You Smell Nice: Sara Black McCulloch, Writer
ON GIVING SCENT A CONTEXT
"When I was a child, I fell down and split my chin. I remember the iron-y smell of blood—at the time I didn’t know what it was—as the ambulance came. I find that you only smell blood when there’s a lot of it. I wonder if’s an evolutionary thing. Like, if you’re bleeding a lot and you smell it, that sets an alarm that you need to go get help. I’ve always wished there was a way to transfer smells. Or at least the feeling that it gives you. When you smell something awful, it’s so hard to tell someone about it. And the adjectives that people use for negative smells are always the same: 'like death,' or 'rotting.'
There’s this Molly Young piece on the smelliest block in New York—she brings a couple of professional scent people along with her for this story, and one of them was a scientist who was like, 'It smells like ammonia from a chicken farm.’ That is not a scent in my vocabulary. But I remember her comparing the smell to rotting squeegees, which I thought was such a good way of describing it. Like a mildewy sponge. There aren’t enough terms for scent. When people write about scent, they never contextualize them. But she sets the scene and gives a backstory for how all this filth and stink just piled up in this area. She gave it a history.
I wish more people did that in writing. They never think to talk about scent. Or the stereotypical thing is to say, 'the smell of death in the air.' But no one really knows what that means. They’re not really situating it. It seems to be the sense that is left out all the time. Writers can work so hard to articulate something—create a metaphor, talk about the light and how the characters feel—but won’t push themselves to do that for smells. Unless someone is being seduced."
ON WORKING WITH YOUR BODY, NOT AGAINST IT
"Today I’m wearing two perfumes together. One of them is Egyptian Musk. It's like the icing on a cinnamon bun. You know how certain things have a taste that’s different from the nose? It’s a note within the cinnamon spice—not the smell or taste of it, but the feeling. It’s so comforting to me.
The other is Bobbi Brown’s Beach. We’ve talked about the Coppertone sunscreen we used to wear as kids… they’ve definitely changed the formula. There’s a note that they’ve taken out—is it jasmine? Now everything smells like cocoa butter. Beach reminds me of summers when I would hang out with my grandparents, happy memories by the pool. This, and the Margiela one, are the closest I can get to that. They’re very nostalgic.
I layer a lot in the summer because my sweat smells really different and I want scents that work with my sweat—with the body’s heat system. When you go buy perfumes, it’s always treated like a product you’re using to mask something, instead of something that works with your body. People will tell you to smell a piece of paper, but not to put it on your skin, walk around, see how it is when you heat it up. I would be much more willing to buy perfume if someone took the time to show me that they knew what they were talking about. Like, 'Let’s see how it works with your everyday.' We’re so particular about customizing makeup and clothing to people’s bodies, I don’t know why that doesn’t happen with perfume. It should be about how you wear it. I think that’s what fashion houses and brands don’t really get: I’m just not invested in smelling like someone else.
I know what I like, and what scents I’m attracted to. Tobacco, ouds, vanilla, musky, sandalwoody smells. But I need to wear it. Scent is something that really grounds me. I’m always really disconnected from my body, and when I catch a whiff of myself it brings me back to it. I need something that makes me think, 'Oh, that’s me.' I don’t mean that I want a customized scent. I want something that is close enough to me and what I like and what I feel comfortable in. Because it colours and contextualizes my memories."
ON THE RARE BEAUTY OF OLFACTORY MEMORIES
"My grandparents had this liquor cabinet—I don’t know if it was from Metaxa or something else, but they had specific liquors that for whatever reason made a smell that haunts this little cabinet. Every time my sister and I open it, it reminds us of them. I wish I could capture that scent because it’s such a favourite for me—build a scent to emulate that. Every time we open the cabinet, I feel like I’m a little kid again. I associate that smell with them. I think that’s why a lot of musky, vanilla, tobacco, boozy smells, like Margiela’s Jazz Club, are perfect.
Scent is really good at capturing a point in time. It's paying attention to things you normally don’t pay attention to—it forces you to stop for two seconds and look around. Because you might not ever smell that scent again. You might never see something in that particular away again. Scent memories tell me so much about people—like what you’re holding onto, and why. That, to me, is so much more important than what a lot of people sit down and talk about. You know when you just remember something at the right time? Or you’re there with someone when they remember it? You share something that’s very rare with that person.
When someone remembers a scent, it changes them instantly. They don’t have to say anything. There’s something unsaid between people when they recognize that you’re remembering something that’s very important to you, and very distant—this unconscious nod where we’re like, 'I’ve been where you are right now, I know where you are, take it in.' You don’t get that with visuals. We’re bombarded with visuals. But scent is just something that catches people off guard, that's just in the wind. You don’t know when it’s going to hit you. Sometimes you’re not even aware that you held onto it.
It’s such a beautiful thing to see someone remember. You watch them piece it together and you know what they’re doing. It’s so touching to see someone go through that—to put a memory together. In our age of masks and personas, that’s something that disarms someone right away. You get to see a side of them that I don’t think they realize they’re showing you. And they have no control over it. It’s such a beautiful thing. A real, vulnerable, genuine moment. It’s such a privilege to see that."