It is popular in North America to insist that we make choices about how we present ourselves for our own comfort, self-expression and pleasure and not to impress others. In fact, many of us in the U.S. would be almost embarrassed to acknowledge that others’ values and tastes shape our style. “I wear it for myself” is the mantra, whether referring to an Old Navy t-shirt, four-inch stilettos, or the wildly popular perfume, La Vie Est Belle. Still, many of us will acknowledge others’ prerogative to weigh in on how we smell, as we may not respect their right to shape our other personal style choices.
There is, for example, the notion of occasionally or seasonally appropriate perfumes, a recognition that some scents don’t “go with” some places, times, or events. This is partly about situational aesthetics, e.g., somber scents at a funeral or fresh citrus in summer, but it also includes consideration of other peoples’ comfort and pleasure. It is generally acknowledged, for instance, that hard-hitting scents with massive sillage are inappropriate for intimate dinners but may be okay for nightclubs. Similarly, the bro perfume community often warns men not to Axe-out their date if they hold out hopes of getting really close. So, too, there is a whole genre of “office-friendly” scents that promise not to offend co-workers, or violate actual or tacit rules about olfactory limits.
Evidently, then, some of the consideration for others’ olfactory space is pragmatic — about making the right impression on that date or interview — and some is rooted in our own empathy. We may refrain from dousing ourselves in Angel before a road trip with friends because we recall the misery of being similarly gassed out in the 90s. We may avoid wearing our deceased grandma’s signature scent to the family reunion because it makes people sad. And, of course, we may choose to go unscented altogether rather than risk bothering others, especially given the rising numbers of folks who believe they are scent-sensitive or scent-allergic.
This attempt to balance claiming a right to our own bodily expression while acknowledging limits based on consideration for others can be read as a case study of liberalist ethics, according to which my rights extend only to the point at which my behavior will cause harm to others. Among the many difficulties with this principle, of course, is that it can be hard to distinguish the harmful from the merely annoying. How strong is my obligation not to irritate others with my style and grooming choices?
Are we more likely to refrain from wearing a screamingly loud shirt in public than a loud perfume? And what makes some scented intrusions qualify as violations while others are generally unacknowledged? Neighbors of mine who routinely fill the collective air with a Tide Fresh miasma would never paint their house an obnoxious purple or assault me with loud music. And many of us, it seems, feel entitled to barrage others with scented household and lawn products as we would never do with a personally worn perfume.
Part of the explanation, I suspect, is that some of our “consideration for others” is actually less about being empathetically attentive to their feelings than about protecting our own images and reputations. Who, in acceptable, middle-class society, wants to be identified as a perfumed outlier with the poor taste to make a dramatic olfactory statement? In Anglo-based North American culture, the aesthetics of bourgeois elegance and restraint is decidedly one of discretion and subtlety. Wearing “too much perfume” is a sure sign that one does not belong, just as it would be to wear a Hawaiian shirt to a standard issue Methodist wedding.
Of course, that bright shirt may be de rigeur at an island wedding, just as a bold perfume may be expected at a French, Middle Eastern, or South American social event. The line between the socially necessary and the offensive varies quite a bit, though in the U.S., white middle-class norms are usually simply taken for granted as generic “good taste.”
Rather than merely assuming that thoughtful perfume wearing is primarily about individuals’ responsibility to gauge their olfactory impact on others, then, I wish we would talk more about the forces that guide us to automatically accept the values of some — i.e., with respect to decorum, hygiene, and style — over those of others. Once we better explore the link between social power and aesthetic tolerance, we can also consider the invisible rules that shape our olfactory sensibility more broadly. I might wonder, for example, whose rules I am following when I blithely accept the stench of the factory pig farm or paper factory, but complain vociferously about the reek of the homeless guy who hangs out near the doorway of my office building.