Scent of a woman

I was staying in a bungalow with some friends when one of them picked up my deodorant and asked me: “Is this yours?” “Yes,” I said.

“But it says ‘for men’,” she persisted.

“I like how it smells,” I answered. “And that’s why I bought it.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” my girlfriend added. “If you would design a deodorant for men, you might want to choose a smell that appeals to women.”

I smiled, because I never looked at it that way. But I must admit it has crossed my mind that our sense of smell is the most direct way to access the parts of our brain that are the oldest, in an evolutionary sense. Right above our noses, we find the olfactory lobe and this part of our brains controls many animal activities that involve the sense of smell: gathering food, courtship, mating and warning of predators. We often aren’t conscious of what we smell, but these subliminal processes can have subtle effects on our thoughts, preferences and behaviours. I would not be surprised if it was possible to subtly warn people that I am not to be trifled with, just by choosing my deodorant wisely.

Olfactory nerve, by Patrick J. Lynch [CC-BY-2.5 (]

Olfactory nerve, by Patrick J. Lynch [CC-BY-2.5 (

Sex change

I think my brain would feel perfectly at home in a male body. I cannot know this, because I never tried. (I would do so in a heartbeat if it could be done painless, temporary and perfectly convincing!) I recently read an article by Dutch writer and philosopher Marjolein Februari. She had a sex change and now calls himself Maxim. In the newspaper, he says it will be business as usual:

“I would like to announce a small increase in price, though. A man would expect to make at least 18% more than a woman makes when doing the exact same work.”

Maxim felt herself to be a man inside a woman’s body. It makes perfect sense that he decided that from now on he wants to look the way he feels.

Unidentified woman, by Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain]

Unidentified woman, by Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain]

Apart from that, Februari struggled being a woman, a lesbian and a writer. She recalls how a publisher contacted her and mentioned:

“For the next issue, we have invited some women writers and some normal writers.”

Just like I assume it ‘helps’ to be a Jew to develop a personal radar for the more subtle expressions of anti-Semitism, I think you have to be a woman to really feel the many ways in which we are not considered equals. Not in Western Europe and nowhere else. Sexchange or not, Maxim Februari knows he will never be a normal writer. In addition, he now has to turn down lots of invitations to appear on television and tell us all how it feels to grow a beard.

double standards

There is a difference between not receiving equal pay and being the subject of outright misogyny.

“When a woman has scholarly inclinations there is usually something wrong with her sexuality.” Nietzsche

This is a perfect example of double standards; a biased, morally unfair suspension of the principle that all are equal in their freedoms. It’s fine to be a scholar if you are a man, but if a woman is so inclined, there must be something wrong with her. I would say in this particular instance, there is an implicit warning: “If you do express such inclinations, remember we (the people that matter) will know there is something wrong with you.”

Woman reading, by Kuroda Seiki [Public domain]

Woman reading, by Kuroda Seiki [Public domain]

We all know that scholarly women are sexless. They have outdated hairstyles and wear frumpy clothes. Or they are old-style lesbians hidden in the attics of academe, where they are condemned to forever drink sherry in the company of more than one cat. The deeply disturbing part is, that you could say this to any woman and thus entice her to wear something different tomorrow. Double standards are a great way to make people feel insecure. Let me quote a man on that:

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing – they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

This is a quote from the first part of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, called “Moab is my washpot.” It’s an entertaining read, but at times I found it chilling to experience the desperate loneliness of an eight-year old boy at boarding school, being forever different from everyone else and feeling different, in the most shameful, unhealthy way. You really don’t have to be a woman to be unhappy!

You might have already spotted where I’m going with this. Fry was lonely, but not as lonely as Nietzsche. Maybe I should spend some time thinking up an aphorism on that.

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
This entry was posted in LBGT issues, sceptic, science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Scent of a woman

  1. sv says:

    Make me think . nietzsche was speaking from an inferiority complex stemming from the superior knowledge / rebuff of a scholarly woman.

    • Thank you for your comment, sv! I am always happy to hear that something I have written makes someone else think…On Nietzsche: there will be more in the next post. 🙂

  2. john zande says:

    I am officially in awe at your ability to write so effectively on such a broad pallet of subjects.

  3. violetwisp says:

    Another great post! Although I’m disappointed you didn’t delve into smell for longer, it’s a seriously underrated sense. I’m attracted to anyone wearing smells that set my hormones off, which can cause considerable confusion for me until I realise what’s going on. I keep meaning to do a post on it, but there doesn’t seem anywhere sensible to take it. Do you notice any sexism in the blogging community or do you think the lack of physical presence kills that tendency?

