Perfume, Body Image, and How It All Started

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.

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64 thoughts on “Perfume, Body Image, and How It All Started

    1. Thank you, Birgit.

      When I asked The Engineer to take a picture of me on Sunday for this post, I pulled up yours: “This. A head and shoulders something like this.” That photo is you is….. wow.

  1. Dear Dionne – Love, love, love and did I say love? your post. I can relate on so many levels that it’s scary.
    Glamorous Mother? Check. High School Outsider? Check. Nasty high school boyfriends? Check and Double Check. I had a stroke of luck when I was 13 and started babysitting for a family whose Mom was French! In rural Virginia! She was so sophisticated, not classically pretty but SO ELEGANT! And nice. She answered so many of my gauche questions with kindness and authority and she smelled like heaven – Chanel, of course. She VERY wisely told me that I had to find MY signature scent. That every woman had one that was unique to her. So, I wore Farouche when everyone else was wearing Charlie. I would save up all of my babysitting money (.50 per hour folks!) and buy my Farouche and Je Reviens. I KNEW I was on to something no one else in my world, no matter how popular, pretty or sophisticated they were, was into. So, I was lucky to catch on to the magic of scent early-on. Still it took me many years of therapy to be able to look back at “young me” and and tell her that she was a pretty cool kid and that kid grew up into a pretty cool adult, more of a Kate Hepburn Bringing Up Baby type than my Mom’s Young Liz Taylor. And it’s all good. It’s never to late to heal or to have a happy childhood!

    1. Shelly, thank you so very much.

      How wonderful to have had that mom in your life. When I was 13 I had an elegant woman who was a friend of my parents take me under her wing, and it made a big difference for me as well. She wasn’t into perfume, but it still meant a lot to me at the time that someone so very, very classy seemed to like me.

      Like you, I think of my younger self almost as a different person, and I’ve envisioned getting in a time machine, going back and scooping her up in my arms and saying, “It’s all going to work out.” Although I must clarify that I don’t consider my childhood to be mostly unhappy. I’m very fortunate that home and church were two safe places where I felt loved and accepted.

      And how interesting that you mentioned Kate Hepburn – when people ask the question, “Are you a Marilyn Monroe or an Audrey Hepburn?” my reply is “Neither, I choose Kate.”

  2. This is a superb and brave post and I want to think about it some more (it’s getting late here) but reading it I was especially reminded of the title of this blog: ‘Beauty on the Outside’. Your post makes me think again that beauty on the outside relates integrally (is that a word?) to beauty on the inside, but beauty on the outside does MATTER and let’s not pretend otherwise. It’s your remark about the balance between mind and body that is so special. Sorry, not expressing myself very well … time for bed.

    1. I think you’ve expressed yourself admirably, Anne-Marie, and I agree with you. Physical appearance is overemphasized in our culture in a way that’s toxic: , an unrealistic, unachievable standard that doesn’t address our wonderful diversity. But that doesn’t mean the answer is to go completely the opposite way.

      I’ve learned lately by reading some fashion/body image blogs that things can be just as problematic for those who are conventionally beautiful: being treated as objects, as if their beauty is the most valuable thing about them.

      The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Recognizing that there are many kinds of beautiful, inside and out.

      1. Amen Sister! The secret is to embrace all the beautiful things about each individual. Society wants to pit women against one another – it makes media more exciting.

        1. Hey Tam! (Everybody, this is my Real-Life Evil Scent Twin). Lovely to see you here, and I agree, there is so much beauty in all of us.

          (I kinda talked about you in the comments below.)

  3. This is a first in the history of my perfume hobby and its associated blog reading – I am literally crying at your last line. (Pause while vision regroups behind tears…)

    And the bit about everything else falling away – just beautiful.

    Dionne, I am going to reprise this topic soon if I may, because I have been doing a lot of travelling and spending time alone lately, and have been observing my behaviour and moods, on and offline, with and without perfume in the mix, and am coming to some interesting conclusions.

    1. I’m so glad this touched you, Vanessa. I was a little nervous about writing something so personal. Absolutely feel free to reprise the topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      1. It touched me very much and thanks for saying you don’t mind my taking up the theme. And in truth, I wasn’t planning on doing a whole life retrospective like your masterly piece. What I had in mind was more of a stocktake/snapshot? of what might be going on with me now in terms of my interest in perfume vs “everything else”. : – )

        1. Your post idea sounds interesting, and I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s very normal to evolve in our attitude about perfume. (I’m still at the “Woohoo! So many neat things to still smell!” stage.)

