
By the time I entered high school in the early 1990s, I had moved away from perfume sprays. Maybe it was because I didn’t have a lot of money, or maybe I had simply drowned myself in Love’s Baby Soft, but any kind of scent I had to spray on began to smell like nothing but alcohol. I began to understand why my mother had so many perfumed lotions, as opposed to spray bottles. At the end of my sophomore year of high school, around the time I was 16 years old, I started working my first job. My first boyfriend would take me to the mall and we’d go into Victoria’s Secret. He would buy me the sexy underwear he wanted to see me in, and I’d buy scented body lotions and washes. He loved Love Spell, a scent that smelled like candied grapes. After I dumped him and went to college, my new boyfriend loved Pear Glacé, a gritty sweet scent that was almost too sweet even for me. He would take a little bit into his hand and smell his palms, with his eyes closed, for minutes at a time. Every date night, I slathered myself in green-tinted stuff, and he’d lose his mind. I don’t shop at Victoria’s Secret any more, but I still sneak into Bath and Body Works for one of my signature scents.
I still sneak into Bath and Body Works for one of my signature scents.
I used to feel guilty about that. These candied, cloying scents are aimed at teenagers and college students, young women without a lot of money to buy more mature scents. Grown women talk about how walking past these kinds of stores makes their allergies act up. It’s a rite of passage to complain about the headaches these stores give because they have too many strong scents happening at once, but I still love it. Give me all the sweet peach candles and body washes and scrubs. Give me the honeysuckle goodness; inject the grapefruit tang right into my nose. I know I’m supposed to move on to Jo Malone, Gucci, Tom Ford, etc., and smell like a monied woman of leisure on vacation — crisp amber, warm sandalwood, lightly-toasted jasmine — but those scents never work for me. They seem to sit on top of my skin and smell like the aftermath of hugging everybody in church. Whatever the top notes are supposed to be, all I smell is some kind of ethanol. They leave a terrible taste, and I’m always self-conscious about a lover licking my hot spots and having to wipe their tongues immediately.
Grown women talk about how walking past these kinds of stores makes their allergies act up.
With the scented lotions that often come with “buy 3, get 2 free” sales, I get the smell I want to leave behind. I love the lotions because the scents last longer. I spread the thick fruity creams all over my thighs and butt during my morning ablutions, and every time I pull my pants down to pee throughout the day, I smell the scent of champagne peaches. I don’t want to smell expensive and mature. I want to smell edible. I want to smell sweet and intoxicating. When men whisper against my neck how good I smell, I feel a rush of power. When I hug my friends and they stand back and say “girl, you smell good,” it’s all I can do not to crow back, “I know!”
It’s one of my dreams to travel to some fancy European parfumerie and have a signature scent created for me. Real, quality perfume doesn’t come with the heavy alcohol smell of the mass produced stuff, I know, but until then, I will keep walking into the sneeze-inducing mall stores and buying peaches for my skin in bulk. My cheap mall scents blend with my cocoa butter to create something that gets me compliments all the time, and I don’t feel the need to waste money on more expensive spray perfumes in order to feel like a mature woman. I don’t mind aging. I think growing old is a privilege, and I’m grateful for it. I’m glad I no longer take pleasure in smelling like a sexy baby, and maybe in another 20 years, I’ll finally want to smell like someone’s tropical mistress. But until then, I’ll cover myself in the sweet, crisp scents of drunk fruits because, even if no one else likes it, I know I do.