The Trope of Womanhood

Do our perfume choices harbor the ability to help us define femininity? Hayley Dwight investigates.


Written by Hayley Dwight

Yesterday, as I unpopped the bubble wrap of my most recent online purchase, I squealed: “My scent!” [pleasing sigh] “Now I’m a woman.”  Humiliated by my outburst, I wondered why I considered perfume the ultimate trope of womanhood.

In interviews in glossy magazines of female creative directors, designers or other admirable and successful fashion types, the women often describe sleeping in Kiki de Montparnasse and spritzing Chanel instinctively upon waking up. (Or, if you are Carine Roitfeld, you fall asleep with a spray and wake up to another wisp so you are just layers on layers of an intoxicating ethanol blend.)

For as realistically hard-working as these women must be, they seem to have a magical life; sleeping in nighties more expensive than my prom dress was and waking up in a cloud of scent emblematic of the highest form of luxury label. From the outside, this must appear like femininity at its most appealing. But there have got to be more admirable associations than scent, no? Isn’t perfume a bit too flighty to function as the ultimate representation of womanness?

Of course, the definition of womanhood is subject to vary infinitely depending on the woman describing that which makes her “feminine” if she chooses to use the highly descriptive yet equally cryptic adjective at all. After much deliberation, though, and a strategic process of elimination–which mind you, included a jigsaw–I have begun answering my own, weighty question.

So far, I’m at no. There are no more significant, tangible tropes of womanhood than perfume.

Femininity cannot be associated with something as esoteric as intelligence point blank. We share this faculty with everyone else who holsters the ability to understand things and femininity infers a deeply personal relationship. The answer isn’t as shallow as boobies or bodies thanks to the equally feline existence of, on the one hand, Erin Wasson and on the other, Kim Kardashian. And of course, as we know, fashion’s enthusiasm for androgyny suggests that clothing may not determine what is conventionally described femininity either. (Though, this too should be discussed at length).

Womanhood is an exuded energy independent of intelligence, cup size or clothing.  Instead of carrying any specific associations, “femininity” is as diverse as the breadth of population it includes.  Perfume can be a literal manifestation of that energy, a cloud of scent that hovers around you like your attitude.  And through our pragmatic selection of fragrance, we participate in the fantasy we’re creating.

This rationale has led me to sit gleefully computer-side, in my saggy crotched chinos from the little boys department at Brooks’ Brothers, wearing a gentleman’s watch stolen from some distant relative. In spite of my knowing that I never have been and never want to be a capital-L-lady, I take complete comfort in my own skewed sketch of femininity. What defines yours?

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  • I have always been saddened by our culture’s insistence that “little girls do / don’t do this” and “little boys wear / don’t wear this.” I do think there is a difference between femininity and womanhood. Maybe there is even a confusion between femininity and overt sex appeal. Being a capital L “lady” is a lost art in today’s world because so many people have such a strong reaction to it. What do you think when you see someone wearing pearls? Stuffy? Imposing? I think it’s about appreciating quality and giving others my best.

    • Leandra Medine

      Seems too intrinsic to chalk up to any of the stereotypical/prototypical associations with either word, no?

      • I think perhaps some people directly associate ladylike-ness with proper posture, getting lectured by their grandmother and having to wear uncomfortable clothes to church instead of growing gracefully from a child to a woman and being able to have the door opened by a man w/o feeling less of an equal in society. Just the act of wearing vintage clothes has a lot of baggage attached. I have to dress for my own pleasure and not take anything that strangers say to heart.

      • Kae

        So what fragrance did you get?

  • I remember when I used to steal my sister’s perfumes because I thought that would make me a woman. Fun times.

  • Janet

    “One is not born but rather becomes a woman” Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. What is most important about womanhood is who is defining it (we can say whatever we want, but when it comes right down to it whose definition will get you fired? or harassed? or a raise? or hired? etc) and the cultural power that definition carries (see above).

