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November 5, 2013

Smells like teen spirit: An olfactory experiment

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Probably if I had watched the commercials first, I would never have undertaken this whole stupid experiment. Axe commercials? Awful. They are the media equivalent of the fragrance itself. I mean, naked ladies covered in tiny congruent triangles assault bemused middle managers. These are commercials that could have been made by Russian porn stars from the mid-1960s, or backstage at a Victoria's Secret fashion show, if angels really liked feathers in their strawberry milkshakes. Nor did I come to Axe men's fragrance by sniffing the air at the U.S. Supreme Court, which I cover.

Me, I discovered Axe the usual way, through my 13-year-old nephew, for whom the whole prospect of a lifetime of boom-chicka-wah-wah is perhaps still too much to contemplate.

My own boys, at 8 and 10, are too young for Axe, or for fragrance, or for wah-wahs of any variety — or so I shall insist to myself until they are about 40. But after a single day at the beach this past August, when they shared a bathroom with their big hockey-playing Axe-scented cousin-slash-hero, even the 8-year-old was smearing his small hairless self with the body wash, the deodorant, and, in case he still couldn't be smelled from the next pier over, the spray cologne. I decided to handle this olfactory terrorism like a mature adult: several days of merciless teasing. Dinners quickly became unbearable, with three Axe-drenched young people fogging up all tastes and smells until your pasta simply tasted like the painful ache at the back of your tongue that occurs when every boy in the house sees a daily Axe dip as part of his grooming. On it went, until the final weekend at the beach, when I found myself trapped in the shower with only a bottle of three-in-one Axe product (shampoo, body-wash, and conditioner). So I broke down and used it.

Sunshine. Harps. It was the most sublimely powerful fragrance experience of my adult life. Truly. After decades of smelling like a flower or a fruit, for the first time ever, I smelled like teen boy spirit. I smelled the way an adolescent male smells when he feels that everything good in the universe is about to be delivered to him, possibly by girls in angel wings. I had never smelled this entitled in my life. I loved it. I wanted more.

When I first told my husband that I was planning to wear only Axe men's products for an entire week, his answer was a foreshadowing of things to come: "You're planning on wearing that stuff to bed every night for a week? Man. Axe really does work. It's only been a few minutes and look, you're already single again . . ."

I confess that it was hard to choose a fragrance. My 13-year-old nephew advised me to steer clear of the "nasty grossness"-scented products. All of the Axe scents, to the extent that they differ, seem to be mostly named after manly activities like mining or soldering. Ultimately I opted for Cool Metal (see: mining and soldering) in the body wash, shampoo and spray formulations.

What happens when a fortysomething women walks around smelling like a 13-year-old boy for a week? Mostly nothing. As it turns out, ours is a culture in which, as a general principle, people don't really feel comfortable commenting on your scent, even when it is so powerful as to be causing climate change. So even if you apply Axe before a funeral — as I did — nobody is going to grab you by the arm and ask you to please leave. I wore a heavy coating of it to a dinner party one night. Eliciting no response, even when I started helpfully jamming my neck into the other guests' noses, I did learn from several mothers that the Wall of Axe (a naturally occurring phenomenon in which eight or more teen boys reapply Axe after phys ed, then stand in the stairwell together) has become so bad at some local schools that it's been banned altogether. Another guest described a perennial teen rite of passage — the agony of spraying Axe down your own pants for the first time.

The truth is, my experiment in smelling like an adolescent male for a week had only two really profound consequences. One, I really did grow to love the fragrance. But two, and distinctly more important, both my kids were so embarrassed that they stopped using it within days of my initiating the experiment. Smell you later, Axe. It turns out that there is some Freudian window in which smelling like your mom is so beyond contemplation that they wordlessly gave it up altogether. Indeed, they have both moved quite deliberately backward to the Suave Baby Shampoo, which is precisely where I would like them to stay, at least for a while. And thus, drenched in the smell of rusting metal, we all take two steps away from the Axe years, the entitled years, the boom-chicka-wah-wah years, that are bearing down upon us too quickly.

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