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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The scent of a man

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This piece was published in the Mail & Guardian on Thursday, 15 August, 2015

The Mouille Point beachfront in Cape Town is a special place, the haunt of walkers, joggers, dog lovers and tourists. All have a stake in its often breathtaking beauty. On a clear, breezy day, inhaling the unmatched ozone in the air is pure joy. In winter, rain scours the air and the clammy mystery of a white-out fog makes Robben Island an illusion, lurking like a shark underwater.

Those who appreciate this once spurned stepchild of the Cape Town oceanfront are accustomed to the buffeting southeasters which transport pollution to other climes; and even on hot summer days, when the reek of sewage and doggy bins sours the salt and by night diesel from shipping hangs listless on the horizon, the beachfront remains unique.

These odours and more are well known to me, so it was a surprise on a recent genteel jog to be enveloped in chemistry so powerful and odoriferous that the effect was toxic. The smell burned and clung in my nostrils and infiltrated my lungs.

This invasive odour emanated from a young man I had passed some 20 metres back. The reek was of a fragrance counter at an airport, a harsh amalgam of musk and chemicals that made me wonder if he could smell himself.

What I could smell was the dynamic science of marketing. According to research, sales of men’s fragrances grew faster than women’s in 2014. Market researcher Mintel claims that 55 percent of men wear cologne. A staff member of a fragrance department says men aged 18 to 34 love to wear expensive perfume, the more expensive, the better; perfume is essential for male grooming – gone are the days of buying some pleasant aftershave that disappears (to the wearer) after about 20 minutes.

A pity. A subtle fragrance won’t overpower anyone near you. I’ve always believed that men smelling up a lift, which I find repellent, won’t turn other women on. It turns out I’m right – and wrong.

I spoke to a selection of mostly younger women about male perfumes. “I like a guy to smell of himself,” said Lisa. “My sense of smell is probably my best, and every guy I’ve gone out with has smelt different to me.” She prefers her men straight out of the shower, or fresh from a jog. A little sweat, she says, works for her. A guy friend uses very expensive men’s fragrances. “He hugs me whenever we meet and I stink of the stuff for the entire evening. Really not a turn-on.”

Jean finds men who wear fragrances a big turn-on. “My boyfriend uses male fragrances, but I like it best when he uses a dab of my perfume. It smells completely unlike how it smells on me. On me its vanilla, on him honey and a touch of cigar. Very sexy!”

The manufacturers of male fragrances know their target market and make much of the fact that men produce more sweat which, they claim, makes them more self-conscious. But according to David M Pariser, an American dermatologist who is also a founding member of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, a group for people affected by excessive sweating, sweat doesn’t necessarily mean men smell worse. The sweat that can be measured, he says, is a watery, heat-induced type that has no smell. Both men and women produce odorous sweat, which is oilier and comes from the apocrine sweat glands, mainly under the breast, at the groin and at the armpits. The reason the odour of this sweat intensifies during hot weather is due to bacteria and yeast that flourish in these areas of the body in muggy conditions.

More illuminating is research on the psychological effects of the use of perfume on men. Such research suggests that men wearing a commercial fragrance demonstrate increased self-confidence. The effect of this is that women find them more attractive; rather than the perfume itself, it is this heightened confidence that works for them.

For Unilever and other manufacturers of men’s scent, this is an important discovery. They attribute the increased appreciation on the part of women to the so-called “Lynx Effect” (from a deodorant called Lynx) which makes men irresistible to women, and have stepped up their marketing accordingly.

People use perfume is to mask body odours they perceive as bad, but also in the belief that some perfumes contain chemicals that mimic human pheromones – mysterious, and possibly mythical, substances believed by some to play a role in mating. Some use it to fortify natural scent, thereby signalling sexual availability.

Every individual has his or her own smell. The sexes smell different. Women can glean information about a man’s social status from his smell alone. I spoke to women who believe men wear perfume to disguise their status in the same way a man might drive a fancy car he cannot afford in order to impress.

Research on women’s choices of fragrance indicates that women don’t choose the kind of smell they would like on a partner, or one that might mask an unpleasant odour, but rather something that reminds them of their own scent. Men who choose to wear overpowering male fragrances in the hope of attracting women might do well to bear this in mind.

Us and ThemRosemund Handler’s most recent book is Us and Them

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Image courtesy of Freeimages

 

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