    A woman is defined by her behavior — how closely she conforms to or resists competing definitions of femininity. I’m just glad we have those multiple definitions, like . . . man-repelling!

  • Julie Meowmeows

    I think of being “feminine” and being a “woman” as two independent entities. The idea of femininity evokes a cultural, force placed ideal, while I consider reaching womanhood as a maturing of mind and actions regardless of culture. . . . Regardless, both are important.

  • JCarta

    Bottega Veneta perfume. Gets me every time. Fact.

  • Hmm perfume represents feminity, huh? Well, i don’t disagree, but that doesn’t mean i agree to that either. I can’t even describe what “feminity” is, or.. what makes a woman “woman”. But i think i’ll have to go with skirts. I know that’s tres cliche (my keyboard couldn’t type any French accent here, sorry), but really, i feel like my womanhood increases around 20% everytime i wear a skirt. Oh, and of course, any hair length that is longer than a boy’s cut.

    • Leandra Medine

      You know–I find this fascinating because when I was considering that which makes me feel like a woman, I don’t think I could conclude that anything tangible actually makes me feel like one at all. I think it comes down to the fact that I never don’t feel like a woman (except, I guess, when I really, really, REALLY, need a shower–which is probably a case study in and of itself) in spite of my short-ish hair and boyish demeanor. Not sure if that is a testament to who I am as an individual or as a female.

      • Aubrey Green

        I don’t think hair has anything to do with it – Look at Natalie Portman when she had a shaved head (mind you she is very small chested) – you did see her wearing more skirts and dresses though, also high heels, so that may make you feel more like a woman. Perfume, not really, I wear men’s cologne so what does that say? I am, to other people anyway pretty girly, ladylike even, but I can play a mean game of football – interception and touch-down included. Doesn’t having a vagina make you feel (literally) like, or more like a woman? Sort of off subject, but if I were a man, I couldn’t resist touching my balls all the time, the fact that men at-least in public can resist is pretty impressive – #sorryimnotsorry.

        • Leandra Medine

          The bit about our vaginas is a good point to make and sort of touches upon the conversation elicited after Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy and the “literal stripping of her femininity.” If the aforementioned can be measured in power, it doesn’t seem like a set of breasts can weigh that much. Lots of women (a very close one to me included) remove their ovaries too when they learn they’re BRCA1 carriers. Does this–the inability to conceive–make them less feminine? I don’t think so.

          • Aubrey Green

            No, not at all – that’s not what I meant by a long shot – My mom had this same procedure and she isn’t less of a woman at all, (my grandma has had every kind of cancer, including having her breasts removed from breast cancer) my mom (and grandma) still have woman parts (a vagina), I don’t mean it in the terms of the perception that someone might have about a woman who can’t have children (for whatever reason that may be) – removing your ovaries still gives you your look of a vagina (that part is still there) – again, not in anyway was I implying that woman not being able to conceive makes them less of a woman. We still don’t have a penis, or balls for that matter.

          • Leandra Medine

            Totally was not attacking you–hope it doesn’t appear that way! (Just commenting back on an interesting point)

          • lefukaka

            Just wanted to point out that men/women are only a nip/tuck (yes) away from making a vagina into a penis these days. Transgender surgeries are on the rise! Does that make the man who was born “a woman” any less of a man once he has paid for a vagina? foodforthought.

          • lefukaka

            In addition, extended shower strikes are the best.

      • zoe_whip

        You made me laugh out loud when I read this. I feel the same way when I’m forced to wear deodorant. Deodorant is so gross and gooey.

        I’ve never been a girly girl and like to hang with the boys. I love football and all sports in fact BUT damn do I turn to jelly at the thought of handbags and shoes. Does this make me a girl (hence woman)? I guess so. Just because I can catch a ball doesn’t make me less a woman. I think I’m feminine because I’m strong on the outside and soft on the inside. I’m gushy (like a cronut!).

