I tore the package open as soon as it arrived in the mail, plastic baggies scattering across the table like the aftermath of a drug buy. Instead of illicit substances, they contained swatches cut from the underarms of t-shirts. I was about to plunge my nose into each of them and snort the sweaty residue of nine strangers’ armpits.
I was excited.
Studies suggested that mate choice was determined by some combination of sex hormones and immune system compatibility, as detected by the human olfactory system. Smell Dating’s online matchmaking experiment was attempting to harness this discovery — and it just so happened to conveniently coincide with my own attempt to re-enter the dating world.
Here’s how it all promised to work:
The $25 “mail odor” dating service offered to mail me a t-shirt to be worn for three days and nights. My lived-in shirt would be sent back, cut into scent swatches, and then mailed to participants. Meanwhile, I would be receiving my own scent swatches from strangers to sniff and report back on. If matched with someone, Smell Dating would notify us both with contact details. There would be no sorting for gender, age, or sexual orientation; all decision-making relies upon the user’s sense of smell.
This is the way of the future, I thought. No need to rely on lists of favorite movies or activities to find a mate. I didn’t have to care whether anyone loved to travel or go to museums. Compatibility would be predicated on chemical attraction alone. All I had to do was breathe.
I had never online dated before, and in fact, I hadn’t dated at all since the last century, when I met the man who would become my husband, and eventually my ex-husband. Back then, we wooed each other via fax machine, preferring that more intimate technological connection which afforded both the physicality of letters and immediacy of email.
But now, returning to the single world as a divorced mother over 40 was to inhabit an alien landscape in which I felt entirely alien myself. Despite the occasional flirtation that went nowhere, I wasn’t dating. I did join a running group, hoping to meet someone in real life before resorting to marketing myself on the Internet. This only succeeded in leaving me chafed and winded, but at least my mile times were rapidly dropping.
Still, while most people might find Smell Dating some combination of disgusting and ridiculous, I was intrigued; maybe primal attraction could be discerned with simply a sniff, after all. If it were a choice between smelling stinky t-shirts or listing six things I couldn’t live without, I’d take the t-shirts. I signed up.
I received my t-shirt — cotton v-neck, size medium — and I dutifully lived in it for three days, showering only twice. On the last day I wore it while running a speed workout that left me gasping for breath, heart pounding. Hoping my effort had yielded a singular chemical fingerprint that would trigger the right person’s chemoreceptors, I sealed my t-shirt in a plastic bag and mailed it.
Two weeks later, I received my smell samples in the mail, each baggie labeled with a donor’s number. Sitting down with a notebook, eager to record my impressions, I worked my way through them with a growing sense of dismay: none of the swatches greatly attracted or repelled me. They just smelled like day-old t-shirts that could stand to be washed, or in a pinch, worn again.
Maybe I had spent too much time around sweaty runners, or my acuity to scent was declining with age. I felt betrayed by my body. My organs of brain and heart had proved insufficient at finding a proper mate; now an unreliable sense of smell would doom me to a future of inept couplings.
I had desired, at the very least, some sort of experience when I signed up for Smell Dating. Here was a self-selected pool of New Yorkers who were adventurous and had to possess a sense of humor. Biology having failed me, my only option was to subvert the experiment. Given a choice between Yes, No, and Maybe on the Smell Dating online survey, I clicked on Yes to them all.
Soon after, I received notifications of matches, each one listing a first name, sample number, and email address.
My first match was 17, with a presumably male name. I took the initiative and emailed him. My subject line: I like the way you stink.
Hi 17 —
I hear we are a match. I am 63. I’m actually shocked that my shirt didn’t totally repel you – I went for a run in it before mailing it in.
Let me know if you’d like to meet up for coffee.
17 did not reply.
My second match had a female name, so I used a different gambit.
Hi 57 —
It appears we are a smell dating match. I am 63. I’m impressed that you picked my sample — I went for a run before mailing it in and it was pretty pungent.
From your name, I’m assuming you are female; I doubt there is opportunity for romance since I identify as a straight female, but god knows I’ve been wrong about lots of things in the past. I’d settle for a possible BFF or even a rando girl crush.
I’ve been described as an athletic Brooklyn MILF up for whatever. Let me know if you’d like to meet up for coffee.
57 did not reply.
I was now motivated to pull out all the stops in order to get a response. Also realizing that my 5-year-old Gmail profile photo of me holding my infant daughter might not be the most alluring image for a prospective match, I updated it to one of me sniffing a t-shirt sample.
Hi 20 —
It appears we are a smell dating match. I found your sample buttery, with notes of tar and toasted oak. I also picked up on shades of violet and ochre, combined with reverberations of a distant gong when my synesthesia kicked in. Overall sample 20 exuded glory, nobility, and power.
I’ve been described as “surprisingly smooth” as well as “grassy and complex.” Let me know if you’d like to meet up for coffee.
I finally received a response: 20 kindly thanked me for the funny note, but claimed not to be dating — smell or otherwise.
At this point, even though I hadn’t met any of my matches, the experiment already felt like a success. I was having tremendous fun writing inappropriate emails to strangers, conversations about smell dating fueled no end of laughter, and I found myself discreetly sniffing everyone with whom I came into contact. I was finally living the dystopian rom-com I’d always dreamed of.
And meanwhile, something strange had occurred: The mere act of signing up for Smell Dating resulted in my romantic life taking off — in the real world, that is — as though entering the experiment had been the equivalent of shooting my pheromones into the universe. Suddenly I was meeting prospective candidates through mutual friends, running into old acquaintances, and out of nowhere, men started to hit on me.
Being willing to smell the armpits of strangers’ t-shirts was like kissing a frog — somehow the spell had been broken; I was finally dating in the 21st century. And while I questioned my ability to mate efficiently due to my sensory failings, I resolved to make do until the technology was perfected, or a better one was invented.
I had one more match to contact, but I was unsure of a strategy. I toyed with the idea of either simply inviting him for coffee or emailing him with the subject line: “Dad?” when 59 emailed me.
I just wanted to say hi. Apparently we like each other’s smell and that has to be good.
We agreed to meet for coffee. Upon arriving, I did notice 59 was good-looking and in my age range, visual cues which I tried to disregard, preferring to attempt olfactory discrimination. Discovering the coffee shop closed, we headed to a rooftop bar. Side by side, we made small talk as the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline across the river, jagged teeth of building silhouettes keying open the evening sky.
Instinctively we had both declined to wear any scents. 59 smelled good. Perhaps my sense of smell did work; maybe the odor had merely dissipated from the samples. We leaned closer, our chemosensors gathering information as we breathed, communicating on a cellular level. Our noses brushed, and then our lips. Data from the gustatory perception was persuasive. The coffee date stretched to midnight. We kissed.
In silhouette, a photo of our noses creates the ultimate profile pic – negative space a lopsided vase, or perhaps there is nothing between us. Attraction may evaporate. But for this moment, his nose and my scent prove a fit; a fairy tale by way of Ballard or Huxley. We’ve planned a third date, and when we next meet, 59 will gaze into my eyes and whisper “63,” as we embrace to inhale each other deeply.More On