I discovered Stephen Colbert in a somewhat unlikely manner: it was in a required graduate class, “Critical Theory”, during which my professor invoked Colbert´s signature word, “Truthiness”. Mind you, this was in the middle of countless invocations of Freud, Nietzsche, Kant, Foucault, and Derrida; enough philosophical jargon to simultaneously curl your hair and short-circuit your brain. Being the “mature” student and feeling the need to set an example for my younger classmates, in addition to being a shameless academic butt-kisser, I watched my first episode of “The Colbert Report” that night, and have been glued to it and “The Daily Show” ever since. Both have been a balm to my tortured American soul, especially now when they poke fun at that country north of the 49th parallel – you remember; the one where I am persona non grata.
About two weeks ago, Colbert´s “WORD” was “The Sweet Smell of Success”. Apparently, there was a study done at the University of Liverpool involving men who did not shower for two days, and men who were wearing Axe body spray (known as Lynx in the UK). Women were asked their opinions of these men, not from having smelled them in person, but by viewing them on video tape. The results of the study showed that the women picked – just from viewing, not from smelling – the men wearing Axe body spray. The conclusion was that the Axe men projected more confidence. In typical “Stephen Colbert” fashion, Stephen Colbert found a few interesting things to relate to this study. He pretended to huff some Axe out of a brown paper bag claiming that it was “just like huffing money”, proceeded to spray it on a U.S. Treasury bill, and claimed that Axe could be used to deodorize bad debt to make it more attractive to fund managers. Lastly, he sprayed a healthy blast of Axe in the direction of his audience, saying that it would give the American people, and our downtrodden economy, a much-needed boost of confidence. The irony of the whole bit is that Axe stinks to high heaven, and all it really does is deodorize crap, preventing us from sniffing out what´s really going on.
Seeing this segment got me thinking about what all this really means. I went in search of the study and ferreted out the details on the website cosmeticsdesign.com. Here are some of the findings:
- The research suggests that the effect may not rely on the sense of smell of those around the individual. Rather, the secret seems to lie in the increased confidence that the product gives to the wearer, who will then appear more attractive to others.
- The study involved 35 heterosexual male volunteers, half of whom were assigned a commercially available deodorant product. The other half of the study group were assigned the same product but without the active fragrance and deodorant ingredients.
- Questionnaires were used to estimate the men´s self confidence and self-perceived attractiveness before any product had been applied, 15 minutes after the first product application and then after 48 hours of use during which the volunteers substituted the test deodorant for their normal and did not wash.
- After two days the volunteers recorded a short video introduction which was then rated for attractiveness and confidence by a panel of female participants. In this way the panelists never smell the volunteers and attractiveness is judged solely on appearance.
Coincidentally, I was reading the latest novel by author Siri Hustvedt, “The Sorrows of an American”, when this episode of “The Colbert Report” aired. In it, the main character, Erik Davidsen, a psychoanalyst, judges several secondary female characters by their individual scents. Although Erik Davidsen is a fictional character and the people who took part in the Axe/Lynx experiment are real people in the real world, it is still a conundrum worth grappling with: is it fair to judge others only by appearance or only by their scent? Am I guilty of this? Are you guilty of this? In the words of a public figure whose meteoric rise and swift decline some of us watched with clenched teeth and fists, “You betcha!”
Personally, I feel that certain scents can be capable of covering up dirty little secrets. Blasting the Axe or applying half a stick of deodorant in an attempt to cover up our unwashed muskiness is pretty lame, but necessary on occasion. To do it regularly is just plain wrong, especially if one has to interact with others. But, who among us has worn a scent in the hope that it will project a different side of us, someone we are not entirely comfortable being, and ultimately, to instill confidence? I´ve done it, you´ve done it, and I´m sure Caribou Barbie has done it. I hear she´s partial to coyote musk and moose dung, er, chili.
There is a segment of my scent collection that is quite capable of masking a multitude of neuroses. I have numerous decants and several bottles that don´t see the light of day very often, but there have been specific occasions when their presence is appropriate if not absolutely necessary. I find I gravitate towards big, bold florals when I attend weddings. I wore Frederic Malle´s Carnal Flower and Donna Karan Gold eau de parfum to the last two weddings I went to. If men are in suits and women dug the good jewelry out of the sock drawer and are carrying purses the size of postage stamps, I feel the need to conform; even if I´d rather be home sporting sweats, curled up in my favorite chair with a book and a mug of tea. Then there was my failed Mitsouko attempt at Bergdorf Goodman last spring. It wasn´t going to work no matter what the outfit or setting. And I am totally fine with that. Maybe we don´t identify with every scent we wear, but we do owe it to ourselves to be honest about what we love, and what we are willing to put up with. But, how much do we really care about what others think? I´ve never worn fragrance to a job interview or to classes during my later-in-life tenure as a student. I just felt it was inappropriate. However, I do wear fragrance around those members of my family and friends who know how much I love it. My best friend refers to me as the “Stinkwater Queen” regardless of what I wear, and her husband has made several less than diplomatic remarks over the years about my choice of scent. I don´t care.
When it comes to masking the stench of what´s wrong, either with ourselves, or what collectively ails us, we eventually need to come clean. Axe, Lynx or any other eau will always wear off, leaving us right back at square one. We need to get past the “Truthiness” in order to uncover the truth. And that´s the WORD…
UPDATE FROM MARCH: okay, maybe it’s my sinuses aggravating me, or the phase of the moon, or the sound of the dog barking endlessly across the street, but I’m pulling the plug on this post. Full disclosure: I had to reread this post three times to see what people were upset about, which I guess says something about my own sensitivities, or lack thereof. At any rate, I am, for the first time ever, turning off comments, and I have asked our bloggers to leave out any further references to politics, because I really, really hate moderating comments. Sorry for the dustup.