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In my time perfume hunting, the smells I gravitate to have often been conceptualized around the most repulsive ideas: Comme des Garcons ode to Tar, Tom Ford’s take on cocaine with Tuscan Leather, D.S. & Durga’s perfume based on death cult rituals. When my system is so shocked by the opener of a perfume, I’m forced to stop to examine it like a sensory car crash — watch it unfold in glorious detail, to examine the remains and smoke and ruin. A truly interesting perfume teaches you the invisible textures of the world, forces you to think in multitudes.
So when I was given the offer of testing the power of personal scent — most importantly, to have the power to control it taken away from me and see what I’d lost: of course I said yes.
People treat you differently when you wear just the right smell — and they’ll critique you if and when you lack it. There are corporate bylaws regarding perfume, so ingrained it has become in our approach to professionalism. Perfumery is a prejudice that provides you a modicum of control.
So when I was given the offer of testing the power of personal scent — most importantly, to have the power to control it taken away from me and see what I’d lost: of course I said yes. I mean, duh. When I came across smell.dating, I wasted no time signing up.
Smell.dating is supposedly the first mail-odor dating service; Tinder but for fumeheads like me, who find the concept of your smell more interesting than an incredibly pre-planned profile.
Given that I have a spectacularly depressing success rate of matches vs actual communication on Tinder, I figured nothing could really be worse than what is already uneventful. So yes, I followed the rules. For smell.dating, they require of you a few things:
1. Spend $25 on a shirt to participate in the experiment (Statistically how much I would probably spend on a drinks on a night out, if I had to meet people that way)
2. Wear the shirt they send for three days straight (perfect for me, a garbage human who wears outfits for days at a time regardless)
3. Without perfume (quietly groans)
4. Without deodorant (internally screams)
5. Send it back that way
6. Smell the samples of shirts they send back and pick your matches
7. Get matched with someone (maybe) and the rest is up to you. (Screams again)
I sent in the money and promptly forgot about it until I got the shirt in the mail. And then, the horror kicked in — the plotting. How can I trick this system the way I do Tinder? There’s not artful selection of profile photos that show you’re hot, but also chill, that you have hot friends (but nobody way hotter than you because this is your profile not theirs) and love to travel — but totally aren’t one of those douchebags who takes a picture on an elephant or with a drugged tiger or is still super stoked about that group trip to the Great Wall of China.
Whoever smells your shirt won’t see anything at all that you can control. The rules are different here. They even say so on the site: "Smell dating delivers you from prejudicial cultural images that interfere with the ancient cues of attraction. At the same time, a growing body of research suggests that a person's genetic compatibility, gender, age, and predisposition to illness are reflected in their "smell signature." Even in blinded experiments, subjects' smell preferences align broadly with their sexual desires."
So my questions then inevitably became: how do I hack this shirt to make sure everyone who smells me falls in love with me? Before I started, I thought having my control over scent taken away from me would be fun, but now I realized that it was actually terrifying and vulnerable in ways I hadn’t bargained for. Without perfume to guide my invisible persona, whoever smelled my shirt might actually see how fucking boring my life is from day to day. I don’t wake up and smell like burning forests and dryads and gold — I pay my way into that illusion. Without it, I often don’t feel interesting at all. What would I be without it? Who would look at me without it? What if this experiment just proved my deepest fear: that I am utterly unremarkable?
I tried to coordinate my schedule for the day into one of sensory pleasures that would rub off on the shirt.
On my first day wearing the shirt, I bucked the rules entirely. I wore jasmine scented all natural deodorant and sprayed my favorite perfume in the air of my room and walked around the scent plume — I wasn’t wearing it, so to speak, but if a few molecules dropped on the cotton then IT WAS MERELY A COINCIDENCE, YOUR HONOR. I made scones for breakfast, leaned against the counter to get close to the herbs as they baked.
I tried to coordinate my schedule for the day into one of sensory pleasures that would rub off on the shirt. I fantasized about hanging around my favorite bakery when they were making fresh bread and cannolis, I planned to stand outside a laundromat for two minutes to try to absorb the smell of fresh laundry. I wanted to walk through every bodega flower market and lean into every jasmine and gardenia, no matter how drunken and shriveled they were from sidewalk neglect. I plotted to eat nothing too pungent or messy so whoever got my shirt wouldn’t get hot sauce stains and judge me as a slob. I scheduled yoga instead of cycling, so I wouldn’t get the shirt super grossly pungent from the fear-sweat and rage-crying.
