A Very Modern Mystery: Indole and Cultural Attitudes Towards Hair Removal

By Beaut.ie | August 10 2010 | 29 Comments


Last week’s meeting with the man they call The Nose, Roja Dove, threw up more than freebie fragrances, Neutrogena-product-introductions and a lovely Four Seasons lunch: as we ate we got chatting about all things fragrant and the topic turned to how scent can be used as an attractor. This works on two levels really: one, the knowing brain basically likes the notes in the scent someone is wearing, and two, the limbic system, which is the primitive, sex-fuelled part, picks up on and responds to certain smells because of what they contain; namely pheromones.

Roja revealed that certain flowers like jasmine contain a substance called indole, which, fact fans, is also present at the root of pubic hair. Essentially, indole is a sex attractor and it’s one of the things the primitive brain uses as a marker to hone in on when seeking a mate; it’s equally what makes some fragrances attractive to the opposite sex.

Scent and attraction is a pretty fascinating topic all on its own, but this got me me thinking (in an urgh, Carrie Bradshaw-style way) about the bizarre state of affairs the modern gal fond of a little garden maintenance finds herself in. We live in a hyper-sexualised society where women can feel pressurised to remove every scrap of body hair, and thanks to the easy availability of porn, it often seems to me we’re breeding generations of men who expect women to have bolt-on breasts and completely smooth erogenous zones.

All it takes the average female is a look at her own breasts with natural drop and her oops-I-really-need-to-shave-‘em legs to appreciate the fallacy. And the irony of excessive hair removal, is of course, that with the hair gone, so is the sex attractor. The Brazilian-or Hollywood-based contemporary standard of sexiness remains, but hey, you can’t fool the limbic system.

Hairy men are seen as virile yet women are pressurised to remove hair – clearly, when you read about the power of  scent and attraction you can see what a double-standard there is, and equally how it’s such an artificially- and culturally-constructed one to boot.  Magazines and peer pressure to depilate may tell you one thing about what’s considered sexy, but your nose – and your brain – know better.

Interesting, eh?

Face, Hair Removal, Fragrance, Hair , ,

29 Replies to "A Very Modern Mystery: Indole and Cultural Attitudes Towards Hair Removal"

  • ClaireBear says:

    Very timely post, we’re talking about this on the blather!

  • Kirstie says:

    yeah, have to say, I find the whole scent/memory/attraction topic so interesting and it’s only really starting to be unravelled now.

  • baby in a corner says:

    Love ‘bolt on breasts and completely smooth erogenous zones’! totally true, especially when you are younger or starting going out with someone you feel under pressure to look like you’d stepped off a playboy photo shoot!

    Fortunately since i am house bound writing up my thesis, my waxing regime has gone to pot!

  • Ola says:

    Kirstie, there’s lots of anthropology written on the subject of hair and hair removal, can find you a few titles if you wanted to read more about it from an anthropological perspective ;)

  • baby in a corner says:

    Kirstie, I’m totally with you on fascination with scent. I actually have a really good sense of smell and can always tell what perfume someone is wearing if i’ve smelt it myself before. (i think this is linked to why i can’t wear it myself, i don’t seem to have the ability to get used to smells and stop smelling them).

    The night after I met my man, I used to work in a pharmacy with loads of perfume, and I after a few sniffs i picked out the one he had been wearing. Even now if i smell that perfume on someone else (he doesn’t wear it anymore), it brings back so many memories and that first clink of attraction.

  • ClaireBear says:

    Speaking of scent – I once picked up a cheap bottle of hair conditioner, opened it and had a sniff, and BAM!! I was immediately transported back to Junior Infants, where my teacher had an identical smell/perfume. It was quite an experience, and I was amazed that I even remembered the scent, but there I was, in the pound shop, instantly transported back in time. I had never experienced anything quite like it before, and I still remember the experience well, these many years later.

  • Kirstie says:

    here’s some more on scent and memory. It’s the intro to a piece I wrote for Confetti mag a while ago on the importance of choosing the right wedding scent and our own Babaduck features:


    Chose your wedding scent wisely, says Kirstie McDermott, and you’ll be guaranteeing yourself happy memories for many year s to come.


    Our sense of smell can be a powerful emotional trigger : prompting desire as well as less welcome emotions like anger and fear, it also serves as a virtual time machine.

    Who hasn’t been vividly transported to an earlier time in their lives by the chance waft of a smell that instantly calls up an associated memory?

    Candyfloss-filled summer days are evoked by the smell of hot sugar ; baby powder brings strong childhood associations, and even memories you had no idea you possessed can suddenly – and surprisingly – jump strongly to the fore with sharp clarity. And all because of a smell.

    “It’s to do with pathways in the brain,” reveals expert John Ayres, a fragrance consultant who’s based in the UK. “When you smell something, it enter s your nose and interacts with a patch of tissue at the top of the nose which contains millions of receptor cells.

    These cells are in effect an extension of the brain that’s in contact with the outside environment and it’s unique: none of the other senses have this capability.”

    But how does that translate into the special relationship between scent and memory? “Scent molecules interact with the receptor cells and the information is transfer red straight into the brain, following a complex pathway that ends up in the limbic system,” Ayres explains. “This is the emotional centre of the brain and it stimulates emotions like anger, fear and sexual desire. It’s also linked directly to memory, and that’s why the sense of smell is so evocative.”

    It’s fascinating stuff, and even if you’re not down with the biological mechanics on how smell really works, most brides-to-be know how important their choice of fragrance will be: because in years to come, all it’ll take will be just one little hint of that perfume to transport you straight back to the day you said “I do.”

