The Case For Smelling More

The Case For Smelling More | Atmos

Our sense of smell is all too often intentionally neglected. But understanding the scents we’re drawn to—and repelled by—can reveal valuable clues about our true selves.

The giraffe house always gets me. The urine of the elegant, big-eyed beasts carries an unmistakably musky tang to it, a scent strong enough that even the barest whiff takes me back to a dozen other times I’ve peered in at the herbivores during visits at other zoos across the country. I’ve come to cherish the scent, not suitable for a perfume but still an airborne thread I can follow to other times I’ve marveled at the dappled giraffes. The smell is memory.

I expect my discussion of Giraffe effluent has already made some of you wrinkle your noses in disgust. I can’t blame you, if so. We are often discouraged from smelling the world around us. We do this by creating our own smellscapes that vanquish our environment’s pre-existing scents. Whether it’s deodorant, cologne, car air fresheners, or scented dog poop bags, we certainly work hard to cover—or otherwise bombard—all the unpleasant odors there are wafting around us. Often, we only sniff when we feel there’s a guarantee of something pleasant—like a fresh grapefruit or the sugary scent of a kitten—and do all we can to avoid the noxious. Even for ourselves, there are few everyday disasters we’re made to feel worse about than smelling bad around others. And the idea of actively trying to know each other’s smell might feel appropriate for lovers but only invite discomfort for everyday acquaintances.

We’re only making fools of ourselves.

As much as we might try to avoid scents, or only snuffle the air when we catch a hint of fresh-baked cookies, we are constantly taking in, processing, and reacting to scents—and not just when we try to hold our breath while passing a heap of garbage at the height of a New York City summer. Just as with our other senses, we are often detecting more than we’re even aware of; our ever-shifting mental focus brings some cues to the forefront while obscuring others. Even our relationships are shaped by scent, with people with reduced ability to smell often having fewer sexual relationships and feeling more relationship insecurity because they’re missing out on all the alluring information that our individual scents convey without us even being conscious of it. Especially as COVID-19 has become endemic and made so many people wonder why their new scented candles don’t smell like anythingwe may not even be aware of what we’re missing.

Novel smells become word puzzles to untangle, and familiar ones can lead me down any number of memory pathways.

So, taking a cue from my German shepherd, Jet, I decided to start sniffing around. Every time we go for a morning walk, he stops at least a dozen times to snort and snuffle at something interesting, pressing his nose close as if he is going to write a biography of whatever dog or deer left the aroma. I haven’t gone that far, not least of all because moving around on all fours all the time is hard on the knees, but I’ve gotten close up to take breaths of trees on city sidewalks, the spices in the pantry, and my girlfriend’s armpit, among other things, to see what I’d been oblivious to.

So far I have not acquired Jet’s acumen with tracking smells, but taking brief moments to appreciate scent has added new notes that mix with what I’m taking in from my other senses. It’s grounding, but also a challenge. Scents are invisible but also have images associated with them; a constant game of “smells like” because something as ephemeral as a scent is worked into our memories. Novel smells become word puzzles to untangle, and familiar ones can lead me down any number of memory pathways. I still can’t smell a freshly-sliced orange without thinking of childhood soccer games.

We should not only stop and smell the roses, but also whatever else piques our curiosity. But much like exhortations to get out into nature to refresh or to enjoy some peace and quietsomething as fundamental as our sense of smell is affected by the trappings of status and class, too. Whether a “smellwalk” sounds like a good idea likely depends on where you live. It’s often easier to find the celebrated roses, and lawns groomed enough to host them, in more affluent areas where dumpsters, litter, dog droppings, industrial factories, and other common stinkers aren’t often found. Even for my own advice to take some deep breaths, I live within earshot of a major interstate, a few miles from an airport, not far from a sulfurous lake, in a city that regularly has the worst air quality in the nation. Sometimes it’s downright dangerous to my health to intentionally breathe in. The rich live in the foothills across town, often literally above the miasmas the rest of us are inhaling.

Even outside of scents that we have evolved to find noxious—rotting meat or chemical reek are warnings to our health—what we think of as good or bad smells are often dripping with our own cultural baggage. The smells of certain foods, and how the scents of those ingredients are expressed through human bodies, are routinely taken as prompts for racism and exclusionthe discrimination of people tied to their everyday lives as dirty, smelly, and unclean. We project our misjudgments onto others and redefine what repulses us to reinforce what we already believe. Interpersonally and across abstraction, scent is not just a matter of objective detection, but is filtered by what we bring to the world around us. Sociologists are only just beginning to explore how smells and our ability to detect them, or even try to erase them, play into the ways we relate to each other. The ways we describe scent and what we find attractive, repulsive, or intriguing likely has more to tell us about ourselves than we often admit.

Smells that we try to so thoroughly cover up might be hiding parts of ourselves that are as much a part of who we are as the topography of our face.

Smelling, then, is not just about learning something about our immediate environment or what makes us salivate for dinner. Understanding what we smell and what we like can help us reflect and even question parts of ourselves; the smells we gravitate to can say just as much about us as our favorite music or how we like to be touched. So, as much as you are comfortable, I encourage you to intentionally smell more around you and see what sparks in your mind. Perhaps there are half-forgotten memories there, or new discoveries about what you’re fond of. Maybe what might initially seem unpleasant was actually just unfamiliar, and, as I’ve increasingly found, smells that we try to so thoroughly cover up might be hiding parts of ourselves that are as much a part of who we are as the topography of our face. I cannot say that her opinion is unbiased, but I’ll forever treasure that my partner tells me that my real scent makes her think of sugar and books. She knows my face, but I’m honored that she could smell me anywhere.

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