  4. Every single word of this post resonated with me. Thank you for a touching and beautiful post. You were the cutest kid and have become the most stunning woman.
    I had an extremely similar experience (beautiful mother that I didn’t look like), but the weird part is that as of about a year ago, I now look almost exactly like my mother did at my age. I spent years trying to assure myself that it was okay that I didn’t look like her, and now I do! It’s kind of thrown a wrench into my thought process.

    PS Your high school boyfriend sucks.

    1. You are most welcome, Ari, and thank you for your kind words. (All of them.) I look back now on those old photos now and I think I looked cute too, but I sure didn’t feel it at the time.

      I read your recent post about your mom, and I’d agree that you do look like her. It was a lovely picture.

      As far as the sucky boyfriend, I am happy to say that he has since turned into a fine man. Several years later I reminded him of that comment. He was horrified he’d said something that cruel, and apologized profusely.

  5. Dionne, you’ve written so poignantly about what I think so many women experience, and I second what Birgit said — your last sentence is very true! Thank you for writing such a meaningful essay and for the accompanying photos: it’s wonderful to see you, both as a young girl and the very beautiful woman you are today. ❤

    1. Suzanne, thank you so much for your kind words.

      The older I get, the more I realize that body image is a minefield for a lot of us. My Real-life Evil Scent Twin is Gor-Jus: tall, slender, beautiful long dark hair and she’s a lovely person inside to boot. You can imagine my surprise recently to discover she’s struggled in the past with self-image.

      I’ve thought a lot about how best to help my daughter navigate all this.

  6. So interesting that you posted this today because last night I looked at your FB profile photo (the one here) and I was thinking ‘dang, she’s gorgeous – like so many of the other perfume bloggers out there – I’m glad to be in her company’

    Your story is SO similar to mine down to the boyfriend lusting after the sister, (I wear/wore lipstick constantly from the age of 20 because I have my father’s mouth and I don’t look like my mom) I was told that by a jock at a concert that I looked like a Mack truck hit me, and another time had a pitcher of beer poured over me. No I didn’t do anything to deserve it that time.

    I got contacts (I vividly remember coming home from a club right after I got them and I told my mother “Mom, guys actually LOOKED at me – they didn’t ignore me!).I wore perfume and scarves and my own look via researching all the beauties of the older generations along w/being in the early punk rock movement (i’m currently 52 years old), and hung out at gay clubs where my young gay friends thought I was awesome. The punk rock thing really helped btw, the whole fuck you, I am what I am thing! “I may be ugly, but screw you, I know more than you do and am so much cooler than you” (that kinda worked LOL; I actually didn’t start really coming into my own until after I had my son and found out I was a darned good mom)

    Anyway, this post is about you and I don’t mean to turn this into something about me; but I did want to chime in.

    Thank you for being so brave and open. XOX

    1. oh and see how I’m still not quite there? The fact that my initial response to seeing your photo was one of “wow, I cannot believe I’m with the cool/beautiful kids” means I’m still coming into my own! 😉

      1. Oh, sometimes I feel like I’m still not there either, Carol. I spent a couple of days pondering how to word that last statement. I am comfortable now in my skin, but it still felt like a bit of a leap to say, “I am beautiful.”

      2. You have a great look – with glasses on or off – and I feel so chuffed that I got to hang out with you…in such spectacular style…. last year!

    2. I would have hit that concert jock with a Mack truck if I’d been there, bloodyfrida. You are beautiful, I love your blog, and I love that your dog is named Sephora.

      1. I’m getting a little teary here, Ari – thank you so much. I wish I had the gumption back then (I think I was 17 at that time) to do something – I was just in shock and walked away shaking.

        It really is incredible how so many of us have struggled and continue to struggle with this whole topic. I am so grateful to know so many brave, honest and strong women!

        1. This is why I really do think that putting ourselves out there online as examples to young women is really going to make the difference. When we tell young women what we wish we had known at their age, they get to learn that lesson earlier than we did. Maybe a 12-year-old girl will read this post and will understand that she might not feel beautiful now, but someday she’s going to look like Dionne! That would sure give me hope! This post, and our words, are important. They really are.

          1. I agree, Ari. I’ve always found that the women who inspired me most weren’t the ones that seemed to have it all, and have it all together, but those who were open about their struggles and still accomplished wondrous things.

    3. Thanks for your story, Carol; as far as I’m concerned, this post ISN’T just about me. I’m very interested in everyone else’s experiences.

      As I was writing, I was worried that the post would just seem like a whiny quest for assurance, to have people say, “But you ARE beautiful.” (You know how women self-deprecate around each other to garner compliments? Not a fan of that.) Because one of my points is that it doesn’t matter how often others reassure if if you don’t feel it inside. But when you do finally come into your own, inner confidence feels good.