    Aoife Shortt-Ryan, from Co Wicklow, knew just how important a part fragrance would play, and actively sought something out-of-the-ordinary to wear. “I wore Sugar by Fresh and found it the year previously when I was in Edinburgh on a hen weekend. I just fell in love with it on the spot.”

    But she resisted the temptation to splash it on straight away. “ I didn’t wear it until the big day, although I kept opening the box for a sneaky sniff ever y now and then,” she smiles.

    For Shortt-Ryan, the positive associations have continued down the years. “It was the last thing I put on that day before I left for the church, and I could smell it in the hall when we arrived home the next day to pack for our honeymoon. Ever y time I put it on, I think of how happy I felt.”

    Dubliner Fionnuala McMahon got marriied last summer and scent was an important consideration for her, too. “I wore Creed’s Virgin Island Water,” she says. The choice was easy: the spritz is her current favourite fragrance. “I wanted to smell familiar to my new husband. I didn’t want to confuse him at the crucial ‘I do’ moment,” she laughs.

    But there was a more heart-felt reason for her decision to stick with her Creed favourite than that.

    McMahon explains: “I don’t just associate it with my wedding day, but with this time in my life and this time in my relationship with my now-husband. It doesn’t just bring back my wedding day, but the whole period of time since I bought it, a summer of good times, our first home together, all the wedding preparations and par ties, and all the other fun things we did this year.”

  • Annie says:

    The pheromone debate has been scietifically debunked, no pheromonal substance has ever been demonstrated to directly influence human behavior in a peer reviewed study…ever…ever.
    To continue preaching that a scent will make another person attracted to you is simply lying, and fuelling an industry.
    As for the limbic system never lying, well its a system, fed by messages from sences that do by their very nature lie, otherwise that burger thats flavour enhanced to taste more meaty and delicious wouldint have a fake leg to stand on now would it?
    Did you also know that indole is present in human feces? so not a lot to worry about really, even if you wax to the pre-pubescent levels of a 10 year old your likely to have at least some of that left in you

  • Kirstie says:

    Annie – very interesting, cheers. I did know that about indole, and that it, as a substance also smells strongly of feces in higher concentrations, but of flowers in lower doses. Which is also bonkers! I’m clearly no scientist but I find the hair removal/attraction thing really interesting. Obvs I have no desire to fuel purchase of any product with this post,but it is a topic that is of lots of interest to me.

  • Aphrodite says:

    God I must be wafting indole everywhere at the moment – I seriously need to get these legs waxed!

    I agree though that there is a whole generation of guys growing up who have totally unrealistic expectations about the female body

  • sevda says:

    Anyone following BB. JJ (the newer one) and Dave were talking one day and JJ announced that he shaves everything whereas Dave was “what everything”! It had me wondering is this the new man? JJ is 23.

  • daiseeboo says:

    This is a very interesting topic. I have a hugely diminished sense of smell thanks to a botched childhood operation. On a bad day I will smell nothing unless something is waved right under my nose but on a good day I can smell scents as I pass things or people. I have on many occasions been stopped in my tracks by a scent, like literally I stop dead. It is mostly perfume scents that do this and they remind me of something that could be a recent event or it could be from years ago, other times it is the scent of food or an ingredient. It is very powerful indeed and can make you feel like you are right back in that moment in time.

  • miamiscat says:

    im 9 months pregnant and have only had to do my legs and vj twice or 3 times in the whole pregnancy! wierd considering i was akin to a tony soprano type hairyness wise pre pregnancy. its great as i abhor the hairyness, indole or no indole! cant be doing with stinky perfume at the mo though – so i must be the least attractive person on the planet now!! ah well!

  • Tiddles says:

    I feel very sad reading all this :( Makes me think of the whole other dimension of life that i’m missing out on as i’ve no sense of smell. Rubbish.

  • Glamazon says:

    I agree on the perception young blokes must have of women and its not just from Playboy… nearly every pic/video you see these days features a female who is so over-groomed or has had some professional assistance in achieving her look.

    Sevda – I think blokes shaving everything is becoming more normal too. Its horrid. I couldn’t bear that.

    Never though I’d say this but I really am glad I am not 20 again.

  • Brass Neck says:

    Worst of all, young women have internalised all this and are now utterly disgusted by their own body hair. It’s reprehensible that we’re being so influenced by, basically, the porn industry.

    People: you have hair all over your bodies. Get over it. I’m happy to let a wisp of underarm hair or a stray layer of stubble fly. And if you’re disgusted by it, not my problem, I’m still a sexy mofo. :gets off giant soapbox:

  • Kirstie says:

    brass neck- yep, couldn’t agree more.

  • legalyblonde says:

    see this is what I LOVE about beaut.ie… This is a really interesting subject, really gets the head working on a Tuesday afternoon. Thought provoking discussion mixed with beauty, fandabbi-dozey!

    I had a bottle of cheapo M&S perfume, wore it on a holiday in Rome(went all on my ownio for 5 days, loved it!) and sometimes I go into M&S just to smell the bottle and I swear to God, I can picture myself in my hostel as if it was yesterday… its freaky!

  • Donna says:

    Remember the outrage when Julia Roberts was seen with under arm hair. It was like she had commit the crime of the century. Reading some beauty forums in the US, they insist on shaving the sides of the face no peach fuzz and their arms!!!

    Dr.Luca Turin is very into fragrance and the sense of smell. His The Perfume Guide is brilliant even if you disagree with some of his reviews of your favourites.

    There is a fragrance by Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, a very dirty amber. Rumour has it that its suppose to smell like the sexual juices of a woman.

  • Aine says:

    I think scent is almost like time-travel. Sometimes the memory you’re transported to is just so vivid that its utterly jarring. Sophie Dahl has some fantastic descriptive reviews of fragrance in British Vogue. Really evocative.

Leave a Reply

Content © Beaut.ie and partners