Vanilla: The Patriarchal Plot
- Lily Groom
From baking cakes in the kitchen to spraying yourself with it in a fancy overpriced bottle could the scent of vanilla be sexist?
“Ladies, if you want to attract a man, you should wear lavender, cinnamon or vanilla. The scents of vanilla and cinnamon are feminine scents that evoke warmth.” Essential advice from MillionaireMatch.com.
As we all know, all women want to do is attract a mate, and be warm to men. What does that even mean? Evoke warmth? We’re all mammals here, I for one am warm all the time because otherwise… I would probably die. But I know some women must want to fake this whole ‘being alive’ thing by coating themselves in vanilla, to give the effect of mammalian warmth.
The perfume industry must definitely think so, given the ratio of women’s fragrances to men’s containing vanilla is about 4:1. That’s right, for every male scent containing vanilla notes, there are four more female ones. The descriptions, however, try to disguise the fact that men even smell of vanilla – the men using it will be ‘bold’ ‘magnetic’ and ‘earthy’ whereas women are ‘sensual,’ and smell ‘floral’ and ‘creamy.’
As ridiculous and pretentious as these perfume descriptions are, they hide a deeper problem evident not just in the fragrance industry, but with pretty much every aspect of modern life. Sexism isn’t just prevalent in rape, cat-calls, the media, and the million other things that are sexist in the world. It’s also there in the scent of vanilla. Yes, yes, laugh all you want, I understand that it sounds pretty crazy. But hear me out.
Vanilla is a cooking scent, often used in baking. “A dash of vanilla makes everything taste better.” My mum once told me. But I doubt she meant it to apply to women’s bodies as well as to the Victoria Sponge we were baking at the time. Vanilla is a cooking spice, first and foremost. The message it conveys is that even when women aren’t in the kitchen, they should always smell like one. They should never forget that their primary purpose in life is to cook and clean, and should wear the scent of it always. We are tied to the kitchen often enough by adverts and everything else – why too in our scents?
Going back to that ridiculous quote I started with, vanilla is the scent a lot of men find attractive. A Google search for ‘What smell do guys find attractive?’ unearths a deluge of ‘helpful’ articles informing women to run out and buy all the vanilla scent they can, in case it runs out. If there’s none in the local perfume purveyor, go to the supermarket and just get some vanilla extract to dab behind the ears. Failing that, rub yourself with cake to really get that vanilla tang! It’s really that alluring. And – Oh! What a surprise – the scent men just happen to find the sexiest is also the leading component of women’s perfumes. Coincidence? I think not.
Women are always being told they have to be attractive to men first and foremost – now our perfume is telling us to do the same. It subconsciously gives a message that all women want is to attract a man – even when that is blatantly untrue. Women want careers, or travel or fun – or another woman, not a man.
It’s seriously prevalent in YA books, too. In Eleanor and Park by Rainbow and Rowell, Eleanor’s mum rubs ‘a drop of vanilla behind each of [Eleanor’s] ears.’ In Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles, the leading man, Alex, says he can ‘handle vanilla cookie Brittany Ellis,’ using the vanilla to make her sound weak. D’you notice a theme? Yep – it’s always the love interest who wears the vanilla. Even in books, the perfume is dictating that we should wear vanilla to get the guy.
Sexist attitudes are filtering through to how we smell, which is frankly ridiculous. So throw off the vanilla-scented shackles and let your natural pheromones shine through. It will make you seem more ‘bold’ and ‘sensual’, I promise. All vanilla will do is make your partner hungry.