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gender, scent, and why we prefer one without the other


Is scent gendered? We don't think so, and have designed our goods with that in mind—they’re for everyone. And while there may not be greatly polarized opinions on scents for different age groups, ethnic background, or socioeconomic status (or maybe there are), it’s clear that marketing around aromas is often firmly divided when it comes to gender. Many things fall victim to the gender binary, and the natural world doesn’t get an exception. Close your eyes and consider what you think of as “feminine” scents—flowers, vanilla, fruit. And now “masculine” scents— tobacco, pine, smoke. Flowers for women, trees for men. As much as I’d like just to blame decades of marketing for getting us here (though I'd say we can all agree that plays a huge role), there’s a bit more to the history of scent and gender.

Western gender and scent stereotypes are suspected to have originated in Europe in the 19th-century when the middle class further developed, gaining more time for leisure and income for luxuries like perfumes. Gender roles became more rigid and distinct. Most men worked white-collar jobs while women worked in the home preparing meals, caring for children and other unpaid labour. While homemaking, it could be assumed that women settled into their “feminine nature.” The pleasantries of picking and arranging aromatic flowers and baking with sweet-smelling fruit, thus inspiring feminine perfumes. By the same logic, men leaned toward fragrances reminiscent of laborious work outdoors—wood, smoke, earth.


That all seems simple enough—but there’s more. A lot of us know how powerful scent is when it comes to creating and maintaining memories. But why? Unlike our other senses, scent bypasses the thalamus, straight to the brain’s centre where it’s processed by the olfactory bulb—a structure starting at the inside of the nose, running along the bottom of the brain. This little bulb in our brain creates big memories as it directly connects to the amygdala (responsible for processing emotion) and hippocampus (responsible for memory). So what does this science have to do with gender and scent? Well, olfactory research asserts that our earliest scented memories are the strongest of the bunch. That means our first scent-filled memories of significant people in our lives—like our parents—are carried with us and influence how we perceive certain scents today. I’m specifically thinking of my mother’s lavender perfume and her cocoa butter hand cream; my father’s shoe polish and pine soap. Without making a conscious decision, these scents are now gendered in my mind. What’s more is that the scents my parents were drawn to were likely appealing because of their own memories of significant figures in the early stages of their lives, just as they appeal to me now.

So what does it all mean? Well, I think the best aromas are genderless. Our scents have wound up that way, in part because of Emily's (our scent designer) preferences, but also because of her rebellious tendencies. She's never been a fan of established doctrines and doesn't like fitting into boxes; it's with this attitude that she crafts our unique, yet often nostalgic, non-binary fragrances. Take for example, Tuckamore, contains a blend of spruce and smoke which are two scents typically associated with masculinity. Those are contrasted with bright juniper and sweet clove, taking you to a warm cabin in the woods (a, thankfully, genderless place). Our products focus on nature's offerings and it doesn't really seem fair to force gender on those elements. I don't experience gender in nature, and am grateful for that. When I smell a rose—it's just that, and that's how I like it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the significance and history of gender and scent. I often find myself being comforted by scents marketed as feminine or masculine because they so easily remind me of significant feminine and masculine people in my life. But I think that has less to do with gender and more to do with important people and moments.


Maybe this resonates with you—maybe you've never given it any thought before. How do gender and scent relate for you?


Written by Lauren Hogan

Photos by Tania Heath

Model Natalie Tuglavina