“The first mail odor dating service.”
This simultaneously brilliant and horrifying slogan is featured prominently on the website of one of the newest and most niche dating ventures thus far: Smell Dating. The name is pretty self-explanatory and the details are simple: Each romantic hopeful is sent a white cotton shirt that they wear for three days straight, sans deodorant, perfume or anything else that might mask their stench.
Once it’s been sufficiently imbued, they send it to the masterminds of this smelly operation who cut the shirt up into sample-sized strips, and send them out to other smell daters. Upon receiving ten worn-shirt samples, the smell daters sniff and see if they smell anything they like. If two individuals are mutually attracted to each other’s odors, they’re given each other’s numbers.
So weird repulsive ridiculous sweet, right?
Granted, Smell Dating is more art-meets-science project than it is enterprise. According to their site, “the Smell Dating pilot program is not-for-profit,” so the $25 participation fee covers T-shirt and shipping costs.
The artsy vibe is obvious after spending just a few seconds on the website—the background is a video clip of a close-up nose sniffing a piece of fabric, which could also easily be the clip projected onto the wall of a very specific type of serial killer’s lair. If that’s not enough, the FAQs are a treasure trove of pretentious language.
The response to the first question, “What is smell?” begins with, “Smell is one of the most poignant and evocative experiences afforded by the human sensory apparatus.” And it goes downhill from there, cascading into a nauseating amount of olfactory jargon. Another FAQ, “Is my genetic data safe?” is answered with an unsettlingly succinct: “We really don’t know.” They expand to say, “For now, we will only share your anonymized genetic sample with our members. Our terms and conditions may change in the future based on our capricious whims.” Comforting.
The creators of Smell Dating seem to disregard basic personal information as much as they do the safety of their users’ genetic information. To sign up, you need only provide a name, phone and credit card number. Age, gender and sexual orientation are all unknown, so as not to distract your nose with superfluous information. Although according to Smell Dating creators, these details may be intuitively detected through the “smell signature” we each apparently possess. They say isolating one sense increases its perceptibility, but does that mean we should disregard all other senses?
Arguably, we already do just that with the array of dating apps accessible nowadays. I have friends who go through ten profiles in a second, swiping after they glance at the first picture, and other friends who look at each photo and read the profile before deciding their potential match’s fate. Either way, they’re deciding their level of attraction based only on a carefully curated profile— a totally visual decision. So is making the same kind of decision using only your nose so far-fetched? Scientifically speaking, it may not be.
One study, in which subjects smelled T-shirts worn by men and rated their attractiveness, found that subjects were generally attracted to men with genetic makeups very different from their own. A possible conclusion is that subconsciously their noses sniffed out the best partner from a reproductive standpoint, as their super baby would be more genetically diverse and immune to more viruses.
The experiment has been repeated with mixed degrees of agreement, so the findings are inconclusive, but we all know odor matters. It’s no coincidence that a sixth grade locker room reeks like the inside of an armpit, but just a year later when the iron wall between boys and girls is raised, the locker room smells like an Axe factory.
Smell Dating actually isn’t the first non-scientific effort at linking scent and romance. Pheromone Parties was launched in 2010, essentially a company that throws just your average bashes filled with mixing and mingling…and sniffing shirts worn by party goers for several days in a row. If you like what you smell, you snap a selfie with the numbered shirt, and when your match sees the picture they can choose to talk to you, or not. A weird concept, and I can’t help but think Smell Dating takes it too far. But then again, maybe that’s just because it so far out of our norm.
I was only slightly phased when I heard about a new app that allows you to ask your crush if they like you without actually talking to them, or letting them know it’s you asking—your name is inconspicuously included in a list of other people’s names. Unsurprisingly, a high school boy conjured up the concept, and because high school romance is the worst I’m predicting it’s doomed for failure or—perhaps worse— massive success.
How is using an app to find out whether a crush likes you not too far? Or Tinder’s message, “Keep playing?” each time you make a match, transforming a search for romance into a game? Or Grindr’s measurement in feet of distance away possible mates, so that you can text the person in the profile picture even if they’re sitting a table away from you? Because integrating technology into every aspect of our lives has become so normal, we don’t even bat an eyelash at our truly bizarre online and mobile dating habits.
In response to the question, “Why should I choose matches via smell?” Smell Dating writes, “Connection is a matter of intercourse not interface. The Internet has replaced fleshy experience with flat apparitions… Smell Dating closes digital distance by restoring your molecular intuition. Our members make connections via deeply intuitive cues, perfected in the ancient laboratory of human evolution.” And then, because maybe that was all sounding a little too sane, they add: “Surrender yourself to a poignant experience of body odor.” Gag.
But the idea that pheromones catalyze romance is true, and while it seems primal, it’s not our only primitive proclivity. Even seemingly refined practices like wearing makeup have roots in evolutionary intuition. Lipstick, especially shades of red, link to perceived fertility and eyeliner and mascara that help to open our eyes and dark our lash line give the illusion of youth health.
So is Smell Dating secretly genius?? I wouldn’t go that far. Sitting at home alone sniffing strangers’ shirts still seems a lot more antisocial (and a little “Dexter”-esque) than swiping left and right on strangers’ pictures.
But it’s true that at the end of the day you don’t want someone you can text with, but really talk to. You don’t want to sit across the table staring at your respective screens, but be able to make eye contact, hold hands and laugh genuinely.
So if you’re ready and willing to give Smell Dating a try, you’ll have to wait. Aside from being the most bizarre dating venture currently out there, it’s also the most exclusive— just 100 members were admitted, so if you want to be included in the next batch you’ll have to sign up to be notified.
And while you wait for your chance at Smell Dating, start thinking of the false story you’ll tell your kids one day about how their parents met…