3 Versions of Myself I Access Through Fragrances

“John Varvatos” by John Varvatos

I am a cisgender woman, but it is just not that simple. Gender never is.

In high school, I used to describe my eclectic personal style as a mix between a 1950s pinup girl, a 1980s teen queen, and a British schoolboy. Elements of the latter only snuck into my outfits occasionally – a collared shirt here, a silk striped necktie there – but I always felt that schoolboy somewhere below the surface, particularly as I came into my queer identity. Pursuing girls, giggling and blushing at girls in the school cafeteria, training my gaze on girls in an unabashedly desirous manner – these all brought out a butchness in me, for lack of a better term; a hard sharpness on the edges of my otherwise plush femininity.

I wondered – and still sometimes wonder – whether my once-in-a-blue-moon dalliances with dapperness are more an homage to a person I want to be, or a person I want to fuck. But then, maybe those two categories are always a Venn diagram, and it’s just a question of how much overlap exists in your personal version.

When I peruse fragrances online, I’m most drawn to notes I associate with masculinity: leather, oak, tobacco, sandalwood. It all sounds terribly sexy, for much the same reason I sigh and swoon when I encounter phrases like “blue striped button-down with the sleeves rolled up” or “freshly shined leather wingtips.” These aesthetic elements sit right in the centre of my Venn diagram of attraction and aspiration: a sweet spot where I can equally imagine myself pinned against a wall by a ravishing man who is kissing me, or being that man.

I ordered a sample of John Varvatos’ self-titled fragrance because a male xoJane writer described it as smelling “[like] you spilled a chai latte into an old leather jacket.” I could see it so clearly. Flirting with a leather-clad heartthrob in a bustling café, all waxy hair pomade and smug bravado – or being that heartthrob, and not needing to ponder petty concerns like gender, because chai and leather and flirty nerve are genderless and always have been.

There are some “men’s” fragrances that feel like drag when I wear them, coming off incongruously boyish on little ol’ femmey me. But John Varvatos melts into my skin and my gender with an uncomplicated ease. It’s masculine and powerful and sexy and bold, but coexists peacefully with my femininity and softness and docility. It’s like a men’s leather jacket I might steal from a boyfriend, that looks beefcake-handsome on him, but adorably spunky on me. It’s masc but it’s not a mask. It’s the brashest kind of boy this cis femme lady can ever be.

I love it. I want to wear it every day. I want to feel this attuned to all my gender-peculiar facets at every moment. I don’t ever want to lose that.

“Carnal Flower” by Frederic Malle

Like anyone who’s lived in a particular city for a long time, I have personal rituals tied to certain places and activities in my city. Like any introvert, many of my personal rituals involve being alone.

There are some activities I will not do alone. Though I love attending improv shows at places like Comedy Bar and the Bad Dog Theatre, I cannot go to a show solo; sipping a beer in a claustrophobic bar before the show cranks my social anxiety up to eleven, as my bad brain hallucinates judgmental eyes lingering on me from across the crowd. Likewise, I will not go to local sex club Oasis Aqualounge unless I am meeting at least one person there; the libidinous glances and bold advances of disingenuous lotharios aren’t worth enduring, even to languish in Oasis’ beauteous heated pool under the stars.

One thing I do love to do alone, however, is go to the theatre. In particular: Soulpepper, in the Distillery District.

There is something classy, mysterious, and refined about attending the theatre alone, at least in my imagination. I select shows carefully every year, spacing out my tickets so I never have to go longer than a couple months without one of these pilgrimages. It’s a special, pre-planned night out, like taking myself on a date. I get dressed up, do my makeup, spritz on some scent. When I used to live in the east end, I would get on the King streetcar, clutching a little leather purse and walking with purpose, and ride it down to the Distillery. Once there, I walk along the dimly-lit cobblestone streets, sometimes wobbling in heels (the theatre is one of the only occasions I deem worthy of heels), until I reach the warm, bright, elegant lobby of the Soulpepper theatre.

The crowd is different there from my usual haunts; it’s a lot of older people, married couples, mature professionals. Whereas swilling beer alone in the crowded Comedy Bar makes me feel like people are staring at me and think I’m weird, sipping a pint of Tankhouse in Soulpepper’s lobby gets me almost no attention at all. Everyone bustles softly around the space, waiting for the house to open, cooing gently at the posters of coming attractions, greeting each other with warm enthusiasm. There is no culture of cruising, scoping, judging or partying. I am almost always the youngest person in the room, but am otherwise invisible.

Stripped of other people’s projections, then, I am free to be whomsoever I please, and to be that woman in peace. And at Soulpepper – a brick and wood haven full of quiet theatre devotees – I am a mature, sophisticated young woman, elegant in my little dress and little shoes. I am precious and put-together, confident and collected. I am a nonexistent but aspirational vision of myself.

Frederic Malle’s Carnal Flower is often described as a “dangerous” or “sexy” scent, but I don’t get that from it at all. On me, it’s floral, summery, and feminine in a way I have never quite been. Helena Fitzgerald describes the woman evoked by this perfume as “the kind of woman I had once thought could wear perfume while I couldn’t… I am not her; through perfume I could try on her life as a costume.” I feel this too: when I wear Carnal Flower, I can gather up my guts, my smudged eyeliner and scuffed boots and crooked teeth, and compress myself into a lither, lovelier little lady. A lady who might – for example – waltz up to the bar in the Soulpepper lobby, order a glass of white wine, and sit sipping it on a leather chaise without once worrying what anyone thinks of her.

