Let’s face it, olfaction is an important sense. Olfaction is strongly linked to emotion and emotional memories. The smell of some cookies reminds you of one grandmother, and the smell of “White Shoulders” perfume reminds you of the other grandmother.
I have found that associations with the same smell can even alter over time; while a smell used to make you feel one way, now it makes you feel another. My father smoked a pipe, and he smoked it with abandon. After a while – after he had inhaled pipe tobacco right down into every nook and cranny of his lungs – the smell of his pipe smoke made me feel a sickened mix of disgust and sadness; it smelled like the fact that my father was going to die of lung cancer. And he did. Now when I smell the pipe odor that lingers in his car and on his jackets, which I wear sometimes, I feel happy because I have the impression that he is there with me. So my emotions have changed. Smells are open to interpretation. New associations.
It is with that thought in mind that I find it interesting that people hold such convinced clichés about olfaction. For instance, as I mentioned in my post, “Welcome Home,” French philosophe and feminist Elisabeth Badinter has asserted that the French are sexier than Americans, better at sex; that American women wash too much, and are embarrassed by bodily odors. These assertions are of course all linked. Part of being sexually inferior is the fact of washing too much and getting rid of embarrassing bodily odors.
Who is Badinter to say? I personally like the smell of Mennen’s Regular Speed Stick (a deodorant). Perhaps I like this smell because I am a capitalist American woman, who believed advertisements telling me that I had a problem, and Mennen could solve it. Perhaps. But more likely it is the fact that several of my boyfriends wore Speed Stick. I liked them and they wore Speed Stick, and it smelled good on them, and the emotional association was formed. During the Middle Ages people who could not afford to buy wood to heat water for baths wore a lot of perfume. It was used to cover their very musky bodily odors, but they probably had sex a lot anyway.
You can also turn this around and wonder why some people in the United States worry so much about the body odor of people in France or Italy. This worry obviously goes well beyond the olfactory, and moves into the realm of judgments about personal hygiene. But choosing not to wear deodorant, when it occurs (and I want data) does not have anything inevitable to say about whether one has bathed in the first place. When people bathe and then do not use perfumes or deodorants they indeed smell different those who do use these products, and they intend this to be so.
The brain systems that support olfaction and link it to emotion are primitive ones. Even though we can make new connections, there are a lot of old emotional memories linked to olfactory experiences. I remember the smell of the Creeping Charley (a weed) when my grandmother cut her lawn, or more accurately when my brother cut her lawn. It is a good olfactory memory and nothing has been associated with Creeping Charley since, so I get a jolt of good feelings when I pull off a leave and take a whiff.
And then there is Speed Stick. Sorry Badinter, that is just the way it is.