Tony is usually hovering around while I’m in the kitchen dicking around with sugar scrubs, and his reaction brings to mind the reason I don’t use commercial perfumes and only anoint my body with natural substances: Men can’t stand the smell of perfume.
Women often don’t get this. You walk through a department store — I tend to pass through at more of a trot, when I’m forced to do it — and synthetic scents pelt you from every side. It brings on a faint and instantaneous nausea, and the smells swirling about do not comfort or please. They are intimidating smells. They have the smell of ladies, and that is not a good smell.
You know what I mean by ladies, or at least you do if you grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in small-town America. Ladies were your mother’s friends who came over for bridge or Tupperware or whatever the hell women were gathering to do in those days. They carried pocketbooks and used hankies; the latter were often embroidered and scented. And they smelled like . . . ladies. That confusing smell of aerosol hairspray and Chanel No. 5, with a dash of hairy twat thrown in. It wasn’t a smell that made you want to come closer. It was a smell that obfuscated any kind of home truth, if you know what I mean. Those women didn’t smell like women.
The men of my generation remember what those ladies were like, too. They didn’t represent anything sexual. If you want to not attract a man, to not arouse him, then go ahead and smell like those ladies. Douse yourself in artificial scent. He’ll recognize the smell as a signal that you are available, that you are sending out a message. He will just be confused and disquieted by that particular message.
So what do men want us to smell like? All available data points to vanilla. Vanilla, with the boring reputation and the rich lavish bouquet. Vanilla can come dressed up like a duchess, but she can also roll in the hayfields like a whore. She’s the smell of the kitchen, of the sugar cookies at Christmas, of creme brulee and warm sweet things. And men are drawn to it like bees to honey. Unlike the chemical scent of those ladies, the smell of vanilla makes men feel warm and secure, as if they’ve encountered something familiar and beloved. Now that is a far better way to kick off a sexual relationship, wouldn’t you say?
There’s more. Men want us to smell like baked goods! I remember hearing anecdotally that the smell of pumpkin pie trumped out all other scents for male appeal. I can totally dig that. It’s why I used to use the Philosophy Pumpkin Pie shower gel back when it still existed, back before I refined my nose to the point where Philosophy products are just too synthetic to bear. I can still handle their Cinnamon Sugar Icing shower gel, though. It smells like French toast and syrup! Tony loves it, of course.
So long ago I started tying the things I put on my own body to the natural world. In winter I smell like cinnamon and vanilla and chocolate. In summer, when the natural world’s perspective shifts, I smell like coconut, mango and pineapple. I’ll indulge in a floral or two in the summer, but it has to be of the utmost quality: there is nothing as gag-inducing on earth as a synthetic floral scent. Annick Goutal’s Gardenia Passion smells exactly like real gardenias, but it comes from Paris and I absolutely cannot afford it. Jasmine is another candidate, but again only if it’s a true jasmine. Anoint yourself with cheap jasmine and you’ll smell worse than a French whorehouse: you’ll smell like a Harbor Boulevard whorehouse. And I am here to tell you that is all kinds of bad.
So that’s why these days I am up to my elbows in vanilla. Does anyone really remember what vanilla really smells like on a woman? The market is inundated with synthetic vanilla scents, some of which smell quite nice but none of which approach the actual smell of real vanilla. So I’ve been making vanilla absolute in my kitchen. Two beans of Singing Dog vanilla, a little coconut or olive oil, some indirect heat and a few weeks to steep, and I’ve got a gorgeous little vanilla scent that just doesn’t quit. And me in the kitchen, marrying it off to maple and brown sugar with one hand and to coconut with the other.
And as I walk away, the smell of real vanilla clings to me, as it always does. It makes my kids hug me and draws a kiss on my cheek from Tony. You want to be a lady? Go on down to Bloomies and pick up the latest designer scent with all the other unlaid wallflowers. But if you want to be an earth angel, a domestic goddess, the source of comfort and good, the sort of girl who gets laid at the drop of a hat — be warm. Be comforting. Be vanilla.