Sex smells: Olfaction, modernity and the regulation of women’s bodies

Alecia Simmonds explores how the way women’s bodies smell has been regulated across time.

Is there anything more regulated than a woman’s body? Plucked, shaved, waxed, bleached, vajazzled, starved, toned, tanned, botoxed, implanted, pulled up, pushed out and underwired within an inch of its life, women’s bodies are subject to the most quotidian regimes of corporal torture. Take a stroll down the toiletries aisle of any supermarket and ask where the femfresh range is for smelly penises, or why only women need to have ‘baby-smooth,’ wrinkle-free skin. Why do women feel like they need to give themselves a monstrous trout pout, or paralyse and freeze their faces?

The Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 December 1935.

For me, this is not just a recent concern. Ever since I wore a wimmin’s collective Bonds Tee-Shirt that said ‘Patriarchy makes me narky’ for three years of my undergrad degree in the late 1990s the surveillance of women’s bodies has irked me. And it was while completing my honours year in history that I decided to inquire into a specific aspect of this regime: how women came to feel ashamed of the way they smell. I wanted to know when this happened, why it happened and who was responsible. I began my research in the belly of the beast: for three months I sat in the Mitchell Library reading women’s magazines from 1880-1940, scouring New Idea, Women’s Weekly, Women’s Daily Mirror and others. I read the beauty advice columns, I scanned the advertisements, I devoured the health and hygiene columns, and I came out the other side with a very clear picture of how corporations thrive in a consumer society. Five steps: 1) target the consumer (women) 2) create a fear specific to them; 3) give it a taboo name (i.e. B.O.) 4) establish intimacy with them 5) claim that your product is the only solution to the problem that nobody knew was a problem until you said that it was.

As I’ve argued in a recent article published in Australian Feminist Studies, the period 1880-1914 was interesting for the lack of vocabulary women appeared to have for their bodily odours. From 1880-1904 I found very few complaints to beauty advisors about underarm odour. Those who broached the subject complained of ‘excessive perspiration’ and the remedy consisted of taking three baths per week ‘with pine-cones’ (‘Medical Advice’, The New Idea, August 6, 1908). Because of the contemporary medical discourse’s preoccupation with the need for open skin pores, anything that could potentially interfere with this was seen as a threat to one’s health. As beauty advisor, Domina warned a woman in 1908, ‘Excessive perspiration may be somewhat modified, but it is dangerous remember, to actively interfere with the action of the skin, and prevent perspiring.’ (‘Medical Advice’, The New Idea, August 6, 1908).

At the time excessive perspiration was a condition that women could cure themselves without cost. The squeamish acronym ‘B.O.’ was yet to be invented, and so too was the medical nonsense ‘halitosis’ for bad breath. In 1905 Domina, a beauty columnist for The New Idea told a reader who had ‘offensive breath’ to simply ‘have a glass of mineral water every morning and wash your mouth out with myrrh and borax’ (‘The Gentle Art of Beauty’, February 6, 1905).  Similarly, the Tamrol toothpaste advertisements, which did not mention breath until 1908 (‘Tamrol Toothpaste’, The New Idea, April 6, 1908), had to battle against Domina prescribing more ‘inexpensive, pure and efficient’ ways of making your own toothpaste (‘The Gentle Art of Beauty’, May 6, 1903). By the 1920s, Domina had disappeared, as had the nineteenth-century virtues of thrift and the feminine ideal of ‘natural beauty’. In her place was a flurry of advertisements for store-bought commodities all carrying one clear message: women’s bodies harboured pungent disorders that jeopardised their newly-won place in the public sphere. They now needed to commit to a regime of self-invigilation aided by an artillery of deodorising commodities. In Mary Douglas’ words, women in public were ‘bodies out of place’ and smell was used to mark their alterity.

What can explain this change? It’s complicated, and please read the article for a more nuanced version, but here are a few factors: firstly, as I have intimated above, white women’s growing public freedoms and enfranchisement were accompanied by an expansion of their bodies into public space, be it at work, riding on trams or trains, playing sport, bicycling, dating in the new commodified leisure arenas (cinemas, skating rinks, dance halls etc.) or shopping in department stores. As female bodies came to occupy traditionally masculine spaces smell was invoked to police social divisions and to render them culturally intelligible. Secondly, federation saw the development of a national market as well as government funding of commercial infrastructure, while World War One stimulated a refinement of advertising techniques, which were used in the interwar period to sell women, in their role as consumers, the new commodities. Thirdly, and partly in consequence of the above, a new model of femininity emerged to replace the maternal ideal of the Victorian era. The ‘new woman’ of the interwar years was, in the words of Gail Reekie, ‘manifestly the outcome of consumer activity.’ Advertisements targeted women in their role as consumers, invoking images of modern female bodies that symbolised freedom and independence whilst simultaneously psychically imprisoning women within a disciplinary regime of self-surveillance. Finally, courtship shifted from being closely regulated by the family in the home to a being a ‘private act in a public world’ – be it through dancing or kissing, there was a rapidity of intimacy between women and men which meant that the senses assumed heightened significance. In advertisements for deodorant, pads or breath-fresheners, women were represented as objects of the all-smelling masculine nose as much as they were the objects of the male gaze.

