Illustration by Simina Popescu
The Construction of an Olfactory Other
Sensitivity to certain smells is in fact simply a mask of privilege. The significance of a particular smell is not discovered by differentiating it from other smells (there are no independent forms/means to encode these distinctions) but by discriminating the contexts in which a particular smell has value. The social dimension of scent is learned through the hegemonic discourses of a particular space and historical framework—as early as childhood, we learn which smells are pleasant and which are stigmatized. Smell thus becomes an index of one’s position in the social hierarchy. Scents connect (and separate) individuals immediately, without the generalized and conventional forms of consciousness, morality, or aesthetics. It is not an entirely conscious act; an odour repulses us and instantly triggers judgments of value. What happens, however, if we try to filter through the lens of rationality the reasons why certain olfactory essences are socially regarded as pleasant or as potentially dangerous?
Ruxandra Păduraru is a Ph.D. student at the Doctoral School of Sociology, University of Bucharest. She has a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree in urban anthropology and anthropology of smells. She is co-founder of the Research Workshop in Architectural Anthropology – Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies, University of Architecture and Urbanism “Ion Mincu”. She coordinates social studies in participatory urbanism projects. Recent interests are centered around the class dimension of urban smells, multispecies ethnographies, garbage and pests in the cities, and emotional dirty labor.
Simina Popescu is an author, illustrator and cartoonist from Bucharest. They’re passionate about LGBTQIA+ representation in contemporary media, and about stories on mental health, intimacy and emotion. Simina lives with a grumpy cat named Fredi, and besides editorial illustration, they’re currently working on their debut graphic novel Leap, scheduled for publication in spring 2024 under Macmillan US. You can find them on instagram @siminaapopescu.
Katia Pascariu is an actress and a cultural activist. She studied Drama & Performing Arts at UNATC, obtaining her BA in 2006, and got her master’s degree in Anthropology in 2016 at the University of Bucharest, where she currently works and resides. She is part of several independent theatre collectives that do political and educational projects – Macaz Cooperative, 4th Age Community Arts Center and Replika Center, with special focus on multi- and inter – disciplinarity. She develops, together with her colleagues, artistic and social programs, in support of vulnerable and marginal communities, while promoting socially engaged art, accesibility to culture, with a main focus on: education, social justice, recent local history. She has been part of the casts of Beyond the Hills (C. Mungiu, 2012) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (R. Jude, 2021), among others. She is working also within the artistic ensemble of the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest. She performs in Romanian, English, French and Yiddish.
“…almost everything I do and think is a result of these class distinctions. All notions—of good and bad, of pleasant and unpleasant, of funny and serious, ugly and beautiful—are notions of the middle class” (George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier)
Our idea of dirtiness is composed of two things, respect for convention and concern for hygiene.  In the first part, I briefly discuss the role of advertising in creating a dependence on cosmetics to save us from our own smells and to ensure our success in the social arena, and in the second part I problematize how public hygiene policies justify measures of segregation and discrimination. Smell—although less important for survival after we developed bipedal walking—is still an indicator that warns us of danger—from the smell of rotting food, which is harmful to us, to potentially risky situations (smell of gas, smoke). The biological role of the olfactory system is to decode the chemical information carried by odorant molecules through peripheral olfactory neurons responsible for translating it into electrical signals sent later to the brain. Each neuron communicates with other neurons via electrical signals, creating a vast network of peripheral signal processing, so that the sense of smell works based on a combinatorial code. We open the fridge, sense volatile molecules, smell a pungent odour and the brain understands, by association, that something is rotting in there, we identify the source and thus avoid poisoning. But what about smells we find unpleasant, and which do not correspond to a real danger? And if smell has only a biological function, why do we interpret the olfactory worlds that surround us so differently? An analysis of the cultural mechanisms of the olfactory sense shows that olfactory perception is in most cases a reaction of the nose’s education, and not a biological one. As a result, most olfactory assonances and dissonances are socialized—examples abound, from the smell of mouldy cheese, appreciated by association with its origin and not in itself, to that produced by physical labour, which is repugnant depending on the social context, to the smell of old age, of immigrants, of perfumes, etc. The disturbance caused by the smell of the Other thus becomes not so much a biological defence mechanism as a somatization of the constellations that the self, the body, morality, and power relations can form.
Smell is where hidden prejudices can be found, with sociologist Georg Simmel calling smell the antisocial sense par excellence. My PhD thesis research starts from the hypothesis that smell is (above all) a social and cultural construct, and therefore the meanings attributed to aromas are dependent on the acquisition of learned olfactory “differentiation” modes. Through smell, others, as well as spaces, are reduced to an olfactory essence. Thus “natural smell” becomes “social smell.”
What role does smell play in the construction of identity (of a person, a space, a community, a culture)? How are hegemonic discourses on olfactory desires appropriated? What are the implications of the olfactory factor in discussions of class, status and capital? How does smell (specifically olfactory disgust) apply to hierarchies of class, race, age, and gender?
Humans are smelly creatures despite our cleaning routines, smell being the one sense we cannot turn off. Hyperattention to body odour is a result of the idea that by our olfactory nature we offend each other, that we invade each other’s personal space by our own emanations. The pathologizing of bodily normality forces a strict control of smells.
