The scene usually goes something like this: I’m in a mall or a department store. I hold up a perfume, body spray, or otherwise scented daily use item, and ask the person with me (usually my girlfriend, sometimes a friend) “Does this smell nice? Can you try to describe what it smells like? Is it strong, weak, or medium? Does it overpower you?”
Sometimes, my shopping partner will say “This smells like holiday cookies. I wouldn’t get it.”
“But I like cookies,” I’ll respond. “What’s wrong with that?” Then they will try to explain to me that while the smell of cookies baking is delicious, it’s not necessarily how you want to smell every day. I can never completely understand, but I take their word for it.
As we’re leaving, I try to avoid the salespeople at the perfume counters who are holding out samples. “No, thank you,” I say to them as we pass, because I don’t have time to get into detail about the fact that I have no sense of smell and a perfume sample is wasted on me. Sometimes I feel like responding with “Thank you, but I can’t smell,” just to watch their eyebrows go up before they stare after me, wondering where that transaction went so wrong.
I was born with inherited congenital anosmia, which means that I’ve never had a sense of smell, a trait that I got from my mom. Basically, our anosmia is harmless, and there’s no known cause. Unlike visual and hearing impairments, anosmia isn’t well known, so the most common response I get when I tell people is “That’s possible?” followed by “Does that mean you can’t taste food?” I usually reply “Of course I can taste. Why do you think I ate so much pizza as a kid?”
For many years, I lied about my lack of sense of smell to everyone outside my immediate family. In some ways, it wasn’t so bad; as a kid, I was never a victim of “if you smelt it, you dealt it,” although I’d have a slightly delayed reaction when someone asked if anyone else smelled smoke. But the worst part was that I never had a clue about how I smelled. Did I put on enough deodorant to last the entire day? Was my body spray effective, or did people hate it? Did I have naturally bad body odor, or was I fortunate not to worry about that? These weren’t questions my mom could answer, so it was mainly trial-and-error: If a friend had the guts to tell me I needed to reapply my body spray, I was eternally grateful, and if someone complimented my scent, I stocked up on the perfume and used it daily.
Before I told the truth about my anosmia, I did a lot of pretending. Holidays were the worst, because I’d inevitably be gifted a bunch of scented items, like shampoo, body wash, and perfume, and I’d have to open every one, take a big whiff, and pretend to love it. I appreciated not having to buy my own, but I had no idea if my friends and relatives had good taste in their choices.
Even when I’ve developed trust in someone else’s scent choices for me, like I have with my girlfriend, it feels strange to have no opinion of my own. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fiercely independent about my sense of style. Everything about me, from my pointed glitter shoes to my bow headbands to my polka-dot dresses, is carefully chosen to reflect who I am, and nobody else has a say. My scent is the only thing about me that I don’t get to choose. Now that I’m honest with my friends and my girlfriend about my anosmia, they have to help me decide how my body smells, which is a big part of how other people see me. How I smell is a part of an instant judgment that strangers make when we meet, and yet it’s the only part of my reputation that’s completely out of my control. The people in my life could be pairing my feminine, funky sense of style with a businesslike, tight-laced scent or a crunchy hipster musk, and I’d never know the difference.
As far as problems go, I’ll admit it: I’m more worried that I won’t smell a gas leak in my apartment than I am that a professional contact will see me in an unplanned light, but it still leaves me uneasy. In a world where we have so little control over first impressions, I’d like to know that I don’t smell like cookies baking in the oven. Or maybe that’s exactly the smell I would choose. I’ll never know.