The connection between food and fragrance, how to try on perfumes, and asserting yourself (mini-podcast episode #2)

Given what I talked about in my last post about my history with personal fragrance, you may be surprised by just how much I’ve embraced the world of perfumery and how quickly. I still consider myself a newbie at this, but I am proud that I can hold my own with the most hardened and cynical salespeople now.
I want to take a step back and talk about the sensory part of personal fragrance. Consider, for a moment, that a nice fragrance applied to the body is a pleasant way of exercising our sense of smell, whether we apply it for ourselves to enjoy, for others to recognize us, or both. For myself, it makes total sense that I would love things that smell good because I love flowers and gardening. I also really love cooking and eating. I’m Chinese-American. The enjoyment of food is part of my DNA.
As I grew older, I wanted to cook more and learn more about it. I watched a lot of cooking shows. My appreciation for cooking as an art and the use of quality ingredients exponentially increased. It wasn’t until I really started cooking for myself and my family that I noticed not only the therapeutic benefit of the cooking process for myself, but also its sensory and sensual elements.
Here’s an example. Imagine a stalk of celery in front of you that you are about to cut up for soup. Holding your knife over the celery, your sense of sight views that pale green stalk with ribs sitting on the cutting board. When you chop into the stalk, there’s a satisfying crunch when you’re cutting into it, so your sense of hearing is engaged. When it’s cut, the stalk will release this crisp, vegetal fragrance as you break the outer skin. There’s nothing else in this world that smells just like celery. Have a think about this the next time you chomp into a celery stick provided alongside your buffalo wings.
Most people have a fond olfactory memory associated with food and your family and friends. It could be something comforting like Mom’s turkey at Thanksgiving or Dad’s summer barbecue. Or the memory can recall watershed moments in time, like the orange blossom water doused on baklava that was served during Greek week at school, the gooey smell you associate with roasting marshmallows at night that summer you fell in love at camp, or that warming scent of mulled wine you got at a Christmas market by the fire before you got engaged. I’m sure you have at least one of these scent memories. The smell of a beloved favorite food can leave an indelible mark in your mind.
I would have expected to have a lot of similarly fond memories of the fragrances worn by the people I love, know, or have interacted with. With the sensitive nose I have, I think it’s odd that I only have two of them. Both were from having been in the embrace of a man, and both wore colognes that were delicious and unique.
They smelled like nothing I had ever encountered that I felt sure at the time I had sniffed them that they had to be concoctions made specially for the wearer. I found out this year that beyond the Chanels and Armanis at your neighborhood department store, there is a vast array of smaller, niche brands to choose from, should you want to smell different from everyone else. I am convinced there is something for everyone, even the people who say they don’t like fragrance. The incomprehensibly large size of the fragrance industry reminds me of the part in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Douglas Adams describes the enormity of space: “Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
Initially, I started educating myself about personal fragrance because I thought the more that I knew about the notes in men’s cologne and how they were put together in harmony, the more likely I would be able to identify what those two men wore. Selfishly, I wanted to recapture those moments in a bottle as a way of remembering the version of myself then and who I was with them.
However, as I dug deeper and realized I was only scratching the surface of what else there is to know in perfumery, I realized that it would be much more fun and worthwhile to discover what I liked on myself and what I would like to wear. Thus began my odyssey to find my own signature scent.
It hadn’t occurred to me in the beginning that finding my own perfume was something nice that I could do for myself. Women all too often fall into the role of caretaker because it’s a role that we played as children. Why do we push our needs and desires out of the way in order to help and stabilize others, to get their needs and desires met? In my case, I was the peacemaker of the house, the voice of reason in an environment made unstable and uncertain, caused by my upbringing and childhood illness. There was never room for what I wanted. My main priorities were survival and getting through school.
I also had to be open to buying perfume, which in most cases costs much more than the clothes I wear. I had to remind myself that I, as a person and a woman, am worth this luxury. I deserve something nice that will raise my confidence in myself and in how I carry myself in this world.
I’d like to switch gears now to talk about the easiest way to try out new fragrances with the least financial barriers. I’ll also touch on my own psychological barriers to trying on scents, because my thought was if as a middle-aged woman I have felt intimidated, then for sure others have felt intimidated, too.
So, where to start? Your nearest department store is a good place to begin. It’s where you can be guaranteed a reasonable selection of the giants of perfumery that I am sure you have heard of: names like Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry, and Polo. In the U.S., higher-end luxury stores will also give you a wider array of higher-end, less famous brands. During a recent shopping trip to the largest Nordstrom’s near me, I had the opportunity to sample Diptyque’s line, which I had not seen anywhere else. I also came across a Bond No. 9 counter at Bloomingdale’s.
I have never worn or bought a lot of makeup, so my experience with beauty products is paltry at best. When I finally pushed myself to go to the fragrance section of the nearest Nordstrom store, I felt extremely intimidated. My mom went out of her way to avoid the fragrance section in the Eighties. You’d walk through the mall entrance of a store and be assaulted by the floor walkers spraying the product they were selling. Those were not good days for people like us who are so sensitive to scent.
Because of COVID, I don’t think the indiscriminate sprayers will ever prowl the sales floor again. Further, at least here in America, staff may hold back tester bottles from public use to limit who can touch the bottle. That means you must interact with and request a sample from staff.
By nature, I’m a browser at the mall, unless I’m in a store for a specific purchase. I like to take my time and I don’t like to be rushed. It gives me anxiety. I’d also prefer to select items on my own without being pushed. While I understand a lot of these staff work on commission, testing and selecting a scent to purchase is a process that shouldn’t be hurried. You are there to pick a fragrance that reflects the individual you are.
Do not make the mistake I did by asking which fragrances are most popular. I’m never going to forget the day I got sprayed by an overexcited customer and with Cartier’s La Panthere. As the name suggests, it is animalistic and was too strong for me. It was the same day the Chanel saleslady offered me a spray of Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle. I decided to take one for the team and commit myself fully to this process by trying it on my inner wrist.
Some fragrances, I can tell immediately if they’re not for me by simply sniffing the test strip. That’s step 1 in testing a fragrance. Step 2, if you like it enough by an initial whiff of the scent alone, you must spray it on your arm, allow the alcohol to evaporate, and monitor how the scent changes on your skin hours later.
The most fascinating thing about quality perfume is that there are three parts to the scent: the top, middle, and base notes. Somehow, the perfumer who created the perfume combined the ingredients together so masterfully that the three sets of notes are like three instruments. For a time, they play together in harmony but at a point further down from the start of the performance, the sharpness and brightness of the top notes will fade away, allowing the middle, more rounded notes to shine. Eventually, the middle notes will fade, too, leaving behind the base notes.
When I actually witness this progression on a perfume on my skin, I’m blown away by the artistry of the perfumer. A perfume’s behavior is in stark contrast to what you see with less expensive fragranced lotion, which will have only one set of notes. It doesn’t matter how long you wear a lotion or reapply it. The scent is reliable, but it also doesn’t change. There’s no mystery. I now understand why the discerning are entranced by quality perfume. It’s like watching the unfolding of a flower, from the bud stage to full bloom.
I believe my interpretation of a quality perfume is an important distinction to make about high quality product. Unfortunately, because high quality is often associated with a higher price tag, it has led the perfume industry to be exclusive and snobbish, or at least it can feel that way. I think back to the fancy looking women I saw at the fragrance and makeup counters in my youth, while my mother and I steered clear of them. Those are the same kind of women who most often work the counters and if they are customers, they get better treatment in my experience.
This is where your self-confidence and self-worth can shine. Once I became more confident to ask for what I was looking for, the reception I would then get often changed. A pushy saleslady, as well as an apathetic saleslady, would be more likely to help me. But how was I to know that I needed to assert myself? Weren’t all of the salesladies in my position at one point, clueless about fragrances and willing to learn? If they had been, few have shown me the willingness to meet me where I wanted to be met. While I accept that this may not be part of their training, as a newbie to fragrance, I could have used the help.
Asserting yourself as a woman may look like asking the boss for a raise or initiating sex with your partner. Those two examples are obviously not the same as walking up to a perfume counter and asking for a sample, but I bring them up because they’re two places in life that women often have trouble speaking up for themselves and what they want.

