The Spirituality of Smell, part 6
In her book Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, Helen Fisher shares that during Elizabethan times, it was typical for a girl to put apple pieces under her arm until it absorbed her scent. She would then offer the fruit to her boyfriend as a gift so that, when she was away from him, he could continue enjoying her unique scent.
Even today “in parts of Greece and the Balkans,” Fisher explains, “some men carry their handkerchiefs in their armpits during festivals and offer these odoriferous tokens to the women they invite to dance; they swear by the results. In fact, sweat is used around the world as an ingredient in love potions.”
If you think this is strange, it gets even more bizarre. In her book The Scent of Desire: Discovering our Enigmatic Sense of Smell, Rachel Herz tells how “Members of a tribe in New Guinea say good-bye to each other by putting a hand in each other’s armpit and then striking it over themselves.”
This seems strange to us, if not downright gross. However, in my previous post I shared that every person has a body odor unique to them, a kind of chemical signature. In pre-industrial societies, odor was used to recognize individuals and was even a source of pleasure for those in love. In an article for the Taylor Study Method on the power of association, Graham Taylor explains why this is:
Having largely banished body odor from Western society, we now associate the body’s natural smell with uncleanness and lack of hygiene. But put yourself back in Elizabethan times. In their pre-deodorant society, the smell of the body was normal, because that is what they were used to. Moreover, it could even be pleasant because that was the smell you associated with being in the presence of the person you love….
Put simply, if certain things are associated with pleasant or unpleasant experiences, then those things can actually become pleasant or unpleasant to our brains through the power of association.
Even today there are more subtle body odors that can only be perceived if we are in close proximity with a naked member of the opposite sex, which means that such odors tend to be associated with sex—an association that renders certain smells pleasant to us because of the power of association, though this process usually happens on an instinctive level far beneath the conscious mind.
|David Brooks shares research proving |
that we unconsciously read emotions
Body odor also plays a critical role in understanding and empathizing with what other people are feeling. We know this is the case with dogs: if you’re afraid of a dog, the dog can detect that purely on the basis of your smell. But it is also true of human beings, even in our industrialized societies that try to mask over our natural scents. In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks shares amazing research into how we unconsciously read emotions through smell.
Building on this research, Kurt Schnaubelt has suggested that the eradication of natural smell from modern corporate is a necessary corollary in the trend to expel emotion (especially female emotion) from the work place. In Medical Aromatherapy: Healing With Essential Oils, Schnaubelt writes,
“Underarm hair, which is responsible for a person’s individual odor profile, is frowned upon. This is especially true for women, whose identity and individuality has to remain banished from the male domain of coldly exercising corporate power. Female compassion and underarm hair would be unruly. To be a good mid-level corporate agent one is first deodorized and then wrapped in the most prevalent fragrances the temples of consumerism have to offer. Perfumes encountered in airports, discotheques, and other ‘happening’ places of the industrial world manifest this uniformity.” (Schnaubelt, p. 24)
- The Neuro-Transformers: Culture and the Malleability of the Human Brain
- A Whiff From Which to Benefit (The Spirituality of Smell, Part 1)
- Scent and the Christian Church (The Spirituality of Smell, Part 2)
- Recovering the Spirituality of Scent (The Spirituality of Smell, Part 3)
- Scent and Spirit (The Spirituality of Smell, Part 4)
- Body Odor and Personal Identity (The Spirituality of Smell, Part 5)
- Smell, Love and Emotion (The Spirituality of Smell, Part 6)
- Wendell Berry on Health and Beauty (The Spirituality of Smell, Part 7)
- The Body and the Self (The Spirituality of Smell, Part 8)
- Grasping the Essence (my essential oils blog)