Lots of stories have been told in perfume-land about our mothers and how their fragrant choices influenced us. Ann-Marie here at BoTO, Ari at Scents of Self and Victoria at Bois de Jasmin have all written recently on the topic. I read the posts with interest as I’d planned to write something as well. Mine took some time to get down because it’s soul-baring; I wanted to get it right.
This is my tale about an alternate path into perfume, one that completely skipped the typical Stage One. It’s also about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, the internal voice that is so very strong.
My mother is beautiful and I don’t look like her.
When I say that now, I’m simply stating two facts: 1) My mother is a stunning woman 2) I don’t look a lot like her. But when I was twelve, there was an implied corollary: My mom is beautiful and I don’t look like her, therefore I am not beautiful. It’s not easy being twelve, is it?
I wanted so badly to be pretty. To my young mind, if I was pretty the other kids would stop making fun of me. I’d no longer hear the words dork, nerd, and computer brain on a regular basis. I’d be popular, and school would no longer be such a social minefield.
What does this have to do with perfume? The beginning of this reminiscence is quite typical. My mother would get dressed up for a night out with my father, and part of the glamour was her wonderful sillage. Strangely enough, I don’t remember what scents she wore with one exception: Forever Krystle, an 80’s celebuscent that smelled amazing on her. Obviously, perfume was part of being beautiful.
Except here’s where the story derailed for a good 25 years. When I tried my mother’s perfumes on my skin, they smelled horrible, not at all how they smelled on her. And when I’d try the popular perfumes my classmates were wearing, they smelled awful too. Those little bottles confirmed what I already felt inside: I was ugly. Pretty people wore perfume and smelled good, and I would never be part of that crowd.
My coping strategy was quite common for a girl who’s awkward and smart – I told myself that caring about physical appearance made you shallow and vain. I took refuge in my mind; high marks were something I could do. I loved (still love) the rush when I learned something new or really nailed a concept, the excitement of curiosity being kindled.
By the time I was in Grade 12 things had gotten somewhat better. The braces were off, I was wearing contacts, I’d grown into my nose a bit. I didn’t feel ugly anymore, I felt….. OK. Just OK.1 The longing was still inside to be beautiful, but at least I wasn’t made fun of anymore. I went looking for a perfume.
After a lot of visits to department stores, I discovered Anne Klein and Anne Klein II. They didn’t turn rancid on my skin and I liked them, especially AKII. I bought both. But here’s where body image comes into play: I rarely wore them. There was a little voice in my head whispering, “You can’t pull that off, you’re a poser. Who are you trying to kid?” That’s the big secret about body image. The voice inside is so much louder than what we see in the mirror or what others tell us.
The Anne Kleins went with me to university, unworn. Unworn while dating my future husband. Unworn as a wife and mother. Sometime in my late 20’s I got rid of them in a house de-cluttering.2
In my early 30’s it began to dawn on me that I’d gone too far in dismissing my physical appearance. I felt better when I made an effort to look nice, although I resented it too. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that you live too much in your head, another matter entirely to change.
Fast-forward to 2-1/2 years ago, and I am killing time in a Mexican airport with my parents, siblings and their spouses as we wait to fly home. A duty-free perfume shop opens and the women walk over. As I trail behind them and watch, everyone else sprays themself and talks about their favorites. There is very little on that long wall of bottles that I recognize. An old pang resurfaces, that feeling of watching something mysterious and glamorous and feminine that I’m not a part of.
I walked onto that plane determined to find something. Surely with all the perfumes available, at least one should smell good on me.3 I came home and started visiting my local Shopper’s Drug Mart, and I think I tried just about every perfume there. But I also went online, and that changed everything.
In my search for tips in picking a signature fragrance4, I stumbled upon the Perfume Posse. I remember reading the Perfume 101 post and thinking to myself, “Hmmm, just what does violet smell like?” My curiosity stirred, I went into research mode,5 read everything I could get my hands on, and eventually placed my first sample order.
I discovered that even though many florals go sour on my skin, incense and iris and woodsy notes smelled wonderful. And though this may sound corny, there was something very important about that discovery. My inner twelve year-old needed to know that, and there was a shift inside. It was the beginning of my personal Renaissance. Other changes tagged along on the heels of Perfume.
Because of the Non-Blonde, I started wearing makeup other than mascara, while at the same time feeling confident enough to skip the foundation underneath. Then I decided it was time to step it up fashion-wise, and went looking for some blogs to help me dress better. As the balance between mind and body recalibrated, I started eating healthier. My weight is slowly coming off. I’m now at the point where I feel an urge to move more.
One of the neat things about perfume is the way it stands at that balancing point between mind and body. There’s so much for the brain to geek out on: chemistry, biology, history, botany, economics, sociology, gender studies. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to know. But fragrance at its essence is this: eyes closed, wrist pressed to nose, inhaling deeply while everything else falls away.
I am 40 years old now. I’m chubby, I sag in places, and I have stretch marks. The wrinkles are starting to show up. I don’t look like my mother, and I am beautiful.
1 My high school boyfriend said to me once, and I quote: “You’re OK to look at. You’re not turning any heads, but you look decent.” And then he’d talk about how hot my younger sister was. Man, what a jerk.
2 Trust me, I am seriously kicking myself that I did that.
3 By this time, I’d forgotten about the Anne Kleins.
4 There were quizzes to help you discover your style of perfume. Except which fragrance category fits a woman with five kids who teaches classical piano, loves camping, reading and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I remember thinking to myself, “Isn’t there a category for intellectuals?'”
5 If you were to ask my friends and family about it, they’d tell you research mode is an impressive thing to behold.