The Importance of being Fragrant
Perfume in times of social-distancing
Upon this day, the first of July, the streets of Paris are grey.
A rain curtain is fallen over the city, a humid atmosphere reeks of electricity, a doleful sky watches over a people of ordinary superheroes, masked but uncloaked, scurrying about trying not to get wet and the music of droplets falling on the cobblestones carried by gushes of fresh air brings a newfound life to a city enshrined in stillness.
Yes, monsoon is early this year and for the first times in months that seemed to have been years, people have dropped their masks... and smell again the scent of rain.
What a curious, what a marvellous sensation – to inhale, to breathe in, to seep in the micro perfumes of the day at last, to smell. For the days have been long for all of us confined, forced to watch, immobile, the blossoms of spring as they waned; yet here we are, outside and alive anew, and as we return to the rituals of yesterday, reaching for our lipstick and trimming our beards, there flies a question on everyone’s lips: should I wear perfume again?
And our answer is YES. Indubitably yes. Undoubtedly, yes. Absolutely, evidently, YES. For there is more to perfume than a mere cosmetic; an accessory, superfluous gesture added to an already cumbersome morning ritual to satisfy one’s vanity. Perfume is an essential even more so now that we are required to stay away from each other.
So why should you?
- To fully seize the day
Our sense of smell is paramount to understanding the environment we live in and although we may be allowed to stroll outside again, the fact that we must still wear a mask prevents us from being able to apprehend this world, which is enough to disorient us. For indeed, no sense is more intimate, more primal than that of smell. Out of the five, it is among the first to be fully developed in-utero meaning that foetuses smell even before they see or hear which explains the very specific way with which our sense of smell connects with our brain. Indeed, whereas all sensory stimuli are processed through the thalamus -which acts like a dispatch centre if you will- before reaching the cortex, the olfactory stimuli go directly from our nasal receptors to the cortex. This allows for a more direct and diffuse representation of the stimulus – this is why when you smell a certain perfume, you will first recall colours, sensations and emotions before tying it to a precise memory.
This close-knit, limbic relationship between smell and cortex is the reason why some smells are innately bad because they represent a danger to our life; it is the reason why we feel comfortable in places we olfactorily know and the same reason why we won’t smell our perfume after some time, the time our body took to consider this perfume “safe”; it is the reason why you’ll instantly pick-up the foul smells in any given environment, why you’ll smell someone’s cold ashtray despite a scented candle burning, why you’ll smell the stale urine in some street despite a bouquet of roses sitting in a corner. This is why, intimately, you will not be disturbed by your partner’s “morning smells”. Not because you got used to them but because your body and brain realised that they were safe for you.
Thus, in order to fully seize the day, one must smell it. One must smell the blooming linden, rose, jasmine, lilac, wisteria blossoms in the air to feel the coming of spring. One must smell the petrichor rising from the asphalt to feel the scorching depth of summer. One must smell the fragrant trails wafting from people’s coats and dresses and hair, the floral whiffs escaping from the florist’s, the smell of baked goods that heralds the first hour of the day, the heated metal and urine and sweat to remember why you hate the metro, the aromas of cherry and tobacco to enjoy your glass of Château Jouvente, that of quince and immortelle to relish in your glass of Quarts-de-Chaume – and because we cannot do that, it is essential that we keep smelling perfumes and essential oils that go with the day, with the season, with the mood. Not necessarily to wear them, but to smell and to keep smelling all the fragrances you should be surrounded with, so as not to miss out on your spring or your summer.
- To keep being yourself
One of the most common advice we read during the lockdown was to maintain a usual routine yet one could ask the relevance of wearing a suit and tie while working from your sitting room. Was it to keep up appearances, if so for whom? Was it to keep a sane mind, if so from what? This effort to stick to a work-centred routine only served as a threshold to prevent us from slipping towards an inertia that seemed harmful but what if we should use this routine, not as a way to keep us from but to enable us to. To enable us to rediscover ourselves, to explore and discover who we are and what is constitutive of our self when we are shut from society.
Thus left alone, there is no one but us and each step of our daily routine can be seen as a way to understand who we are and how we interact with our world. Why do we keep applying a toning serum, why the need for a moisturised lip, for a neatly trimmed beard, why the urge to socialise or to exercise and why the need to smell good? Note that there are no wrong answers here, only the right answers for you. Perfume is part of our routine because it is a sensory expression of our self, just as much as our elocution, our posture, our attire – “we’re all born naked and the rest is drag” means just this, that anything we wear or do to our body is self-expression, whether you wear an ill-fitted dark t-shirt or a stunning bespoke suit depends on how you see yourself and how you want to be seen. Perfume is more subtle in that it is invisible, untouchable and is perceived differently by everyone.
Do you wear perfume for yourself or do you wear it for others? Whether one or the other or the two, it is important to keep applying perfume whether to be smelt by others or to take advantage of this masked season to olfactorily envision a new “you” – either more daring or more refined, more subtle or more exuberant, louder or quieter, wiser or funnier. Since the sense of smell is so intimate and primal, it is the best way to unearth new truths about ourselves and why not be surprised at what we may find, that a certain perfume appeases our temper or triggers an unknown passionate lover. Perfume has become more and more constitutive of the persona we’ve been building ever since we were children, it is another layer added to our character and now is the perfect time to try and break out of character.
- To be happy.
Our recent desire to exercise, to do yoga, to eat healthier comes from a knowledge the Western world had forsaken since the 12th century: that we are born with a body and that it is truly participant of our overall happiness. In fact, studies have shown a direct link between smell and well-being or rather between anosmia, the acute or chronic loss of smell, and depression. Interestingly, this link goes both ways: anosmia triggers and is a symptom of depression and this comes precisely from what we have said earlier, that scents are not processed by the thalamus but go directly to the cortex, activating a third of our brain’s neural connections to kindle precise emotions linked to diffuse memories. This principle, that odours can influence our behaviour by playing with our emotions and memories, is the cornerstone of aromachology whereas aromatherapy uses essential oils’ aromatic components for healing purposes. Science proving that both methods are efficient is a stellar sign, if we ever needed another one, that our bodies are crucial for our well-being.
Moreover, by bypassing the thalamus, smells also bypass the mind and its intricacies, subconsciously healing us, happying us without the risk of self-sabotaging. Such power of evocation, of bringing suddenly alive entire landscapes and colours and tastes of foreign lands once journeyed through, of unearthing emotions as intense as they were deeply buried under the mounds of time, the “close kisses of my youth, tasteful and gourmand” sung by Montaigne, this power of travelling through our very own olfactory map to lands and places of our youth and dreams, this power at last to escape to our happy place at any given moment – it needs be acknowledged and used more often for the betterment of all, for the more we’ll use it, the closer will we reconnect with our bodies. The time that is given to us, if it must be put to good use, must be put to this: to become one and rediscover that perfumes and everyday scents are instrumental in our quest to be happy and even more. They are essential.
As we struggle to find rhythms and regular patterns to cope with the everchanging nature of our world and societies, perhaps we should consider swapping our beauty routines for happy routines in which fragrances would take the centre stage; paying attention to all that is fragrant and that we cannot smell anymore; to all that is fragrant about which we did not care before and use this as the foundation of a new routine, a fragrance-inspired lifestyle that will infuse happiness through every step.