      And I can sure relate about the lips. I hated my lips as a teenager. They were so much bigger than my mom’s, and my younger siblings would call me “Mick Jagger” because of them. Ironically, I now think my cupid’s bow is one of my best features.

      1. Dionne, the first thing I thought when I saw your photo was, “Ohhh, what gorgeous lips!” It’s funny, most people think the eyes are the key to the soul, but I find that I’m always most attracted to a sensual mouth and believe that you can tell more about how cruel or kind or open or repressed a person is by their mouth.

        And that’s funny that your siblings called you Mick Jagger (I’m not a huge Mick Jagger fan, but I sure do love his mouth). You’re luckier than me, my sisters called me “Slow Joe” because I’m often lost in a daydream and so slow to surface, whereas they were quick thinkers (and do’ers.) But now I rather enjoy the various nicknames they had for me. 🙂

        1. Looking back now, being called Mick Jagger’s no big thing, but it hurt at the time. I’ve always been a little envious of people with nicknames, as I’ve never really had one.

          Because of that, and knowing how important a nickname can be, I spent a good two weeks discussing what online nicknames to use for them, so that everyone was happy. (Well, except for Spud. He wants to be called Robot, but fortunately he can’t read yet.)

  7. A beautiful, moving story, Dionne! I only hope that my match for AKII tomorrow will be more or less on the mark. You’ve pointed out something that rings true to me as well, “fragrance at its essence is this: eyes closed, wrist pressed to nose, inhaling deeply while everything else falls away.”

    And you are gorgeous!

    1. Thank you so much for coming over and commenting, Victoria, I really appreciate it. I’m really looking forward to reading that Anne Klein II post tomorrow.

  8. Thank you SO much for all that you’ve revealed to us, Dionne (including your beautiful visage, both past and present!). And thank you to all the commenters who similarly shared. The emotional impact of these memories is so universal — individual histories, pooled together, become even more powerful.

    (When I was about ten, I asked my mother, “Mom, am I ugly?” She replied, “Oh, honey, you’re not UGLY. You’re just really HOMELY.” It took decades to reverse the deleterious effects of those two casually-delivered sentences.)

    1. Oh, Meg, I winced when I read that. Ouch. As a parent, I worry sometimes saying things thoughtlessly myself. Big hugs from me to you, and I’m glad to hear the effects have been reversed.

      Thank you for your comments and sharing something so personal with us.

    2. Meg, if it makes you feel any better, I was a pretty plain baby apparently, and rather than tell a white lie, one visiting relative to the hospital looked into my cot and exclaimed: “Now, there IS a baby!” That’s not even damning with *faint* praise as far as I can tell.

  9. I know you didn’t post this to get people to say you’re beautiful … but you are! What gorgeous coloring and an unusual, striking face. I too remember being a brainy, awkward nerd with bad glasses and braces. I wanted so badly to be pretty! When I was about 15 I got contacts and my braces came off and wow, suddenly I *was* pretty! That was a nice surprise. Makeup and fashion and perfume are so much fun for me, and I don’t think they detract from being a hardass intellectual feminist one bit. 🙂 Thanks for the great post!

    1. Thanks for the compliments, Elisa. I’m glad to hear you were able to make the transition smoothly. It’s heartening to know that not all brainy girls take as long as I did to change their self-perception. And yes, I think that makeup, fashion and perfume are completely compatible with feminism; there are some excellent, articulate feminist fashion blogs out there that make that point very convincingly.

  10. Thanks so much for taking the leap and sharing your experience with us, Dionne. That takes guts!

    It just goes to show what a common experience this is for young women, as like other lcommenters it also closely mirrors my own. At twelve I would look at other girls and marvel that I was one of them. I didn’t feel like it. Your conclusion about not being beautiful because you didn’t look like you mother is a prime example of one of those horribly damaging wrong conclusions that children often come too. It’s such a hard thing to counteract.

    I think perfume is an important way for me to connect with my femininity/sensuality and I love it for it’s power to transform. I agree with annemarie that your point about it standing at the balancing point between mind and body is so true. I also agree that caring for your appearance isn’t about being shallow and buying into the over emphasis of looks in today’s society, even though initially it might feel likei it. I do believe that not taking care of your appearance is often a sign of low self-esteem. When you take care of how you look on the outside it can have an impact on the outside too (and the other way around). You’re right that it’s about finding the middle ground.

    Great post!

    I’m glad you’ve come such a long Dionne, even if it is still a struggle now and again.

    1. You are most welcome, Tara, I’m deeply grateful to have had such a positive response from everyone.

      Perfume is such a transformative thing, I think partly because it’s such an easy way to access beauty. Even now, I find myself somewhat ambivalent about fashion because there’s so much scorn heaped on those who don’t “do it right.” It’s a strange thing to be a thrifter and see clothes that are marked down so significantly because they’re no longer in style, yet sometime in the past they were the big thing.

