I don’t remember myself as being an overly girly little girl. Mostly, I was a show-off. So, if a dress or other frilly thing helped me show off more effectively, then that was great. But I don’t recall gravitating to any certain activity or hobby or way of presenting myself simply because it was specifically feminine.
Who knows how my self-presentation would have continued to develop if my mother hadn’t died when I was eight. But, not only did I lose my primary female role model, I also then instinctively but unconsciously began to align myself with my father. I’m sure it partly stemmed from a child’s need to imitate her elders in order to experiment with how to be a person in the world, but, in my case, it was also a strategic way to figure out how to avoid my father’s hot temper. If I could match him, then hopefully I wouldn’t end up doing anything to set him off, because I would be acting as him in some sense.
And so my energy became more and more boyish as I gained weight (thanks to genetics, uncontrollable stress-eating, and my father’s lazy habit of feeding us a steady diet of fast food) and marched toward puberty.
In high school, I delighted in being one of the guys, especially among my theater friends, and once wore a tuxedo to host a local musical variety show. I thought it was cheeky, to be a 17-year-old girl with a voluptuous figure dressed like a boy. In reality, I just kept distancing myself further and further from my own femininity.
Around the same time as that variety show, I was performing with a coed show choir that required the girls to wear formal dresses for our many concerts during the holiday season. I’d found an old black velvet halter dress that had belonged to my mother and had it altered to fit my measurements. My best friend and I, dressed up in our finery and walking through the school one afternoon, on our way to some performance or other, ran into two middle-aged women teachers in the hallway near the cafeteria. They asked us to twirl around and show off our dresses, and one of them, in reference to me, drawled to the other, “god, if I had a body like that. . . .” I remain shocked by the comment to this day. Not because it felt threatening or inappropriate, but because, with all my insecurity about my weight and all the ways I felt more like a boy than a girl, I couldn’t conceive of my very obviously female body as being anything for anyone to envy.
I’ve done a lot of work in therapy and meditation and energy healing over the past ten years, and I’ve started to feel more OK about my body and my gender presentation. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to play with persona is through perfume. Though I’d always been obsessed with scent, perfume became a more intentional hobby for me in late ’09, initially as a distraction from a breakup that wounded me more deeply than I had expected it to. And as my perfume collection grew beyond the point where it was possible to have only a handful of default scents (say, one for work, one for fancy occasions, one for winter, and one for summer), choosing a daily scent became an exercise in asking myself, “how do I want to feel today? What kind of person do I want to be? How can a perfume help me perform the version of myself that I most want to present to the world on his occasion?”
One of the sweeter aspects of my father’s personality that has become part of my own is his ability to get sentimental about anything and everything. Which means that I’m not only always looking backward in time at the things I used to do and be, I’m also always projecting myself forward and wanting to make sure that I do right by my future self in making sure I’ve done enough to memorialize whatever experience I may be living through at the moment. And since scent is so inextricably tied to memory, I’m perhaps overly fixated on finding the “right” perfume to wear on any given day.
I know I’m not alone in this, especially among other smell obsessives that I read about via the many wonderful perfume blogs being published online, but it’s extra freighted for me as I seek to retrain my childhood instincts away from a more masculine default that no longer serves me toward a femininity that I’ve long suppressed and find myself hungering for. All this is bad enough on a daily basis, just going about my regular workaday life. But the decisions are extra-intense on holidays or other special occasions. So today, New Year’s Eve 2013, the first thing I thought after getting out of the shower was “oh god, what perfume should I wear to say goodbye to the old year and ring in 2014?”
I’d just received a handful of decants in the mail that I wanted to test, but committing to one of those for the full day was way too risky. What if I picked something that didn’t work with my skin’s chemistry or inadvertently stimulated some dormant memory of an unpleasant experience? Better to go with something I already knew that I liked.
But, should I go with an old standby—with emphasis on the old? Would an old standby, because of its familiarity, not retain enough magic to mark the specialness of the day? So, that eliminated what felt like dozens of options.
And though I’ve made peace, despite everything that I’ve written above, with my attraction to scents that fall toward the more masculine end of the spectrum (particularly the smoky, leathery, boozy ones), perhaps obviously I felt like it was best to steer clear of those today as well. As I was pawing through my perfume box, my fingers touched upon the perfect thing: Arquiste’s Anima Dulcis.
It’s sweet and sultry and just a bit naughty; my favorite description of it would have to be Denyse Beaulieu’s evocation of “a series of embedded stories and/or spaces. In Mexico: a convent. In the convent: a cell. In the cell: a nun. Under the nun’s habit: a lace skirt. Under the lace skirt: pimiento, vanilla and chocolate. The holy of holies: a noble virgin’s body.”
The warm, chocolaty yet slightly sweaty embrace of this perfume pushes me to reimagine myself as a more unguarded, boldly erotic and unapologetic woman. Which, I feel, is as good a reason as any to leave this scent here, on this day, like a bookmark for me to glance back at from some future time, maybe less out of nostalgia and more as a marker of the declaration, “it was from here that I began again.”