Susan Barbour moves around the room and passes out a stack of Ziploc bags, each containing a worn cotton T-shirt. "Gingerly take it out and find the armpit," she tells her students, who have each supplied a shirt they've slept in for a week straight, sans deodorant, during a recent LA heat wave. Barbour instructs them to lift the garments out of the bags, raise them to their nostrils, and take a big whiff. "Remember, the goal is empowerment," she says before unzipping her own plastic bag, lifting out its contents, and burying her head within.
It's a Thursday night at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, a Los Angeles perfumery school and laboratory devoted to exploring scents. More than a dozen participants have paid to have their armpit odors analyzed by a group of strangers in the hope that they might learn something new about themselves and their desires.
Barbour, an artist in residence who is working on a body odor–related exhibit to be displayed next summer at the Museum of Sex in New York City, tells everyone to spend two minutes writing down what they smell. To help with this exercise, she's scrawled several words on a chalkboard to describe an armpit's potential odor. Among them: salty, sweet, fruity, balsamic, earthy, funky, musky, and cheesy. One participant, describing another's scent as mushroomy, confesses to wanting to wear their sweat as a perfume. Barbour says at one point that a T-shirt reminds her of her childhood and the smell of human tears. The Institute for Art and Olfaction's executive director, Saskia Wilson-Brown, says another person's armpit smells "ripe, juicy, nutty, almost like toasted coffee."
Barbour handing out T-shirts. Photo by Saskia Wilson-Brown
Articulating the scent of other people's underarms isn't something most of us have ever given much thought to. But Barbour, a trained sommelier who now studies armpits with the same level of discernment and thoughtfulness as she does fine wine, wants to change that. "There's such a taboo in talking about how people smell," she says. "Saying someone smells is one of the worst insults."
Wilson-Brown founded the Institute for Art and Olfaction in 2012 as a means of legitimizing and supporting radical experiments in smell, a sense that often goes neglected in contemporary art. The nonprofit has since hosted everything from tobacco-smelling workshops and scented film screenings to perfumery courses and interactive synesthesia events. Barbour's workshop seeks to contribute to the fairly minuscule body of research about body odor, pheromones, and their potential effects on human attraction. She hopes it's also just the beginning of what she's dubbed a "probiotic renaissance," or a new movement embracing earthy, bacteria-heavy smells and tastes that were once considered repulsive, from sour beers and high-acid wines to fermented foods and stinky cheeses.
"I think that underlying all that is the desire to smell our bodies and be more present with human smells," she says. "We find it erotic, we find it comforting, we find it validating and interesting. And it's natural in an exciting way."
Barbour could be on to something: US sales of mass-produced, non-designer fragrances dropped by half between 2000 and 2015, according to a report from market researcher Euromonitor International.
Humans have been using chemicals to cover up their natural scents and make themselves smell better, presumably to potential mates, for thousands of years. The oldest known perfumes in the world date back to 1850 BC, when a massive earthquake destroyed a perfume factory on the Mediterranean in Cyprus. The perfume industry exploded in popularity in 17th-century France, thanks in part to a royal family that used it so lavishly that its royal court was nicknamed the perfumed court. The first deodorant was trademarked about 200 years later in America, planting the seeds for what is now an $18 billion industry.
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Natural armpits experienced something of a revival in the 1970s, when the British scientist Alex Comfort advised women to use their body odor—or "personal perfume," as he called it—as a weapon for seduction in his book The Joy of Sex. Deodorant should be "banned absolutely," he wrote, as well as shaving the armpits, which he considered an act of "ignorant vandalism." Some two decades later, the California fragrance company Erox capitalized on this idea when it patented human molecules as pheromones—or chemicals they claimed were released naturally to attract a sexual partner—despite only debatable scientific evidence that they exist in humans. "The research has unfortunately mostly been driven down this path that seems somewhat in bed with the commercial pheromone industry," says Barbour.
A string of academic studies in the 1990s and 2000s reinforced the idea that smell does play a part in sexual attraction, but it turns out our preferences are mostly a genetic thing. Sweaty T-shirt experiments conducted in medical labs eventually gave way to the pheromone party craze of the 2000s, in which singles pick dates based solely on smelling each other's worn shirts. But the way Barbour sees it, pheromone parties are lacking "the most interesting part of the whole experiment, which is, what goes through people's minds when they smell and do we have a vocabulary and associations to adequately describe what people smell like?" she says. "That to me is the interesting thing that nobody was talking about. And that's the taboo."
This isn't the first of Barbour's projects to explore taboos associated with the body. She's also made a series of figure drawings using her own hair, which she photographs on the tiled walls of her shower. "It's these bodily traits that normally disgust us or make us feel gross," she says. "But with a few finger strokes or some extra time in the shower, I turn it into something that reminds us that humans are beautiful." Her fascination with armpits started about five years ago when she went looking for a new perfume and realized "the language we have to describe smell is so impoverished that we have to reach for these poetic devices" on fragrance bottles and labels, which tend to traffic in sexual euphemisms and flowery metaphors.
But during her workshop, participants described one another's armpits in great detail, articulating floral notes and musky tones. One person even said they felt that they could sense whether the owner of each T-shirt had long or short hair, based on their smell alone. And a majority of participants, before knowing which T-shirts belonged to whom, described two particular ones as smelling identical. They later learned that one belonged to Barbour and the other to her boyfriend. "Saskia referred to it as a G-rated orgy, because normally you wouldn't smell that closely or that intensely unless you're actually sleeping next to someone," says Barbour. "So it did create the effect of sleeping next to 20 people in the crook of their arms."
The response she found most interesting, though, was that when one of her friends unknowingly smelled her T-shirt, she said it reminded her of amusement parks and home-cooked dinner—two things they'd previously done together early on in their friendship.
"It felt like a profound experience of connecting, and not in any sort of sexual way, which other people who read about the event might have been expecting," says Barbour. "But it was really about recognizing the scents of a human and recognizing your smell in everyone else's, even when they were different, and finding something to like in everyone's smell."
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