How Shopping for Perfume Turned Into DEEP THOUGHTS

Late last year, I ended up taking a trip to the mall with my mother. This is not a bad thing, I love my mom and shopping together tends to be fun for both of us. Unless it’s in the purse department at Macy’s in New York City, then it’s a hell from which there is no escape, but I digress.

ANYWAY, while on this trip, I ended up at the perfume counters in a department store. The new limited edition Harajuku Lovers fragrances, “Wicked Style,” were out and I wanted to sample them. I LOVED the “Sunshine Cuties” version of Music and was hoping this new scent kept the tomboy-ish vibe.

And it didn’t. It was, well, I thought it was pretty awful, but that’s me. Then I sampled the rest of them.

To paraphrase a popular movie? They all smelled like baby prostitutes. There was some kind of candy or sweets vibe to all of them and/or some kind of really, really childish smelling floral, but underneath that was something I think was supposed to be kind of sexy, like a musk in some cases. It’s the scent I imagined wafting out of a white windowless van trying to lure in private school girls who take one look at it and RUN THE HELL AWAY.

Then, I started wandering around and trying out some of the other scents in the department. And was really dismayed when I came to a realization:

Every single scent marketed towards younger women had that candy-like smell or smelled like a more expensive version of the solid perfumes that used to come with certain Barbie Dolls.

Anything marketed towards older women? Was either way too heavy for daytime wear or smelled like I was trapped in some kind of horrible floral maze being hunted down by Africanized bees.

Look, the point is, I didn’t want to smell CHILDISH. But the more I thought about it, the more upset I became when I realized how much “kids” stuff is marketed to adult women. And it felt almost infantalizing.

For example: MAC cosmetics. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, they’re quality and their brushes are fantastic. But at the same time, they hype special collections featuring Hello Kitty and Barbie. Even Wonder Woman, who I still love and follow in comics as an adult, had this air of “Remember when you liked her as a kid?”

I think there’s a lot of good lessons girls can get from remembering what it was like to be a kid. As Mary Pipher put it in her book Reviving Ophelia:

Girls know they are losing themselves. One girl said, “Everything good in me died in junior high.” Wholeness is shattered by the chaos of adolescence. Girls become fragmented, their selves split into mysterious contradictions. They are sensitive and tenderhearted, mean and competitive, superficial and idealistic. They are confident in the morning and overwhelmed with anxiety by nightfall.

She also mentions Simone de Beauvoir’s thoughts on this topic:

Girls who were the subjects of their own lives become the objects of others’ lives. “Young girls slowly bury their childhood, put away their independent and imperious selves and submissively enter adult existence.” Adolescent girls experience a conflict between their autonomous selves and their need to be feminine, between their status as human beings and their vocation as females. De Beauvoir says, “Girls stop being and start seeming.”

Girls become “female impersonators” who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces. Vibrant, confident girls become shy, doubting young women. Girls stop thinking, “Who am I? What do I want?” and start thinking, “What must I do to please others?”

And see, THAT’S the sort of thing I think we still need to remember as adults. What it was like BEFORE that, when we weren’t socially pressured to PLEASE OTHER PEOPLE? That’s the bit of childhood I think girls need right now more than ever before. It was something that Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill worked with in their music, with references to childhood. Hell, the fact that the movement was Riot Grrrl and not Riot Woman or Riot Lady is pretty telling. Grrrl indicates young women, that there’s something powerful in being a young girl and it’s worth singing about.

But that’s not what’s being sold to us right now. Girlhood is being sold in the form of cosmetics and clothing, part of the “adult” requirements for female beauty. Once again, not saying there’s anything wrong or even anti-feminist in liking make-up and clothing, but if we’re looking to go back to before we were supposed to exist for other people, well, stuff that concentrates on our outward appearance and has traditionally been used as a tool to get male attention doesn’t seem like the right place to start.

Where IS the right place to start? I’m not going to claim I know. But I think what might be important is focusing on what those idols of our girlhoods meant to US. Not something material but on what kind of feelings you got. What were you busy imagining your Barbies doing (and hey, creativity and imagination, also things I think we need to encourage in all people)? How did you feel when you were watching She-Ra or Jem or Rainbow Brite? Am I dating myself here?

But that’s what I say we need to do. Get away from the “seeming” consumer idealization of our childhoods and move onto the “being” part: what we wanted to emmulate in our childhood heroines, what we dreamed of being when we grew up, what we did that led to use being told “you can’t do that, you’re a girl!” BUT WE DID IT ANYWAY.

And if any of those perfume companies happen to read this, I have one simple request. I’m not asking you to stop producing sweet scents for girls who want it, but for the rest of us, um, could we get a nice, floral-y scent that doesn’t resembled watermelon-and-hangover-vomit? Thanks.