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One day, when I was 15, my uncle caught a whiff of me as I made my way out the door.
“Eh! You mahu or what?” he half-joked, using the Hawaiian pidgin slang for an effeminate man. A failed man. I was hurt; the very thing I had employed to protect myself ended up exposing me instead. Beneath that, I thrilled in the power of being seen.
I did gender like many teenage boys, by smothering my awkwardly pubescent body in cologne and waging warfare on the nasal passages of anyone in my general vicinity. Though citrus-heavy, my chosen man-potion’s sandalwood base lent a fist pump of masculinity I desperately wanted. The scent was Calvin Klein’s Crave. It smelled like the first day of summer, frivolous and free and humming with top notes of bergamot and starfish. It was the first cologne I ever owned and I felt like Calvin created it just for me.
Since then, I’ve had romances with many different colognes under the assumption that I was inching towards my final form: a signature scent.
There was my eighth grade affair with Davidoff Cool Water — seemingly the only scent for men — which I would sneak from my father’s icy blue bottle next to his open can of shaving cream, dabbing the aggressively masculine base notes of cedarwood and tobacco on my neck and wrists in a pantomime of the glamorous women I saw on my grandmother’s daytime soaps.
After my stint with Crave, age 16 would flutter with Chanel’s Allure Homme Sport, because No Homo, but it was also what I smelled like when I kissed my first boy, on a moonlit beach. 17 reeked of Thierry Mugler’s Angel for Men, a distinctly patchouli-heavy odor infused with middle notes of mint and lavender, whose crooked-star-emblazoned bottle seemed the ultimate symbol of my queer acceptance. Next was my predictable tryst with Giorgio Armani’s Acqua di Gio — he gets around — whose citrusy musk somehow captured precisely how every 18-year-old boy from Hawaii to Maine thought he should smell. And then throughout my 20s, L'Eau D'Issey Pour Homme by Issey Miyake, whose top note of yuzu seemed like a tepid way of expressing my ethnic background.
What unified these very different scents was how they captured the contradictions of how a man was supposed to smell: brawny but sensitive, uniform but free, and above all, masculine. Each possessed the toxicity of male expectation, boasting muscular base notes intended to stomp out my inner mahu. And each seemed uniquely qualified to reflect the person I hoped to become.
Today, I’m more interested in smelling like a range of my different selves rather than the concept of manhood as presented by a famous fashion designer. That means relying on essential oils, which I can mix and match at will. I have around thirty, and in their various combinations they allow me to to honor the spontaneity of containing multitudes. That means accessing my masculine and my feminine, authoring my own set of contradictions, and recontextualizing these former versions of myself I once clung to.
On some mornings, prodded by uncertainty, I reach for the earthiness of cedarwood. By night that could switch to the calming pine of frankincense, the nostalgic shock of peppermint, or the pastoral ease of palmarosa. I go through phases, week-long attachments to the comforts of clary sage, clove bud, or pine that feel inextricable from my being. I’ve floated on a lavender cloud for a month. And in flashes of exuberance, a combination of grapefruit, ylang ylang, and bergamot helps me reclaim that Crave-scented first day of summer — and, by extension, the mahu in me.
I drop my chosen self into a diffuser and rub a few drops into my belly button, like a New Age Pillsbury Doughboy, minus the giggle. People wiser than me tell me that my naval connects to my third chakra, our ayurvedic center for purpose and identity, but mostly I like how that tiny reservoir cradles the oil. How I’m poking my gut. How I make contact with an often-ignored part of my body. Sometimes I also dab oil on my mustache, the doormat to my brain’s limbic system, responsible for processing our emotions and memories.
If this all sounds terribly rarefied to you, cloaked in Moon Dust and embossed in crystals, I should tell you that I am not a certified aromatherapist. Nor do I come from a lineage of shamans steeped in this holistic, plant-based medicine spanning millennia. Around four years ago I bought a diffuser because I saw a DJ use one as a prop during his set at a Chinatown nightclub and thought it would be fun to smell flavored air through a smoke machine. (In case you were wondering, it is.)
My self-taught fascination grew from there. Essential oils are concentrated liquids containing the essence of plants — meaning flowers, woods, seeds, peels, and leaves — that allegedly possess powerful medicinal properties. They come packaged in little glass vials and can be found in most health food stores, like Whole Foods, within a broad price range; lemon will cost you around $4, while sandalwood hovers around $60 a bottle. The bottles advertise what the oil’s intended effects are — Revitalizing, Balancing, Meditation — as well as potential combinations that unlock entirely new scents.
The rest is similar to cooking. You experiment with ingredients. You realize what makes you cringe and what urges you to feel like a better version of yourself. You apply different techniques: Sometimes it’s the subtle pick-me-up of wafting an open bottle of lavender under your nose, and other times it’s declaring yourself through a full-body sandalwood submersion. You unveil memory associations — why does ylang ylang make me think of Mrs. Yonehara, my fifth grade art teacher? Why does cypress remind me of that cute Australian boy I met in London? You develop aversions and attractions. You uncover your nostrils’ palate. You play.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my initial reliance on essential oils dovetailed with a tumultuous year. Politics aside, I was in the midst of my Saturn Returns, astrology speak for “I’m a 29-year-old in Brooklyn living with the irrational sensation that the ground beneath me is getting ready to crumble.” I quit my day job. I questioned my “purpose,” usually while drunk. I downward-facing-dogged, flipped tarot cards, and sat in the lotus position observing the way my in and out breath grazed the hair follicles in my nostrils.
I came to understand self-care beyond its mere hashtag, and each morning, it was through this vague but dominant uncertainty that choosing an oil became my tiny way of checking in with myself, illuminating my interior world through the nuances of smell. As we emerge into the shakiness of 2017, this dedication seems even more essential.