Everylady’s Journal, 1 November 1937

How did corporations do this? Deodorant and breath-freshener companies claimed authority through invoking a medical voice, pathologising women’s bodies to suggest a cure which could only be bought. It was ‘physicians’ who recommended Odo-ro-no (‘Odo-Ro-No’, Australian Woman’s Mirror, December 13, 1938, 38) and ‘scientists’ who formulated Cashmere Bouquet (‘Cashmere Bouquet’, Australian Woman’s Mirror, May 7, 1929), offering remedies for unmentionable ailments that mysteriously arose from within. Deodorants also answered the concerns women voiced regarding the illnesses which could arise from blocked pores. A woman writing in to the ‘Health Advice’ section in Australian Woman’s Mirror in 1929 asserted that the closing of pores caused by deodorant was a cause of chills and that tar-soap and household vinegar were preferable (March 5, 1929). To answer concerns like these, ‘Non-Spi’ claimed that doctors recommended their product as it ‘simply sends perspiration to some other part of the body’ (‘Non-Spi’, Australian Woman’s Mirror, October 31, 1933). Odo-ro no also claimed in the late 1930s that it was able to divert perspiration to other more exposed parts of the body where it can evaporate unnoticed (‘Odo-ro-no’, Australian Woman’s Mirror, December 6, 1938).

It was not all odours that were deemed public pollutants, but specifically female odours that arose at puberty. They offended a 1920s infantile feminine ideal that had replaced the focus on maternal charm and grace of an earlier period. In the late 1920s and 1930s Johnson’s Baby Powder began marketing its product to women under the slogan ‘Best for Baby – Best for you.’ It claimed to ‘keep you free from perspiration odour’ (‘Johnson’s Baby Powder’, Australian Woman’s Mirror, June 20, 1935) and ensure that your scent was as youthful as your child’s. Similarly, menstrual odour, that ‘most trying hygienic handicap’ (‘Kez Sanitary Pads’, Australian Woman’s Mirror, January 29, 1929) was seen as an olfactory assault. Thus ‘Kez Sanitary Pads’ for instance, were ‘deodorised, sterilised and airidized’ and Dew suggested applying its deodorant product to the lining of one’s sanitary pad. (‘Dew’, Australian Woman’s Mirror, February 12, 1929) Clearly smelling like a sexless baby was preferable to smelling like a mature woman.

‘Maybreath’ was one of the first deodorising products to link the olfactory with intimacy. In 1924 they launched a series of advertisements that cast ‘fresh breath’ as the invisible leading role in romance narratives. They presented to the reader rather risqué images of women and men kissing, dancing and murmuring into each other’s ears. ‘Maybreath’ explained that it was their product that allowed such romantic scenarios to unfold. Further, that the information in the advertisement was privileged and confidential, for nobody else would tell you that bad breath was the central cause of romantic failures. ‘A whispered word, a kiss’, ran the advertisement, ‘what a world of difference your breath makes in enhancing the little thrills of life.’ (‘Maybreath’, Adam and Eve, June, 1926). Like other deodorant products they interwove this language of desire with a language of fear and coercion (see: eg. ‘Odo-ro-no’, Australian Woman’s Mirror, December 18 1928). In somewhat juridical terms Maybreath informed women that they could ‘offend’ or even be ‘guilty’ of bad breath, however could purchase ‘absolute immunity’ through their product.  Courtship was thus represented as a time when women would put their bodies on trial to be scrutinised and judged. Only through the purchase of a product like ‘Maybreath’ could they be guaranteed of a favourable verdict.

In regards to verdicts, one final thing I think younger scholars can learn with this article is how to deal with nasty reviews. As mentioned, I wrote it during my honours year way back before Whitlam was elected. Well, not really, but close. I received glowing praise from my lovely Professor and it won a prize. So I sent it off to the AFS – it was the very first thing I ever sent to be published. One reviewer wrote that it should be published immediately, the other reviewer butchered it with a blood-soaked scythe. The editor at the time said that I shouldn’t worry too much and that there wasn’t that much work that needed to be done, but I of course burst into tears, flung it on the floor and took to bed with nerves. Many years later I found myself very happily employed in a law faculty and while thinking about nuisance law as a way of legally regulating the senses, my mind drifted back to the article. I pulled it out of the top drawer along with the nasty reviewers’ comments and saw that they actually weren’t that bad after all. In fact, they were incredibly useful. Years of writing columns had probably given me some scar-tissue, but I think mostly I benefitted from distance and had developed a more mature approach to reading criticism. When I sent it off to be published the second time, the same reviewer offered similar criticisms. I now did what I should always have done: I underlined and numbered the important points that I wanted to address and change; I explained to the editors why I disagreed with the others; I did the additional research and writing and came out with a much better article than the original.

Dr Alecia Simmonds is a lecturer in law at the University of Technology Sydney and a lecturer in cultural history at NYU-Sydney.

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