In short, the first day I was a neurotic asshole. Also, none of those aromatic activities actually ended up happening, because I was too busy doing unavoidable errands such as talking to my therapist and answering work emails.
I knew that there was some science to back up the idea that hey, I might smell weird, but I smell weird-good to at least one other person in the world.
The second and third day were more honest. I realized I couldn’t fake my way out of it into becoming a naturally beautifully smelling human being — I just didn’t have the time! And, more seriously: that isn’t the kind of person I’m attracted to anyway. My first crush smelled unfortunately of mildew but I couldn’t keep my hands off him, so who am I to put reason over attraction?
In my own research into the reality of pheromones and perfumes, I knew that there was some science to back up the idea that hey, I might smell weird, but I smell weird-good to at least one other person in the world, and surely I am not so hideous as to cause them to not want to make out with me. If the sexiest smell in the world (musk) originally came from musk deer testicles, surely I cannot possibly smell worse than any testicle, deer or not. Speaking from experience, I definitely smell better than testicles I’ve still ended up interested in.
So, you know, I chilled out. I lived my life.
I cooked my favorite things with my average amount of neurosis; I wove the smell of garlic and ginger and soy sauce into the shirt because those are ingredients I use every day, I pressed the smell of a gigantic Dominican bakery baguette into the shirt because I truly love bread so much that I hug it regularly. I imbued it with leather because I wear leather jackets all the time, and their collars are naturally always mixed in Tom Ford perfumes. I wore it to yoga. I got it sweaty and took it off to drown in the vetiver incense of the room. When I sent it back to be matched, I sighed because it didn’t smell like anything in particular to me, because I am so used to those smells in the room. But it couldn’t be helped. I didn’t have anything to lose.
And then my 10 potential matches came, in little dime bags with sharpied numbers. And so, freshly showered and away from the smells of my kitchen, my cat, or my wardrobe, I stuffed my face in the smell of strangers shirts, and took notes on each one.
Here are my field notes:
38 smelled comforting but I can't tell if it's because it smells like a shirt or comforting because someone comforting wore it. Instinct tells me it's a man. [I did not match with them.]
9 smelled sexier and a little spicy but also frightened me a little? That’s exciting to me. I ended up liking them the most. We’re all drawn to what we’re most afraid of. [I did match with them.]
90 smelled liked someone actually lived in it, and weren’t afraid, like I was. I smothered my face in it and imagined where all that life came from. It didn’t smell like sex, but labor. Which is sexy. (Sex smell would have been totally fine, too.)
The next two smell very similar to me — workout sweat of salt and musk. Did they attend the same soul cycle class or something? I could hardly tell them apart. The other three smelled variously of comforting cotton, grass…. Skin. I wasn’t as fascinated with them as the other, but I didn’t dislike them, so I was open to learning more. When I return to them, I can smell a flower, rain water, a back. But it’s all fleeting and ephemeral, like trying to catch a ghost.
I matched with 7 people immediately — I don’t remember clicking "yes" to meeting 7, just 3, but I am less upset and more curious about this fluke in the algorithm. This is a sense of victory Tinder has seldom given me. Rather than feeling uninteresting I felt wanted. Now it’s up to me again to see what happens next. Maybe nothing? I matched with two of the three people I was really curious about and matched with people I revisited. I reverse google’d the ones I could and eliminated some from the blandness of their instagrams (I’m shallow). Looking them up illuminated an entirely new profile around their shirt samples.
It’s already proven to be so much more interesting than other cruising mediums I’ve tried.
In any case — I emailed three or four of the people I matched with. I have some dates set up right now, including a second one (longboarding, if you’re curious, which you are). Smell.dating is already more fruitful than my experience with Tinder or Bumble. Do I consider this service my foolproof ticket to wifedom? Absolutely not. But it’s already proven to be so much more interesting than other cruising mediums I’ve tried.
Serge Lutens, a popular perfumer, describes perfume as "a choice, a weapon, a courteous gesture." Smell.dating took this weapon from me and made me examine why I felt I needed it so much, and then dared me to use scent itself more intimiately and with kindness. Without pretense, without real control. I’d forgotten that was a possibility with beauty for awhile, there: that it can in fact give you second chances, that maybe being stripped of your weapons is what you might need or want. That you can choose to be vulnerable. That you can be kind. That an invisible weapon can also be a courteous gesture. That beauty can, has always been, both.