Years ago, I worked with a woman that I will call Cassandra. Not only is that a beautiful name, but it is also the name of the mythical cursed prophetess. She knew exactly what was going to happen, but no one believed her.
“Hey, Troy is going to be burned, and everyone is going to die,” she basically said. “Haha! Great joke, Cassandra!” everyone responded and went on their merry way (to be murdered just a couple of days later).
Like the mythical Cassandra, my work Cassandra was wise, but unheeded. Over lunch one day, she described one of the many reasons she left her ex-husband: “He smelled. All the time. It made me want to gag.”
I remember screwing up my face at this pronouncement. I really had no idea what she meant. How could someone always smell bad? I thought of my current husband then. He had a smell I did not love, but it was just normal, right? I mean, who wants to hug or bang someone who has just come back from the gym? Is that not always a mandatory shower-before-intimacy sort of thing?
But then I left that husband and met my soon-to-be second husband. My future husband looks like a Greek god when he is shirtless, and he looks that way because he spends a lot of time in the gym.
He has never once smelled bad to me. I have had zero problems with peeling sweaty clothes off his body and smashing my freshly showered one against his. My nose has never crinkled at the smell of him post-gym or cutting the lawn in 90 degree humidity.
This goes both ways as well. My partner has told me that I do not have a smell. Even when I have come home after a harrowing experience covered with a damp fear sweat, he has said, “I don’t smell anything.”
What is to this difference? Why do I not mind my soon-to-be second husband’s odor while I did my first?
Lindsey Bordone, assistant professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, has said, “ You might just be more forgiving of [someone’s odor] because you’re attracted to the other person and the overall, underlying scent that is uniquely theirs.”
Animal pheromones have been documented for seals, pigs, and rats, but not for humans. The French physician Paul Broca asserted that monkeys, apes, and humans represent the evolution of sniffing beasts to sight-oriented ones.
Animals smell pheromones through the vomeronasal organ (VNO) located in each of their nostrils. In the mid-1980s, a similar organ was found within humans’ nostrils using microscope probes, though it seems to present a very small role in our mating practices. Not to Prince though, who sings in his song “Pheromone,” “…Controlling my every emotion./…Pheromone. When your body’s wet…”
To be fair as well, a person’s scent today is more a combination of each of the products they use on a daily basis: their body wash, shampoo, deodorant, cologne or perfume, hair product, fabric-softener, and any other scented product they might use. While there is uniqueness to a person’s scent, there are many other things that influence the final ‘product’.”
Bordone also says, “A recurring hypothesis regarding body odor and sexual attraction is that a person’s immune system influences what he or she perceives as attractive, and also influences what their own unadulterated scent would be minus all of the personal-care products.”
A person’s immune system influencing their scent has been studied many times. “Women seem to favor the smells of men who have immune genes that differ from their own,” says one study. The conclusion is that women might be sniffing out “men’s major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a group of genes that effect the immune system” in order to assess whether their offspring would be able to handle a myriad of threats.
Whether this is true or not is inconclusive, but it is fascinating nonetheless.
There is also plenty of research looking into whether men can smell the fertility of women and how that may create a response in hormone levels. A study from Frontiers in Endocrinology had 115 men smell the body odor and genital odor of forty-five women. They found that the men’s testosterone and cortisol levels increased in response to both odors if they came from fertile women.
There is still much to suss out about scent and sexual attraction in humans, which is complicated by how much work we spend on covering up our natural body odors.
Love blinds us to many things, and it may to someone’s unsightly body odors as well. When we fall out of love with a partner, we likely become more aware of their faults and that would manifest in every way.
As for me and my soon-to-be second husband, I am going to continue to enjoy the scents of our love, body odor and all.