Does your perfume spark joy? It may be a radically feminist question

While giving advice in a recent essay at Bois de Jasmin, perfume expert, Victoria Frolova, encouraged readers to eschew the opinions of others as much as possible and, instead, focus on scents that, for them, “spark joy.” It hadn’t occurred to me to extend this term to style and scent, despite the fact that I’m quite familiar with Kondo’s advice on decluttering.

It’s already easy to poke fun at Kondo’s work — isn’t it just quirky housekeeping advice? — and it’s even easier to trivialize when applied to the realm of perfume or fashion. Partly because of their overlap with the traditionally feminine, housekeeping, style, and beauty are easy targets in cultures that devalue women and women’s work. So, Frolova’s suggestion that readers get in touch with their own perfume pleasure, that we aim to find perfume that “sparks joy” for ourselves, can have radical consequences.

Consider for a moment, iconic scents such as Shalimar, No. 5, or Angel. As many of us discover when approaching them, it can be all too easy to confuse what we feel we should like, rather than what actually brings us joy. Certainly, we cannot automatically or instantly trust ourselves to know the truth about what we love as compared to what others would love for us to love. And, of course, part of the point of practicing Kondo’s technique with piles of socks, books, and, yes, perfume, is that we can develop the deep habit of asking the question “How do I actually feel about this?” and apply it to our larger lives. And critically, we can practice hearing our own honest response, however faint it may be.

Obviously, in a world driven by consumer marketing, awash in a sea of messages meant to constantly foment new “needs” and “desires,” it is probably not possible to fully separate out what gives one pleasure in the purest sense (whatever that might mean) from the opinions and reactions of others. Besides, we are deeply social creatures who both develop and maintain our consciousness and sense of reality through the supportive perspectives of others. It makes perfect sense, then, that we tend to find pleasure in, and desire, that which our culture, tribes and families like. There simply is no clear, constant line between what others assure me is pretty on me, be it a color, hairstyle or scent, and what I enjoy for myself.

But the fact that it is not ultimately possible to tease out one’s own individual pleasures and desires from those of others does not preclude the “spark joy” question from working some gentle magic. For those accustomed to making even the most intimate, personal choices overwhelmingly through the needs and opinions of others — as many women are urged to do — it is still pretty radically feminist to stop and ask: “Who is this for?” Only in that moment may it even become possible to reflect on how much energy one spends anticipating and reacting to the presumed preferences of others, be they lovers, children, bosses, or preachers.

Partly because of the simultaneously intimate and public nature of scent, the “spark joy” game can be particularly effective in the perfume realm. If I spritz on Gold Man, Hyrax, Salome, or Kiel’s Original Musk, I do it knowing that it is for my own experience of curiosity or pleasure, given how polarizing these scents are. And, no, I do not inflict them on unwilling others. In fact, for me, perfume is often a private pleasure precisely because I am cautious about invading others’ olfactory space (despite the aggressive miasma of Tide Fresh and Chemlawn, that are routinely pumped into my olfactory environment).

For me, then, testing and discovering that which sparks joy is not about reclaiming some supposedly primordial rugged individualism in which I pretend that my likes and loves are not shaped by others. Rambo fantasies aside, human beings do not exist as meaningfully subjective beings, replete with perspectives, desires, and judgments, without the complex push and pull of relationships with others. To inquire into one’s own joy, then, may merely be a tentative starting point, asked as if one were a poet making her way through the woods. She must be willing to hear the answers, of course, and this may require facing truths that, for the most part, she would prefer to keep locked away.

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