Why are certain fragrances considered masculine or feminine?
Gender associations learnt through culture and our own experiences play a big part in whether we think a perfume wreaks of masculinity or femininity.
Asked by: Millie Williamson, via email
It’s largely down to the gender associations we learn through our culture and our memories – such as the scents we remember our parents or our first loves wearing. Certainly, the perfume industry follows cultural convention by labelling floral, fruity smells as being for women, and muskier, spicier smells for men. But where do these associations come from in the first place? For the ‘feminine’ smells, one possibility is that it has to do with flowers being used as metaphors of feminine fertility since antiquity, while the link between men and musky smells may come from the fact that men’s body odour is usually more musky than women’s.
However, the ‘gender identity’ of a smell is often not that obvious. One small study at Stockholm University involved volunteers smelling various commercial scents in a plain bottle and rating them for masculinity or femininity. With the exception of the most floral and spicy scents, their ratings showed little correspondence with the commercial gender categorisations.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.