“Acqua di Gio” by Giorgio Armani

I’ve told you before about my conflicted love affair with Acqua di Gio. It’s the signature scent of someone I used to love, who never loved me in the same way. My heart’s year-long tussle with this man was all wild hope tempered with crushing disappointment. One followed the other, like a dance. We’d have a good night out, laughing over beers and sandwiches – and then I wouldn’t hear from him for days. We’d share sex so intimate, it made me believe those who use “intimacy” as a euphemism for sex – and then he’d declare how much he valued my friendship. He’d tell me that we were on the same wavelength, that we were meant to stick around in each other’s lives, that our connection was special and deep – and then he’d go off grinning goofily on dates with random women from OkCupid, looking for “the one.” I remained the one he left behind.

If I’d never been in love with someone who wore Acqua di Gio, probably its inhalation would strike me only as mildly pleasant. It might remind me of oceans, cucumbers, or musky muscled strangers fresh out of the shower. But I have been in love with someone who wore it, so when Acqua di Gio crosses my nostrils, it’s a guilty hit of glee. An endorphin rush I quickly work to suppress. Wild hope, as I’ve said, tempered with crushing disappointment.

This is a problematic reaction to have to a fragrance as ubiquitous as Acqua di Gio. I rarely go a week without passing someone on the street who’s wearing it. Every time, every damn time, I’m struck with the pins-and-needles feeling that haunted me throughout that ordeal: Will he ever love me? Why doesn’t he love me? How do I make him love me? Why doesn’t he love me? That love has since faded, but the scent is a time trigger, dragging me back into that pit I spent so long clawing my way out of. It’s a lot to grapple with, on a street corner, surrounded by strangers.

So I became interested in reclaiming the scent, reworking its fraught associations, like exposure therapy. I read an xoJane article about this a while back, and the idea resonated hard. When friends go through breakups, I tell them to make new memories in the locations that remind them of their ex – why not do the same with a scent?

There are times, while I’m wearing Acqua di Gio, when I catch a primal whiff and sink back into nostalgic sadness, wanting that Prince Charming and the promise of happiness he dangled just out of my reach. But then there are other times when I breathe deep and realize I am that Prince Charming, I can be happy, and I can and will save myself. There is hope. There is always hope.

No-Shave November Made Me Think About Femininity

I did No-Shave November this year. Not to raise money for anything (although I did contribute some dough to a family member’s Movember collection, in awe of his new beard). I just wanted to give it a shot.

I’ve been a pretty consistently clean-shaven lass ever since puberty. Ever the precocious child (and an early bloomer, hormones-wise), I wanted to know what shaving was like, so I started shaving the hair on my legs and pelvic mound almost immediately after it first came in. I have a vivid memory of my mom spotting my shaved mons in the bath (so I must’ve still been young enough that my mom was bathing me?!) and her saying disapprovingly, “That’s something adult ladies do.” But still, I continued to shave.

Like every girl, I was ushered into a world of brainwashed, media-hyped, sweet-and-sanitized femininity. There were no hairy-lady role models in my life, sexy or otherwise. As I grew into adolescence, the girls at my school became increasingly mean and judgmental, as middle-school girls are wont to do, and I never dared deviate from any norm for fear of social ostracization (which, sadly, happened anyway).

Throughout my first sexual relationship, I kept my pubes and pits shaved. My partner went through a phase where she was desperately curious to know what it would be like to go down on a bushy twat, but I would not grant her that favor. I found pubes insufferably itchy and they also noticeably cut down on my sexual sensitivity.

My second (and current) partner was surprised the first time he put his hand in my panties, having never encountered a hairless lady-garden before. This, in turn, surprised me when he told me later. I had thought of shaved pussies as the norm until then, perhaps due to the porn I sometimes watched.

These days, I’m hanging out in a lot of queer and feminist spaces, as usual, and these are the sort of environments where body hair is accepted and sometimes even encouraged. But even still, I tuck my legs under me to hide their stubble; I keep my cardigan buttoned so no one will see my fuzzy pits. Though I purposely fill my head with hairy-lady inspiration (Amanda Palmer and Sadie Lune, for example), I still feel… well, dysphoria isn’t quite the right word, but perhaps what I feel is a very mild form of it.

And the trouble is, I don’t know whether my feelings are media-influenced or whether my particular brand of girly/femme-y gender identity just doesn’t mesh with body hair. How can anyone ever know whether their feelings are culturally induced or personally valid or both?

During No-Shave November, I also grew out my bush, though I kept my labia shaved because they really do itch horribly when I let ‘em run wild. My partner has no qualms about any body hair configuration I choose – he always finds nice things to say about my body, no matter how much fur it has amassed or is missing – so that didn’t influence my decision. I grew out the longest bush I’ve ever had and spent a lot of time combing it with my fingers, marveling at how weird and unusual it felt in the context of my own body.

Ultimately, on December 2nd, after snapping the photos used in this post in my bathroom mirror, I shaved my pits. And then, earlier this week, I attacked my bush with scissors and then a razor. The smoothness feels odd after all this hairiness but it’s also reassuring; I feel more like me again. I don’t feel more attractive; I just feel less weird.

What’s your relationship to body hair?