A memoir about perfume from anyone other than a perfumer seems unlikely—unlikelier still that such a book would raise questions about gender, community, family history, class, and expectation. So it’s fitting that unlikely is one of the keywords here to Alyssa Harad’s memoir, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride. There’s much to love about this book—the lyrical words, the sensual descriptions of various perfumes, the ongoing navigation of bridedom—but what I appreciated about it above all was the way it reconciled feminism with what one might label “the feminine arts.” (Though as Alyssa’s story of having a sniff-fest with a transgendered friend of hers shows, fragrance is hardly limited to the feminine.) I felt a pulse of recognition throughout: The tale of learning to ease the imagined divide between the pleasures of perfume (or makeup, or a perfectly crafted shoe) and the idea that as a feminist, one “should” be concerned with serious matters like Injustice and Legislation is one that I’m guessing plenty of readers here will identify with.
When I asked Alyssa about how writing this book engaged her sense of politics, she responded, “Perfume both complicated my politics and reinforced them. For example, it gave me a reason to separate out perfume and makeup and how women use them from the way the beauty industry exploits women’s anxieties in order to sell them more products. It was feminism that had taught me to be suspicious of the industry’s motives—especially the kind of feminism I had encountered and absorbed in my early twenties—but it was my training as an academic feminist that taught me to look very carefully at anything that is regularly dismissed as frivolous and feminine, because those things are often a source of power for women. And perfume is quite definitely a source of both power and deep pleasure for many women I know including myself. I wrote Coming to My Senses in part because I wanted more women to have that experience—not just with perfume, but with anything in their lives that they’re drawn to but might dismiss as frivolous or, if they are certain type of earnest student, ‘problematic.’”
Enjoy the excerpt below that expands on this idea—and leave a comment to be entered to win a signed paperback copy of Coming to My Senses, plus two samples of perfumes that appear in the book. [Edited to add: Giveaway open through 11:59 p.m. ET August 12, 2013.] West Coast readers can catch Alyssa at one of her upcoming events: August 1 in San Francisco, August 3 in Los Angeles, August 7 in Portland, and August 12 in Seattle. (More details here.) Coming to My Senses can be found at independent booksellers (and the behemoths too).
If the center of the Kingdom of Women is a gleaming white-walled city built by movie executives and ad agencies, where supermodels, screen goddesses, and all the perfect girls we knew in high school fill the streets, I live far outside the city limits, beyond the suburbs, a few counties over, in a country village founded by a lesbian feminist collective in the mid-1970s. (Before that, it was a summer retreat for bohemians, and there’s still a strong artsy contingent.) I like it there, away from the glitz and the glare. In our softer, plainer light, it’s easier to see how many ways there are to live as a woman, how many forms and shapes there are of beauty, energy, work, and wisdom. There’s a lot of fresh air, and I’m surrounded by people quietly and not so quietly staking out new territory on the map, so that there are days, sometimes weeks, at a time when the category woman, as an immutable opposite of the category man, doesn’t mean much, and it’s easier to use the word person, which is a word I’ve always liked. It’s a place where small details are important—a new pendant, a line of silver buttons, a charmingly crooked tooth, a pair of particularly fine clear eyes.
I didn’t always live so far from the center of the kingdom. I started out more or less where my mother lives now, in the neat, well-kept suburbs just outside the city walls. In the Kingdom of Women (and sometimes in real life, too), the suburbs are all about being what my mother once called, with great approbation, well groomed. You’ve made the most of what you have, as though you were a country whose raw materials have been properly exploited. You’ve done a great job of putting yourself together, as though you were a chair or a car. It’s a learned skill, this self-creation, the territory of endless tips and tricks. Anyone who works hard enough, the theory goes, can be pretty (the corollary being that those who are not pretty do not work hard enough). To be well groomed requires an instinct for limits, boundaries, dividing lines. Money helps. (There’s a lot of shopping.) And free time. But for that mythical creature, the truly well-groomed woman, everything is effortless. The endless small adjustments and daily rituals of maintenance are as natural to her, and as expected, as breathing, walking, or using the telephone—say, to make a hair appointment. She notices her own polish as little as a former ballerina notices her perfect posture. Both are the result of years of practice.
I’m being a little mean. There’s a hissing, a little meow in my voice, that tells you how much that world frightens me, and how much I admire it. How I have to go on escaping it because it is a part of me. Its rules are a test I will go on failing all my life.
Because I was never a rebel, or at least I never meant to be one. (I may have refused to wear Lauren, but I longed for it all the same.) I wish there were a single story I could tell to explain what happened, but there isn’t. It was just a long series of negotiations, a no-I-won’t here and a yes-I-will there. An absurd number of these arguments had something to do with hair—all that cutting, combing, straightening, curling, waxing, shaving, plucking, bleaching, and spraying that was required of me, as though the moment I let my guard down I would become a snarling, thick-pelted animal.
And it’s true, I always had a wild streak, a taste for drama. All through my growing-up years, even when I matched my socks to my turtlenecks and blew my thick, curly hair straight and then set it in hot rollers for good measure, I was always a bit too much. It was as though I were wearing a costume I couldn’t take off. A loud, curvy, dark-eyed girl in a land of cool, slim-hipped blondes, I spent a lot of time onstage, where I made more sense. There, and elsewhere—the lines between life and stage aren’t always clear—I played the roles that were available to me: the tough showgirl, the exotic gypsy, the lusty wench, the Egyptian queen, the madwoman. Even at fifteen, the ingenue was beyond me. By the time I was seventeen I was singing “Big Spender” at the local charity auction, and though I have no memory of doing so, my mother loves to tell the story of how I came down off the stage, microphone in hand, to sit on the seventy-eight-year-old lap of J.R. Simplot, the billionaire potato king. In college, I played prostitutes, unfaithful wives, and, once, a blues singer named Honeypot. It was pure instinct, all of it.