De-Colognizing the Body

Craig Santos Perez
April 17, 2013
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My office is on the sixth floor of a building that has a single, unreliable elevator. I dread taking the elevator, not because I might get trapped inside (it has happened to me twice already), but because I fear being trapped with a colognized person: the kind of person whose body is saturated in cologne or perfume.

I wore cologne for many years of my life. It started in middle school when I attended a Catholic school in Guam where we had to wear uniforms. One way we tried to be unique is by wearing cologne. At that time, the colognes were all imported from America. The most popular ones had names like “cool water” or “fresh waves” or “ocean breeze.” Predatory marketing that appealed to my islander sensibility.

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Of course, scents and perfumes are inherent to all cultures; human beings like to smell good. Throughout the Pacific, the nose and its associated acts are very important: from the hongi in Maori culture where people greet each other by touching noses, the use of smell in Micronesian navigation practices to locate certain islands based on fruits or flowers that grow on that island, the gifting of fragrant leis in Hawaiian culture to welcome and honor, and the Chamorro custom of manginge’ in which one would smell of the back of an elder’s raised hand to show respect.

In the essay “Sniffing Oceania’s Behind,” Vince Diaz explores the importance of the olfactory in the Pacific:

“Smells are transitory, though they can also persist and even come and go and come again. They can be short-lived, long-lasting, permanent, or serial. They can be light or heavy, stinky or heavenly. Whether permanent or fleeting, repulsive or attractive, smells are, or can be, powerful signs of prior events, conditions, or processes and as such are indexical in that they point to something else often not visible or audible. Smells also foreground, as a matter of import, the subject who does the smelling (the one whose nose knows) and therefore add social or cultural specificity to the matter at hand. As we know, smells are also powerful—some say the most powerful—triggers of memory, which in turn is a complex discursive process and product with its own complicated sets of relationships to history”

Even though natural perfumes were an important part of Pacific cultures, colonialism brought new kinds of invasive smells that had more to do with Western notions of hygiene and less to do with essence and respect. Getting my first whiff of the scents of the empire as a male adolescent was, I admit, intoxicating.

When my family moved to the states and I readied to attend my new high school in California, I insisted on buying the cool new cologne and the cool new deodorant because I wanted to smell American. I wanted to “smell in.”

So I got a job at Little Ceasar’s Pizza, my first job in America as a teenager. I could not wash off the smell of pizza. But after I received my first paycheck, I bought the latest cologne and deodorant to mask my pizza smell (I eventually quit that job and found a new job at Ross Department Store, in which I could buy cologne with my employee discount).

“Perfume” comes from the Latin per fumum, which means “through smoke.” Growing up, I was not aware of the entangled histories of perfume and colonialism. My mind and body were “colognized” from head to armpit. Chemistry, technology, and marketing created a thick ideological smoke. I was too suffocated to ask: Why did I feel the need to smell this way? What kinds of chemicals was I spraying onto my body? How do these chemical perfumes affect those around me? How does it affect the environment? How environmentally destructive is the cologne deodorant industry?

There are many articles out there about the dangers of chemical perfumes and the aluminum and parabens in deodorant. So this year I decided to throw away my bottle of cologne and my bars of deodorant. I now only wear coconut oil, which is much cheaper anyways.

Coconut oil has many other uses besides being aromatic—it also moisturizes the skin, increases sun tolerance and protects from sunburn, helps heal cuts, reduce allergies, acts as an antibacterial, soothes after shaving, reduces acne, and much more. For now I try to buy “organic” and “fair trade” coconut oil since the global coconut industry has many of its own problems. It’s my trying-to-be-conscientious-consumer-compromise until I can make my own or find a local source (if anyone has a local source, please let me know).

Personally, I think the sexiest smell on any islander is coconut oil. Plus, coconut oil is lubricating. Plus, coconut oil is edible.

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In terms of deodorant, coconut oil by itself will not keep you dry. Instead I mix the oil with baking soda (deodorizer) and arrowroot powder (absorbent), two things I have in my fridge that, yes, you can also eat (and easily find at the store). I do equal parts of the three ingredients plus a bit more soda/powder, mix into a paste, then store at room temperature in a little mason jar (this is good for the environment too since I can re-use these jars and avoid the plastic deodorant containers). This little jar lasts about three months and it is about 3 tablespoons of each of the ingredients—so it’s also much cheaper than buying deodorant. The part that takes getting used is the fact that you have to apply this deodorant with your fingers. But this quickly fades by a quick rinse.

Our addiction to cologne and deodorant “point[s] to something else often not visible or audible”: colognization. How can we ever breathe in the essence of Oceania, if we can’t breathe through the smoke and perfumes of colonialism?

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