      Yet perfume is different. People are wearing beautiful fragrances made from every decade for more than 100 years, and that beauty is still recognized. As I’ve explained to friends about one of the appeal’s of perfume: You don’t have to lose weight or get a new hairstyle or change your wardrobe; you just spray, and feel special.

  11. Dionne, you made me cry (a little). Thank you for sharing that.
    You wrote such a beautiful post… It’s not overly emotional or melodramatic but it stirs a lot of emotions – even though the only part where “it’s about me” is that my mother was very beautiful and I’ve never came even close to looking like her.

    I know that many people have told you that already but I want to join them in saying: you look great. You know that yourself now, right?

    1. Undina, I’m glad to hear this touched you.

      And even though it wasn’t my intention to have people tell me I look good, but rather discuss how powerful perfume can be, thank you for the compliment. It is a lovely thing to feel at home in your own skin.

  12. Late to this wonderful party, Dionne, but I wanted to congratulate you on both this beautifully written, moving post and the journey itself. The idea of perfume integrating mind/body and being a back door into feminity has been absolutely crucial for me, especially the latter, absolutely central to my perfume story. As for my mother, well, let’s just say the last chapter in my book is titled, “My Mother’s Femme.” Big cheers and an ebay score of Anne Klein II to you.

    1. Just out of curiosity, is this Alyssa Harad the author? (I’m really looking forward to reading your book when it comes out.) How fascinating that you’ve also found perfume empowering, and as a “back door into femininity” – great phrase, by the way, I think I might borrow it. Perfume is such an effortless way to bring more beauty into our lives.

      Ooooh, an Ebay score, I hope, I hope…..

      1. Yes, that’s me–thanks for your kind words. (It feels very weird to be called an author, btw. But in a good, butterflies in the stomach kind of a way…;-) I think when you read the book you’ll find we have a great deal in common. “Back door into femininity” is my standard phrase for explaining what it’s really about, actually. You are welcome to propagate it! The other phrase (and post) that’s been very helpful to me is Victoria Frolova’s idea of perfume as a way to “seduce oneself,” as it implies that you have to get to know who you are fairly well in order to choose one you will love.

        1. As I was typing out, ‘Alyssa Harad the author’ I almost wrote “I bet seeing that phrase is a wonderful, slightly surreal feeling, isn’t it?” which you just confirmed. One of the great things about the internet is finding those who have a similar story, and it’s always lovely to find others who relate. Best wishes for your book.

  13. This is such a touching post, Dionne. I admire your courage and your beautiful (!) thoughts on perfume, beauty (external and internal), and moms.

  14. Well, for one, you have gorgeous and flawless skin! And second, you smell good. What’s not to like?! I also have a beautiful and glamorous mom who’s also down to earth and hands on. She always encouraged me as a tomboy saying she wasn’t able to be that way when she was growing up. I still don’t have it figured out, but I have my own ways and I’m open to change!

    1. Kudos to your mom for encouraging you, and I’m grateful that my mom did her best as well.

      Thank you for saying that about my skin. I broke out earlier than many of my peers, and was very self-conscious about it (in fact, I’m amazed I didn’t scar). Even now, it’s a compliment that means a lot; the very first time someone told me I had beautiful skin, I was in my early 20’s at a big party my parents were throwing. I grabbed my mom, took her over and said to the person who had complimented me, “Could you tell my mom what you just said?” They smiled and said it again, and my mom gave me a big hug. She knew how much it meant to me to hear that. (And now I’m getting a bit teary remembering how happy my mom was for me in that moment.)

      As a mother now myself, I look at my 7yo daughter and feel fiercely protective of her. I want her to feel confident in herself as a full person – her mind, her soul, and her body.

  15. I’m so glad I checked back in over here. The comments just get better and better. I love this story about your Mom and the compliment, Dionne. Every time someone compliments me on my hair or clothes I have the urge to tell them to call my Mom!

    1. Thanks, Alyssa. It’s always interesting when there’s as much going on in the comments as there on in the post itself. More than once it’s been in the comment section at NST where I’ve laughed so hard I’m gasping for breath.

      Now that I’m older and a mom myself, I think about how my growing-up years must have been for my mother. As hard as some of those experiences were for me, I never realized until my own kids have been teased how heart-wrenching it is for the parent to comfort a child who’s been made fun of.

  16. At age 12 and few years beyond, I looked and felt pretty awful. And BTW, I seem to have dated your boyfriend’s clone. Aargh. My awkward, insecure 12-year-old within–still very much a part of me–thanks you for this post.

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