    • I would really like to see you blog on the sense of smell 😉 And I do agree it’s an interesting subject. As is the question on sexism in the blogging community. I would relate that to what I am used to from other communities (technical diving, living in Asia and in South America). When I do that, I am surprised and delighted to see more than one male blogger who has explicitly commented on female equality. I don’t know if the lack of physical presence has anything to do with it. Maybe it does. What are your experiences when it comes to sexism?

      • violetwisp says:

        I don’t know how much sexism is there is, but I do feel explicitly boxed as a ‘female blogger’ when my gender is made clear, and obviously that affects some of the tone of interaction. But I don’t know how specific that is to gender, how much I myself do it, and how much it’s inevitable that we build a picture of someone in our mind and respond to them as we would any person in the flesh. When I come against overt expressions of sexism (usually religious) I always challenge them and am clear about reasons. I think that’s the only way you can hope to change anyone’s overt or subconscious discriminatory views. I’d be a foolish coward to accuse then hide. 😉

        • Thank you for your comment, Violetwisp! I have not come across any overt expressions of sexism yet. But I usually just read blogs that interest me. I do consciously try to be open about these matters, like in this post. In that sense I think I do advertise myself as a ‘female blogger’ in an explicit way. So far, I have not gotten any negative reactions on what I write. But, again, I don’t explicitly invite contrary opinions. 🙂

  4. The very first comment by “sv” is an, unfortunately all-too-common, example of someone completely missing the point Nietzsche was trying to make with his sometimes apparently misogynistic aphorisms. Which admittedly is an easy mistake to make. Using something along the lines of Freudian psychology to interpret Nietzsche’s underlying motives is an attempt bound to fail more often than not, given that Freud appropriated many of his insights from Nietzsche. Alas, I have neither the time nor the inclination to go much further into this right here, right now. My apologies for that digression.

    This has been a thoroughly enjoyable read which made me chuckle more than once. There is so much in your lines, that one could easily miss what is between them. Greetings from one whose radar is in perfect working condition on account of regular maintenance. (That’s an “inside joke”)

    “One does not only wish to be understood when one writes; one wishes just as surely not to be understood.” Nietzsche

    • I’m happy to have you mention the way Nietzsche influenced Freud. I’ve only read about that very recently and I think it is quite interesting. I am in no doubt that Nietzsche was a shrewd psychologist. Point taken on the inside joke. 🙂 I can agree with Nietzsche’s quote for 100%.

      • As far as Nietzsche’s attitude towards women is concerned, allow me to refer you to pages 157-159 of Genius of the Heart — Charlie has an interesting interpretation to share, surely one of the more sensible analyses of Nietzschean misogynism.

  5. I meant the “oops” comment! NO, please don’t remove our inside joke! It’s, of course, totally up to you either way!

  6. smilecalm says:

    being a man is no bed of roses. but future lifetimes offer limitless potential. may you enjoy the smell of spring!

  7. First off, this is an excellent and thought provoking post, for me at least. When I follow that provoked thought, I get lost very quickly. If I strip our sex from the physical bits and the socially conditioned stereotypes and associated behaviors and bias, what am I left with? Is there still a man or a woman in there? I am not sure that I know but I’m inclined to say, no. But neither is it neutral. There is no conundrum, we must be both, even if we might prefer to deny that. What is sad is that our dual sex nature ought to put man and woman on a par in all respects, but doesn’t. I am not qualified to quote Nietzsche or Freud but it seems to me that the sexism you write about – and I suspect I am stating the obvious ‘duh’ – is nothing but an expression of fervent denial that underneath a man is as much as woman and a woman a man. Sexism then, is a overt admission of self-denial and/or insecurity. But frankly, I’m not sure about any of this. 😕

    • Well, that is my main point, genetic fractals. If there is one thing I wanted to say with this post, it’s that I feel that a woman is a man and therefore, I might assume a man to be a woman too. That is what might become apparent when you leave all confusion behind. As always, you have found an intuitive and yet a remarkably clear way to express that. Like you said, the rest of it could be just stereotypes, conditioning and bias. What you write gives me ideas on possible other posts, maybe even ways to explore this further. Thank you very much for your comment! 🙂

  8. I have two teenagers under my roof and am witness to the tensions between psych, society and sexuality, not to mention stereotypes, bias and conditioning. It’s a right battlefield! Looking forward to your further exploration LivelySceptic.

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