HOW THE PERFUME GENDER BINARY IMPACTS BUYING PSYCHOLOGY
You’re at the fragrance counter and something catches your nose. It leads you to a shelf or kiosk you may have missed before.
An attractive, shapely bottle. A good feeling, a certainty, about what’s inside. You’ve never quite felt this way before; who is that?
You draught again, more deeply this time. Perhaps you ask for a sample card or spritz. You plan a date together in your head, playing out your future relationship together.
Do you have the same life goals? Yup.
Do you feel safe, loved, lucky, happy- things are just better when they’re there? Most definitely.
What would people think? Ah.
You balk and begin to back off. Fear and doubt have entered your heart where love and pride should be.
At first you’re unsure why.
Then it slowly dawns as you envisage the strangers’ whispers and stares, the raised eyebrows of trusted friends, the private chats with family when your lover is not present.
You’ll always waiting for the knock, of olfactory convention, hypervigilant with a false and finite optimism and courage. You thank the clerk for the spritz, then leave the bottle behind unfulfilled.
“Quit being a girl.”
“Girls have to smell nice.”
“That’s so gay!”
Stop me if you’ve heard one of those before, otherwise something like it. At work or in study, in play or in rest, perhaps the end of your own sentence.
We may not admit it but we often like that little extra lift. It makes us feel special, in a world that may overlook us sometimes.
But what would people think? Wearing this scent may challenge gender roles, as well as my self-image. It may even come to threaten my social standing and status.
The scents we wear aid comfort and survival within the gender status quo. Exist outside of it, and you are instantly deemed less worthy of attention and respect. You are instantly seen and made unsafe. You are instantly at the mercy of a toxic, entrenched and petty patriarchy.
Because you want to wear what you like. How stupid does that sound?
THE PROBLEM WITH GENDER APPRAISAL IN PERFUME AND IN GENERAL
This speaks nothing to the experiences of many who exist outside the gender binary. Denial of medical care. Denial of employment, or a safe and respectful professional culture. Denial of the floor to share perspectives and visibility Murder.
But this is a perfume blog, so I will stay within this scope.
The fact is perfume reacts with the natural oils of a person’s skin. The fact is that those oils are more acidic for cis and trans women than cis and trans men, due to lower testosterone levels. The fact is that your scent isn’t gendered by presenting gender identity; it is gendered by biology, mooting social conventions of gender such as mannerisms and ‘passing’.
This argument is incomplete- it only validates trans men or women on HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy). Many outside the gender binary can’t or won’t take HRT; reasons include cost of treatment, other medical factors, and personal choice. It also uses oestrogen and testosterone for legal gender assignment, a controversial and disputed method in law and professional sport already.
To complete the argument, the whole gender spectrum must be considered. For example, there are enby (non-binary) and intersex people. Will gendered perfume matter to this target market? Some members of the enby/intersex communities may feel more attuned to male or female than the other, but many also won’t. Hormonal balance and hormonal response do affect physical anatomy, but they don’t affect the identity of the human brain. For example, even controlling for all other biology, a cis man with gynaecomastia may have a more ‘feminine’ reaction to a given perfume than a cis man without. This is because a known factor of gynaecomastia is oestrogen excess. Some cis women and cis men have similarly higher sex hormone levels.
Do these excesses and fluctuations lead to hourly changes in gender identity? No. Gender is distinct from anatomy, hormones, and visually passing for this place on the gender spectrum.
Therefore, perfume marketing is wrong- perhaps even harmful- to create a gender binary for its products. This segregates and limits the thoughts and actions of perfumers and wearers. The commercial definitions of the gender binary are also cynical in that they’re completely arbitrary; political expedience rules.
ARBITRARY NATURE OF THE PERFUME GENDER BINARY | PROGRESS & CYNICISM
The fact is that gendered perfume is a relatively new concept, and the roles and connotations change with time. If we look to the Georgian merchants and nobles, an era of rigid gender roles, we actually see more freedom in fragrance. The gender roles were informal as scent was used on a basis of common sense; perfume neutralised odours of poor bathing (clean water could be scarce) and open sanitation. Floral oils and waters were the vogue amongst men but would draw attention to (and inference of) a cis man today.
The gendered connotations of the perfume ingredients themselves can also change, with region. If we look to the Middle East, floral oils like rose and jasmine are the vogue. In the Himba tribe, women mix butterfat with red ochre and omumbiri resin. This makes the otjize- used to cover the skin and protect it from desert and sun. It is used with clay to cover the hair for beautification. It is used to clean in a region where water is scarce and the culture nomadic. New skin grows and the otjize falls away, taking dirt and dead skin with it in a show of practical perfumery. Omumbiri is a resin of myrrh, halfway to frankincense in scent. In the West, this would be masculine- depending who you ask.
It appears that as is true in the wider fight for gender equality, perfume gender is a social construct. Perfume gender is governed by practicality and locality. The West shifted to a gendered approach at an intersection of perfume and major fashion houses in the Roaring Twenties. Again, this was practical for the manufacturers- clothes had and still have rigid gender norms reflective of society. So houses gendered the perfume as well. Commonly credited for launching the era is Chanel No. 5. The 60s and 70s further entrenched the gender divide by introducing the common taglines “for men” and “for women”.
CHANGING TIMES (OR POLITICAL EXPEDIENCE)
Things are improving today- unisex and gender-free perfumes are not uncommon. But the social intent is questionable. High prices, branding by press of such perfume making as ‘edgy’ or ‘hip’. Inclusion isn’t a USP when the brand excluded before. Nor is it so without real knowledge or engagement with the community. Actually, inclusion shouldn’t be a USP at all- it should just be.
HOW PERFUMERS CAN BEGIN EARNEST CHANGE
We don't need to exclude cis scent enthusiasts- but neither should we solely pander.
We should listen to trans/non-binary wearers. All that is being asked for is what everyone else asks for- products with emotional/practical value to one's needs.
We should also phase out gendered perfume and change the language on gendered ingredients. At least compromise, while the public catches up, by ensuring collections as a whole are (optional) mistral gender spectrums. I've done this myself at home and it isn't hard or expensive.
Gender in perfume is... dumb. Gender is defined by society with a method that is flawed. Grand scheme, the social conventions of gender swap, wax and wane with time and place.
We can’t fully upend the gender binary tomorrow: humans are sometimes slow and scared to change. But inroads are being made, so perhaps within this lifetime.
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