The social perception of women’s body scents in India (working title)

Collaboration with Dr. Shannon Olsson, National Center for Biological Sciences (IN)
In development, started during bangaloREsidency 2019, Bangalore (IN)

This interdisciplinary performative experiment explores the social perception of women’s body scents in Bangalore and India. The driving force behind it is my curiosity for why women’s body scents are traditionally more stigmatized than men’s. 

When applying to the bangaloREsidency, I had intended to explore ideas related to processes of “othering” by investigating people’s feelings, potential assumptions and judgments about others’ body scents. I define “othering” as a form of social exclusion based on the premise that a person or group is perceived as “different”, and therefore is not considered as part of the broader social group. Since I was completely new to India’s cultural landscape, it seemed necessary to first gain an understanding of how people perceived and constructed their world through smell. To begin with, I decided to search for contemporary academic texts on the cultural history of smell. I had multiple seminal conversations with Yashas Shetty, as well as with Suresh Yaram. To my surprise, I only found one book written in English — Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture (McHugh 2012) — which provided cultural insights into smell in pre-modern South Asia that were based on Sanskrit texts. The book showed comparisons made between Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious practices in relation to smell. One particularly interesting insight that I gained was that urine, dead bodies and human excrements, as well as sick people had been perceived as foul smelling in pre-modern India.

The more I started to learn about smell in Indian culture, the more I became eager to look into academic writing on the social perception of human body scents in India in the fields of the social sciences, psychology and neuroscience. During my research, I discovered one article — Theorising Sensory Cultures in Asia: Sociohistorical Perspectives (Low 2019) — which examined the role of the senses through Asia’s historical context. One thing of note was that the article explained how “Imperialist attitudes governing sensory conduct, property and civility in [India] meant that local sensory behaviors were interpreted as transgressive and thereby pathological” (Low 2019, p. 629). Besides this article, I found the amount of literature on my desired topic in the English language to be sparse. I was surprised that I had not yet been able to find any contemporary academic texts that documented how people perceived each other through their body scents.

At the beginning of my residency, I had planned to explore the social perception of people’s body scents by creating a new version of my olfactory performance-experiment titled Eat Me (2018). I had designed Eat Me to ask participants to imagine a world in which experiencing others by tasting and smelling (retronasal smell) them would be the norm. Originally, I had created Eat Me by conducting interviews at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. During these interviews, I had asked people if they could imagine eating body scents, and if so, what texture, taste and color they would ascribe to them. Based on people’s replies, I designed four snacks and one beverage, which I served at a public presentation.

For my new project in Bangalore, I had aimed to identify the aroma of a few carefully selected individuals’ body scents in order to insert them into the composition of snacks and drinks. To be able to determine a person’s aroma, it is first necessary to assess the person’s molecular make up with the help of a scientist who is familiar with the process of conducting a chemical analysis on odors. Second, the scent molecules have to be translated into aroma molecules for the purpose of mixing the flavors of a person into the food objects. When searching for a collaborator for the chemical analysis component of my research, Yashas Shetty introduced me to chemical ecologist Dr. Shannon Olsson from the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS). After having some fascinating conversations with Shannon about olfactory communication between insects and plants as well as among humans, she agreed to collaborate with me. In our discussions on the concept of my project, three questions arose: (1) From which body parts should participants collect their own body scent from and why? (2) Which materials would be suitable for body scent collection? (3) And most importantly whose body scent would I want to collect? As part of my investigation to determine whose body scents to explore, I wanted to first get an understanding about the role that social and cultural groupings play in contemporary Indian society. Thus, I arranged a meeting with social scientist Sobin George, an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change. He pointed out that many people still think about society according to the caste system.

discussion with Dr. Shannon Olsson at her office, photo credit: Santosh Rajus

discussion with Prof. Sobin George at his office, photo credit: Chandra Gowda

I then began to initiate discussions with women living in Bangalore about how they think they are being perceived based on their smell. A larger group discussion took place during the workshop I smell a rat, which I ran at the Goethe Institute Max Mueller Bhavan on 12. December 2019. The workshop invited participants to critically engage with gender-related perceptions in relation to body scents, through a presentation, discussion, and hands-on experiments. While this session was informative in many aspects, I walked away from the event having learned that female body scents as a whole are more stigmatized than male ones.

participants of “I smell a rat” are smelling each others’ anonymized body scents, photo credit: Magali Couffon de Trevros

I responded to this new information by re-focusing my project to be about the social perception of women’s body scents. My initial attempts to engage in a dialogue about this topic quickly led me to realize that body scents are a big taboo in Bangalore. The only open conversations I had during my trip were with women of the millennial generation, all of whom have also completed some form of higher education. I held interviews with five women to inquire about their experience of how other people perceive their body scents as well how they perceive their own smell. I audio recorded these exchanges. In 2020, I plan to follow up with my research by asking the interviewees to collect their own body scents of their neck.

From my research, it seemed to me that a women’s neck is the most suitable and respectful body part to focus my exploration of the social perception of women’s body scents in Bangalore because it can be both, partially exposed to the world, as well as covered up by clothes. The variety of scents on a women’s neck might be perceived by others during particular types of exchanges, for instance by hugging. However, these smells can also be experienced in the public domain, for example, when traveling on a crowded bus. Although the neck is considered an intimate space, the scents of the area do not seem to be as stigmatized as the other intimate areas of the body, such as the scents of a women’s underarm. Overall, it is my intention to have my work raise awareness about the social perception of women’s body scents by trying to avoid reinforcing existing stigmas on the way women smell.

In preparation of test 2, I was wearing a DIY cotton string necklace and bracelet with medical silicon pieces for one week. Photo: Lauryn Mannigel

During my residency, I had encountered big resistance and a lack of understanding towards my project idea to present women’s everyday body scents in the form of snacks. Some of the feedback I had received suggested that my work was being perceived as insensitive, inappropriate, and cannibalistic. It has become clear to me that if I continued to pursue the idea of creating experiences for eating snacks that contain women’s body scents, I would most likely drive people away instead of possibly catching their interest in the social perception of women’s smell. As a result, I am now reconsidering the further development of my project which I am excited about. I wish to present the final project in Bangalore as an exhibition in 2020 or 2021.

Reference

McHugh, J 2012, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, Oxford University Press, New York.

Credits

A big thank you to the Goethe Institute Max Mueller Bhavan, Meena Vari and Yashas Shetti from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Prof. Shannon Olsson and Srinivas Rao from the NICE Lab at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, 1 Shanthi Road, Prof. Sobin George from the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Blank Noise, the Sandbox Collective, The Courtyard, and all the women in Bangalore with whom I had discussions.