Research shows that the obsession with our own body odour has been exponentially intensified with the advent of advertisements telling us that we smell foul (especially our mouths, armpits, genitals) and that control of bodily emanations is essential for proper integration into society—the Western one here, with the American ideal being an individual capable of self-control, symbolized by a clean, odour-free body. Failure as caused by precarious hygiene is a major theme in 1920s and 1930s advertising in the United States. An eloquent example is Listerine mouthwash. This product had been used as early as 1870 as an antiseptic in homes and hospitals, becoming mouthwash in the early 1920s, with no change in the composition, only in its function. The new use brought the manufacturer, Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, an increase in profit from $100,000 in 1920 to over $4 million in 1927. To promote the need for mouthwash, one of the ads depicted a beautiful, talented, educated, well-dressed girl looking in the mirror and wondering why she is never a bride but only a bridesmaid—the reason given in the ad: her mouth stinks (which neither her friends nor the mirror can tell her). Halitosis (bad breath) thus becomes on the one hand, a barrier to social interaction and on the other, by being given a name, a medical condition that can and should be treated.
Hygiene products were generally promoted using a social agenda that was prominent at the time. With unemployment on the rise during the Great Depression of 1929, job loss was a major concern. Therefore, Listerine advertisements suggested that you could be fired even for not using mouthwash. This was also meant to show that it is not the system that is to blame for the economic situation but the person themselves, the scents they give off. Alienating our own bodies was the next natural step. The Cleanliness Institute of the Association of American Soap and Glycerine Producers illustrated parables of first impressions in advertisements—a man who fails a job interview and who berates himself for neglecting to bathe in the morning, shave and change his underwear. The moral of the ad? It’s self-respect in soap and water; when you’re clean, appearances are in your favour. It’s also noticeable that the ads targeted gendered issues: men aspired to get a job, women to get a man.
But the idealized Western society is odourless and deodorized, a fact amplified by the surrounding world as portrayed by Hollywood, a world which exists only in sight and sound. Pleasant smells, when they occur, do not merely encourage reverie, however, but are weapons of seduction and enchantment in the form of perfume. These smells produce and reproduce gender and class differences. The sexualisation of women in perfume advertisements was an established practice. They conveyed the message that it was the woman’s job to be attractive, as she was the one chosen and not the man. There was an aura of absurdity around the woman using fragrance. Women who did not smell sweet and beautiful were traitors to the ideal of femininity and objects of loathing (the idea was that women naturally smelled of unpleasant fluids, like menstrual blood). Stereotypes of women’s scent were generated and reinforced by the patriarchal order, which associated certain categories of women with different odours. So sex workers were associated with a bad smell—as in the French putain, from the Latin putridus—housewives with a natural smell, wives and mothers with food, but also the use of perfume on special (discreet) occasions, femme fatales with heavy, spicy smells. Perfume advertisements emphasised the intended effect, and less the origin of the scent. Initially, women’s perfumes were called Beautiful, Passion, Joy, Lumiere, Mystere, White Shoulders, White Linen, while men’s perfumes were Boss, Brut, Imperiale, Toro, Eau Sauvage, Aramis, Polo. As the idea that women could enhance their attractiveness through fragrance took hold, names like Obsession, Poison, Evil, Panthere emerged, with descriptions like wear it to attract someone with above-average intelligence. However, even if the woman was the one trying to seduce, the man was imposing his seduction. In the 1960s, the slogans of famous male perfumes that conjured up images of exaggerated masculinity were, to name just a few: “007 gives men license to kill… women”; “She won’t? By George, she will!”; “The missing link between man and beast”; “Wonderful on a man, if he dares.”
Perfume advertisements have not only contributed to the legitimisation of symbolic violence and gender division, but they have also justified belonging to a cultural elite, an international community of wealth and discrimination. In 1709, a French perfumer proposed that each class should have a specific perfume—a royal perfume for the aristocrats, a bourgeois perfume for the middle class, and a disinfectant for the poor. The “smell of wealth” is recognizable in a perfume. The famous signature scents (Chanel no. 5, Hypnotic Poison – Dior, and so on) are easily identifiable in groups that turn smell into a marker of class distinction and for whom the decadence of “cheap” perfumes is an occasion for company selection.
For the European context, the odours associated with the “periphery” of capitalism—the elderly, immigrants, the homeless, groups that are deemed to be “unprofitable” in the neoliberal system—we are told, should be blunted. The other day I saw an article on Facebook about ways we can try to suppress the smell of old age (which “is unpleasant to others”). Also recently, a town hall in Bucharest was complaining about the foul smells produced by a group of “dirty” people. Some of the comments were along the same lines: “Homeless people really do stink and are a source of infection. We don’t have to hate them for it, but we can’t pretend we don’t see and smell it either.” One influencer filmed himself in the airport complaining about the smell caused by immigrants (whom she identified as Pakistani).