        P.S. Perfume is a waste. I need money for bags and shoes!

      • Leslie Hitchcock

        My hair is in an incredibly short pixie cut and has been for 1.5 years, after 30+ years in bobs of varying lengths. I have felt more feminine in the short time with the pixie than I ever did with “hair length that is longer than a boy’s cut”, so I’d have to disagree with the “hair makes the lady” sentiment. In cutting my hair and freeing myself from that forced value, being my true individual self, I felt more feminine: I didn’t need to hide behind hair to celebrate femininity. Interesting to note, I stopped wearing perfume – which I once wouldn’t leave the house without – at this time as well. Perhaps I shed all lady-associated accoutrement when I chopped my hair relying on my inner feminine nature to convey what used to be obvious in sight and smell.

        Interesting debate and thoughts, great curating of ideas, Leandra!

  • aiota

    I always look to nature to distinguish between our constructs and cut through confusion. Typical associations of femininity are submission. Is this true? It seems to be the closest thing, when we look at “our world” and especially non-western cultures. In nature, however, the feminine plays the part of the “receptive” (alternately known as fertilile, but fertility just sounds so clinical and weird) and I think this is where the confusion comes in. One thing I think our human world has totally messed and backward, is our female species being the “selected”. In nature, the females are the “selectors” of the mates – in fact that’s our responsibility to the gene pool. It’s impossible, I think, to be a woman and not exhibit feminine qualities; so do your feminine duty and select. In my experience, it is not necessary to limit our behaviour to only what is perceived as being ultra feminine (ie, my scent), I mean, beyond good hygiene obviously. I just can’t help but end up at the same conclusion – the attention put into being beautiful and feminine and trying to attract a mate just point to a kind of insecurity.

  • Kayleigh Butler

    Love this! I just read “The Gospel According to Coco Chanel” (and reviewed it on my blog – and really liked how Karen Karbo answered the question of how Chanel, a women so fierce, demanding, and seemingly masculine by American definition, justified (allegedly) saying the words, “There is nothing masculine in me.” Karbo asked a peer who told her that in France the line between femininity and masculinity is more blurred than in American culture, allowing a woman in control (and possibly in sagged crotched chinos) to still be feminine, with her own security and self-assuredness in tow. A great read, as was this! Knowing who you are, the combination of all facets of oneself and owning it, is feminine. Period.

  • while i think you are on to something in that the trope of womanhood is ultimately sensory, i think it’s less about how you smell, look, or sound. femininity is all about how you feel.


  • To me, perfume is not really about being a woman, it’s about capturing the moments you live wearing the scent, then reliving these moments years later, like the Proust Madeleine.

  • nikki

    are you willing to share what parfum you purchased?

  • Kira

    Perfume is just as fabricated, commercialized, and shallow a representation of femininity as “boobies” or “bodies”. This doesn’t mean spritzing Chanel no.5 makes us feel any less beautiful… but it’s a symbol of beauty not true beauty itself.

  • CarolinaG

    I loved it!
    I’m posting looks from Los Angeles e accessories:

  • Rebeka Osborne

    I think that putting on perfume is like putting on a finishing touch. That thing that you can’t see that makes you feel/seem put together. Maybe, because most of us didn’t wear perfume as small children, the act of putting on that finishing touch makes us feel complete in some way – totally grown up. Also, on a sort of random note, I read recently that people who smell better are perceived as more attractive by others, so there’s that too.

  • Maria Victoria

    I am a woman, and i almost never wear a perfume. However, there is a moment when i feel extremely as a woman and that is when i have my period. It may sound stupid but it’s true, i feel extremely sexy and feminine when my body is squeezing my ovaries.

    • Leandra Medine

      I love this point–can we try to take it a step further?

    • Chanel again

      That month after month a body can produce and give away what could grow a human…so feminine! All the estrogen and progesterone needed is in our very womanly parts!