In this patriarchal society, it can be hard as a woman to ask for what she wants. Growing up, I could not see how I could assert myself. This behavior was not modeled to me. I grew up in a culture where the women are expected to be quiet and submissive. If I was not comfortable asserting myself, how could I make my own choices? Most of the time, I didn’t. What looked good to society ended up being my default, and I could not figure out why I was so miserable. Recently, through my spirituality, I have reflected that as a young woman, I felt uncomfortable because I had failed to recognize that the acceptable choices others made for themselves often did not resonate with me and who I was.

It’s been an important part of my spiritual growth as a Divine Feminine to be able to identify and work on what brings me joy and how to bring that joy into my life every day. Part of that includes being authentic and comfortable in my own skin. As I continue on my journey to find my signature scent, I have recognized that perfumery for women can be an incredibly empowering part of this. What scent you wear allows you to express who you are and in a different, more elegant way than hair color and the clothes you wear. It’s about choice, feeling good about making those choices, and becoming more confident within yourself.I hope today’s post encourages you to find a place in your life, whether it be in fragrance or somewhere else, where you can find more confidence.

Photo at top is from pixabay. Image of the fragrance pyramid is from Wikimedia Commons.

The classical piano clips used in the intro and outro of the above audio file are from taken from Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, Opus 9, Number 2, perfurmed by Aya Higuchi. The piano clip used in the interlude is taken from Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, B. 150, also performed by Aya Higuchi. Both pieces are public domain and are from 501(c)(3) nonprofit Musopen.

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