How Perfume Empowers Me to Explore My Gender Identity

Josh Kim

If you had to describe yourself with a scent, what do you imagine that smells like? Are you warm vanilla wrapped in smoky tobacco? Or perhaps you are freshly squeezed grapefruit slowly dripping into sparkling water. For me, perfume is an intimate expression of my identity, especially my gender identity.

To be clear, I am a cis male and I am quite comfortable with that label, but gender is so expansive and fluid that I am not scared to deviate or explore outside the confines of the strict binary that currently exists. Part of that exploration lies within the way I dress and the way I smell.

Growing up, I always hated the separation between men’s cologne and women’s perfume. It made no sense to me, because I just wanted to smell good. There’s no one way to smell good, because scent is subjective and often based on our personal experiences. We love certain smells because of the ways in which they have intertwined in our lives.

For example, I love cinnamon because I grew up with persimmon trees and it reminds me of the bright-orange fruits that permeated a rich, spicy scent throughout my yard. I also love citrus because it reminds me of being full after dinner but still grabbing tangerines from my mom’s hands for dessert, and the burst of fragrant mist that came with each strip of peel.

Beyond the memories certain scents elicit, I love the way perfume can change the way you feel. It’s like when a Broadway star method acts to prepare for a role: perfume drastically can change the way you act and the way you are perceived.

If I’m on a date and I want to feel mature and elegant I’ll reach for my Giorgio Armani Sì Passione ($225). It’s fruity and floral with a streak of toasty vanilla that elevates it from pear soda to a pear-infused white-wine spritzer. But if I’m doing something more casual and low-key, I’ll grab my Nest New York Wild Poppy ($116) – another sweet floral scent, but cut with a hit of citric acid that keeps it fresh.

If you look at the reviews for these perfumes on Sephora’s website, many of them will talk about how feminine each scent is, how much the reviewers’ husbands loved it, or how they feel girly, sexy, and pretty. I love that, because I want to feel feminine, sexy, and pretty, too. There’s nothing wrong with men who don’t want to smell like what cologne ads deem “manly” and vice versa.

Luckily, we are in an age when our notions of masculinity and femininity are constantly challenged thanks to the plethora of gender activists and celebrities who have paved the way for the rest of us. Perfume brands are taking note, too: some like Clean Reserve, Commodity, and Boy Smells are making it known their scents are gender-neutral in marketing (but again, all fragrances are genderless if they are right for you).

As I continue to explore who I am, I’ll continue to grab a bottle of perfume and spritz it on myself along the way.

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