Wednesday, September 5, 2012

True Love Smells



In cleaning out the attic of FirstNerve Manor, I recently came across a box of letters to the editor of the National Geographic magazine. They were written in response to the Sense of Smell Survey which I co-authored back in the last century. A number of letters were from ladies who described the bodily scent that had initially attracted each to her husband. The accounts were quite graphic in a matter-of-fact, Middle America sort of way. Having heard many such stories in person since then, I’m convinced that B.O. can be a game changer in the relationship department.

By coincidence there’s an article on this topic in the new Australian edition* of Marie Claire. It’s written by one E.J. Balloch and it’s a brutally frank account of the body odor mismatch that sank her first marriage and led to a happier second one. There have been plenty of he-smells-so-sexy pieces in women’s magazines, but I don’t recall one as remarkable as this. It may even be the launch of a new literary genre—the first-person B.O. confessional.

Ms. Balloch was married to a great guy. But there was one little problem:
The truth is, I was never drawn to my ex’s smell. My first scent memory of him, as we tipsily leaned into each other after a holiday party, was of expensive, tasteful cologne, like the men’s section at Saks. His clothes, when they came off, smelled of Tide and Downy. He was too pristine, too sanitized. There was no man smell undergirding the perfume. I craved masculine sweat, heat, and tuber-like earthiness. There was none there. But I ignored my desire to love my mate’s scent because he was, in every other way, an amazing guy: a natural leader, an intellect, and a killer poker player.
Her husband was lacking in natural manly scent. Fair enough. But how does that square with her statement a paragraph later?
. . . when I was choosing a husband, hot sex was hardly on my list of requirements. Stability, kindness, and protection were. Blood, sweat, and prurient connections to other sundry bodily fluids? No, thanks. I pretended that sex wasn’t important to a marriage, and in doing so, I ignored the fact that I couldn’t stand the smell of the only person I’d vowed to sleep with for the rest of my life.
This sounds as if she actively disliked his scent. So which was it? Did he lack a personal scent or was his personal scent disagreeable? Also: if Tide and Downy were too pristine and sanitized, why not ask him to switch brands? Maybe butch him up with some Arm & Hammer®.

It turns out that Mr. Pristine-Sanitized also had his own issues.
He was a bit more vocal about his disdain for my scent. When we first got together, he’d wrinkle his nose after kissing me first thing in the morning. As time went by, he asked me to switch from my brand of antiperspirant to something with more “muscle,” perhaps to disguise my natural odor. Eventually, he suggested that we wash our laundry separately. (Was my unappetizing scent rubbing off on his clothes?) In the end, he flat out told me that I literally stunk like hell to him.
Oof!

Not surprisingly given the extent of their mutual olfactory incompatibility Ms. Balloch and Mr. Pristine-Sanitized eventually went their separate ways. That’s when she decides to hoist the “Love me, love my B.O.” banner, although she phrases it oddly:
After my divorce, my olfactory sensitivity was on fire. [Huh?—Ed.] If a man didn’t like my scent, screw it. I let loose and wore a non-scented hippie brand of antiperspirant. I just didn’t care anymore. 
Then, a guy I liked a lot texted me after our first night together to say that he had tucked his shirt into a Ziploc bag to preserve my smell embedded in it. I fully appreciate that many women might have run from such a person, suspecting lurking fetishes of a most delinquent order. Me? I actually cried when I got that message: He loved me—he wanted me! Best of all, the feeling was mutual. I felt at home in his warmth and aroma of salt and grassiness. A few years later, I married him.
Ms. Balloch and Mr. Lurking Fetish are now living happily ever after, i.e., having hot monkey sex on a daily basis:
we’re so intoxicated by each other’s smell, we’ve also had sex every day for the four years we’ve been together. As a 42-year-old mother of three, this is no small thing. Every day. I’m not joking.
Here Ms. Balloch throws perfume on the violet and takes her story to ridiculous excess. It’s almost enough to make one suspicious of the rest of the tale, which was too neat to begin with. The fact that E.J. Balloch doesn’t Google well and is probably a pseudonym doesn’t help.

Then again, perhaps true love is your nose’s recognition of its counterpoint in another’s B.O.
Sometimes we’ll sniff,
Sometimes we’ll whiff,
And we’ll know why,
Just you and I
Know true love smells.


*I now realize the piece was posted originally in the American edition in May, 2012.

3 comments:

Andrew Chase said...

Once again we have an example of survival adaptations at work. What is apparently not understood is that this ability is so ancient that it works below conscious awareness as well! Why are we so reluctant to admit our true nature? So many problems could be demystified if we could just get our heads around the fact that we are creatures that evolved in this world over millions of years and that we now live in a very different world that we have created for ourselves.
Is it really any surprise that we as a species react like animals in zoo to our modern world? The only reason for any of this confusion is because these adaptations now work out of context, but work just as they always have, nonetheless. There are only three reason we possess this amazing modality: food acquisition, mate selection, danger avoidance! Now what exactly do you propose were the adaptive pressures that could have changed these evolved mechanisms in just 10,000 or 20,000 years? Silly isn’t it, and yet, it seems to be the prevailing attitude even among scientists.

Perfumeshrine said...

Effing hilarious. And I'm with you that it's probably a manufactured story too. It's what women expect to read in women's magazines, about the omnipotency of smell in choosing a partner, yada yada yada as if smell has substituted for karmic relevance or fate.

Avery Gilbert said...

Perfumeshrine:

Good point. It's as if sense of smell is the new, politically correct version of "women's intuition."

I really like your comparison to fate. Perhaps smell is how the gods exert their will on us mortals.

Or, as in the Mad magazine quote at the front of my book: "we have a rendezvous with our olfactory destiny!"