The nose knows

I read an article about signature scents (hang in there…this is not going to devolve into a post about cosmetic recommendations), and it got me to thinking about how my smell has evolved as my life has changed.

My sense of smell has always been quite strong. Once, sitting at the table with Mom, I started to smell blood. We chalked it up to the hamburger she’d defrosted in the microwave. Then Mom went to the bathroom and discovered she’d started her period.

One of my greatest shocks, then, given that my nose is so sensitive, is that I didn’t know cigarettes had a smell until I quit smoking. I’d grown up around smokers; there was never a time in my life that I didn’t smell like smoke. I was truly befuddled when people would know I’d just had a cigarette when they’d not seen me smoke — how? I wondered. Now I get it.

At any rate, smell has always been a huge factor in my life. I can remember precisely how my grandparents’ house smelled. How my mother smelled when she was getting ready for work in the morning (two distinct time frames there — the Lauren years and the Design years). How my first eye shadow palette smelled. And my third-grade teacher, a childhood friend’s mother, my dad’s old car, my grandfather’s wood stove. Fragrance and memory are tightly intertwined for everyone, me especially. What I haven’t really given a great deal of thought to is what I have smelled like over the years.


In high school, I dabbled quite heavily in perfumes. Perfumes that came in aerosol sprays. Perfumes that were pink. Perfumes that could be purchased in the fragrance section of Walmart. Perfumes that all smelled sickeningly sweet. I had a collection, probably 10-12 bottles, that I rotated through according to my mood. Plus a variety of gels and mousses, as I tried to calm my bleached and transitioning straight-to-curly hair. Plus layers of cheap makeup. Throw in a little BO, and you have every girl’s locker room everywhere. That’s what I smelled like. Quite strongly, I imagine, as I was rather liberal with the perfume.


In college, a boy once commented on my perfume. I told him I wasn’t wearing any. He said, “Oh, I mean your smell.”

“What smell is that?”

“Um…coffee. And cigarettes.”

Fair enough. I’m sure that’s precisely what I smelled like. I rarely consumed anything else.

I also went through a phase during college in which I was obsessed with vanilla. Vanilla perfumes, shower gels, lotions — even, thanks to  Victoria’s Secret, shampoo, conditioner, and hair spray, though I rarely even wore hair spray. Vanilla Fields was my favorite of the lot.


In grad school, I added a honest-to-goodness signature scent: Jess, by Jessica McClintock. My first department-store perfume, and hands down my favorite. For the first years of my adult life, that’s what I smelled like. (Oh, okay, plus coffee and cigarettes.) When I remember how it smelled, my mind’s eye conjures up the first apartment I shared with a boyfriend. My first work wardrobe. Putting on lipstick and jewelry before driving to the office. Jess marked my transition from kid to grown-up.

I mourned when it was discontinued. I even tried to order some from some sketchy site on the internet, years later, but it was obviously old. Old Jess is not a good smell. Still, I held on to the bottle — distinctively 90s, with its filigreed cap topped with a golden jewel. Everything about that bottle evokes my early 20s.


My marriage was Cashmere Mist by Donna Karan. It wasn’t as me as Jess, but it was close. And it marked a welcome change from the disaster that was my first grown-up relationship. I was a new me: New boyfriend (later husband), new apartment, new clothes (I discovered VS sold clothes in addition to undies, and spent my free time trolling the clearance for bargains), new outlook on life. No longer was I the pathetic person I’d become in my previous relationship. I even smelled different.

Then my marriage blew up, and I needed to wipe the slate again. Sorry, Donna. It was nice while it lasted.


Right around this time began my issues with skin allergies. I started breaking out in hives for no apparent reason. Desperate for relief, I began cutting out all possible irritants. I switched to fragrance-free laundry soap, eliminated fabric softener, started using fragrance-free soap and deodorant, and stopped wearing perfume. Eventually, I even began making my own laundry soap, so touchy had my skin become. During this period, I also stopped drinking coffee and switched to tea. So I suppose I smelled like…nothing, with a dash of Stash Chai and cigarettes.


Then I had a baby. I smelled…well, probably like baby effluvia. Spit-up and pee and poop and drool. Plus Dreft (I washed all our clothes in Dreft) and coffee. Oh, the coffee. I was drinking 3 pots a day at one point.

Shortly after my daughter was born, I hacked my hair off and began straightening it each day. Baby poop and fried hair and coffee. Eau du Mommy.

My respiratory allergies went into high gear around this time, heightened by the fact that pregnancy and childbirth had increased my already insanely strong sense of smell. I began to have trouble passing by the laundry aisle in stores, and could tell you the fabric softener of choice of anyone who came near me. (The smell of fabric softener was, with Anya, a pregnancy aversion. Fabric softener, bread, and alcohol. I’m still not 100% over it, either.) I therefore eliminated every scent possible.


By the time my son was born, I was back to drinking tea. Green tea this time, switching to ginger after lunch. I’d grown my hair out again, so my hair smelled less burned, more goopy. But the rest of my products remained unscented. I apparently have my own innate fragrance, though. Sometimes my son pauses while nursing to bury his nose in my chest and inhale deeply. To him, I smell like home, and love.

I have tentatively started venturing into the world of perfumes again. I bought a few Demeter samples, and play around with them some days. So far, so good; they don’t set off my nose or irritate my skin. I just have to be careful where I spray them, so Kai doesn’t get a mouthful when he nurses. My kids really seem to enjoy it when I smell like honeysuckle or jasmine or lily of the valley. So who knows? Perhaps I will have a signature scent once more.

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