  • I wear Coco Mademoiselle

    This is a tantalizingly intriguing question and discussion; I couldn’t come up with any thing in particular for awhile, but ultimately decided the times when I feel most feminine are the times when I feel most proud, happy, accomplished or content. It isn’t when I do activities that one might associate with the female gender: all forms of activity seem to have a male and female side. A female getting it on=A male getting it on. A girl shopping = a boy shopping. A dude at the gym = a chick at the gym. Brogurt = yogurt and so on. I don’t feel like a woman just because I am taking a barre class in a paisley leotard. When I am crying, I don’t feel like a sad girl, I just feel like a sad person. Finding myself embarrassed, angry or frustrated, or following a failure or poor decision, I just feel bummed or horrified or whatever bad emoticon of human reaction it happens to be on a visceral human level. Yet when I feel content, strong, accomplished as result of sunning on a sailboat, creating something beautiful or interesting, doing something astounding with my body,wrapping my head around something complicated or just dancing like a wild maniac among friends, I feel like a happy woman, a content woman and so on. I wouldn’t say this phenomenon is limited to robust activity or the traditionally gender-neutral. If i make myself look great and smell good and go out feeling exhilarated and like I am the shit, I feel feminine then too. When buying toothpaste or feeling ennui…just a human. Shine bright like a diamond (or just be around and useful like a nice piece of furniture not from Ikea), and I feel like a woman. I think femininity shows itself when I am the better half of myself.

    • marita_hunt

      This is a really interesting point of view and made me sit up and pay attention a bit more. I think I get a similar sense of my own ‘femininity’ or ‘womanliness’ (although at 25 I really still feel very awkward about having the word ‘woman’ applied to me) when I’m feeling most strong and successful. Such as doing a good job of a project, or navigating a strange situation independently and fearlessly. So I agree – Femininity shows itself when we are the better parts of ourselves.

      Maybe it has something to do with feeling proud of ourselves and good about our achievements? When we feel like we’ve done well at something, we are at our most happy with ourselves and who we are, and the most comfortable and pleased to be in our own skin – which bundles up ‘being a woman’ or ‘being feminine’ into that good, strong feeling.

  • Maida

    I agree with you Leandra, i think our cloud of ethanol is really important when it comes to embrace our feminity, but i also think is really encouraging to hear the sound of your steps when you are wearing heels, i mean, is there anything more feminin than that clap clap (or whatever you shoes sounds like) ? It makes appear your real womanhood in its best! Your personality and character too.

    (BTW i’m from Chile, so excuse my english)

  • Tessa

    When it comes to femininity, to each his (her) own I suppose, but I will say perfume does directly influence my feelings on womanhood. Perfume is my favorite purchase, but I’ve always outwardly declared that I can’t wear Chanel No. 5 until I do something important, worthwhile (womanly?). It’s a selective stereotype on my part; but until I a) Achieve something adult worthy – or b) Ditch my preconceived Chanel notions, I’ll stick to my Marc-y Marc and call it a day.

  • anna

    scandinavians think jews have a very strange face, especially the nose is very bad-looking,kinda scythe-like they say, . They call it ” Ful nasa”. the word “ful” is pronounced like the english word “fuel”. i kind of feel sorry for them, but maybe its the testosterone.. i´ve heard it increases the tissues inside the nose, especially bone mass.

    It´s intresting to note that the hebrew work “nasa” can mean both “to marry” and “to lift” and “to desire” among many other verbs..

    In scandinavia people think jews have a very strange face, especially the nose is very bad-looking,kinda scythe-like they say, . They call it ” Ful nasa”. the word “ful” is pronounced like the english word “fuel”. i kind of feel sorry for them, but maybe its the testosterone.. i´ve heard it increases the tissues inside the nose, especially bone mass.

    It´s intresting to note that the hebrew work “nasa” can mean both “to marry” and “to lift” and “to desire” among many other verbs..