The issue of malodours that need to be eradicated by removing the source that causes them is a recurring issue, both on an individual level, from speeches about “unwashed” people on buses, in airports, in public spaces in general, and on an institutional level, when, for example, local authorities want to sanitise certain areas from the pestilential smells caused by “polluting” communities. Cleanliness is seen by the middle class as a social obligation, with an emphasis on the social, as dirt is most often discussed from a perspective in which it becomes a danger to someone else, and not in itself to the ones who are “dirty.” The recognition of one’s class based on the odour that surrounds them or that they give off occurs because the individual perceives others and their value through their smells. The security of the middle class is given by their being odourless—or conversely, those who are odourless are portrayed as belonging to the middle class, perhaps also since class position is defined by withdrawal from the “odour-producing” jobs that others do. While all occupations contain both attractive and unattractive elements, some forms of work are clearly “dirtier” than others—involving activities or responsibilities that are usually considered to be disgusting, degrading, and/or disgraceful.
The vocabulary of middle and upper class “purity” is articulated over discourses of cleanliness and sanitation. Thus, one of the greatest development projects of modernity ever imposed is that of cleanliness as social salvation. The hegemony of cleanliness has been imposed and instrumentalised to justify the disciplining of subordinate subjects in the name of civilisation and urban development. We can speak of an institutionalized coercion that conjures up a value system that only establishes certain odours as acceptable and helps to demarcate certain spaces or people as vulgar. Hygiene policies have aimed, on the one hand, at the neutralisation of filth, foul smells, the eradication of unsanitary conditions, and the creation of a better infrastructure for cohabitation. On the other hand, these policies led in the name of progress to the control and suppression of social strata associated with chaos. Thus, hygiene was always a convenient tool to fight other people—Americans outraged by the filth of Europeans, Nazis invoking the smell of Jews (foetor judaicus, the innate stench of the Jew, was a leitmotif of anti-Semitic discourse), Muslims being seen as suspiciously clean, workers being barred from various environments if they did not meet cleanliness standards.
For Hyde, every step in the history of public health measures to encourage personal hygiene, spread bathing and eradicate filth is always and necessarily a form of political control, a way of dividing people into two worlds, a high world of refinement and a lower, detested world. To the modern West, the definition of cleanliness seems inevitable, universal, and timeless, but in fact it is a complicated cultural creation and a work in progress. The nose is adaptable and educable—and the upper classes are taught to abhor the smells that come with poor to average hygiene and consider “smelly” people to be the culprits of those smells. Smelling like a human is a misdemeanour—the aim is odourlessness or sterilised or synthetic smell resembling that of an exotic fruit (mango, papaya, passion fruit) or a cake (vanilla, ginger, coconut).
Smell is a political vehicle, a medium for expressing loyalties and class struggles. The periphery and deprived enclaves have always been classified in the West as smelly, reeking of poverty and coarseness. George Orwell is a fine observer of smells. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he makes one of the most powerful statements in his analysis of olfactory class differences: “The secret of class distinction in the West in four words: ‘the lower-class smells.’” Thus, smell hierarchizes social classes. Bourgeois work is intellectual, it has no smell; traces of sweat are repugnant because they are associated with physical labour. The solution? Deodorization and sanitization of the working classes (to achieve the ideal of olfactory transparency). The role of disgust is very powerful in maintaining social and political hierarchy. When the lower classes are no longer invisible (on public transport, in public spaces, during protests/riots) they are rather intrusive sources of worry and anxiety, and disdain is reconstituted in a different form—it moves towards/transforms into horror, disgust, loathing, fear, hatred. The smell of the lower classes appears to be in direct relation to the anxiety they generate in the upper classes. When they are “out of place,” they smell, when they are “safely in place,” they don’t smell. The lower classes are portrayed mainly not as ignorant, lazy, drunk, unkempt, but as dirty. The upper classes, who have been defined (have defined themselves as) being non-polluting, feel threatened by the stench of the working, polluting classes.
One’s odour seems to be a creation of the Other, in fact the olfactory sense is manipulated and affected by our beliefs—for example, it is not so much the brand of perfume that is cheap but the one who wears it. But just because a smell is socially constructed does not mean it is not there—the working classes might smell genuinely, independent of the desires and beliefs of the middle classes, but the lower classes are dirty by necessity, not by choice.
The character of smells considered to be foul is almost never contextualised in relation to precarious social and economic conditions, but is associated with an ambiguous moral aspect of the person/groups/activities causing that smell. This article discusses some of the ideas I have encountered in the study of smell and olfactory disgust, a first framework that can help us to think (smell) otherness differently, through a reflection on our own thresholds of olfactory tolerance (and the social origin of these thresholds).
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, (New York Frederick A. Preager, 1966)
 Marybeth MacPhee, “Deodorized Culture: Anthropology of Smell in America,” Arizona Anthropologist 8(0) (1992: 89–102).
 David Le Breton, Sensing the World. An anthropology of Senses, (New York: Routledge, 2020 ).
 Alan Hyde, “Offensive Bodies”, in The Smell Culture Reader, ed. Jim Drobnick, (J. New York: Berg, 2006), 95–112.
 George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, (London: Penguin Classics, 2001 ), 112.
 Douglas, Purity and Danger.