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What Does Adolescence Smell Like?

The beauty products I used in my early teen years remain very tied to my impressions of that time.
Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

A month before my 13th birthday, my family went shopping for school supplies at a Meijer in Southwestern Michigan. Growing up, we had always spent the last few days of summer on vacation near Lake Michigan, making a midweek pilgrimage to the biggest superstore I'd ever seen. But before I started seventh grade, things changed. My mom jettisoned us off from the males of the family so to provide us with our own shopping cart and with it, some privacy. I knew what was coming because teen magazines like Girls' Life had become my lifeblood not 12 months earlier: She was going to introduce me to all the literal equipment I would need as I began my Journey to Adult Womanhood. Together, we picked out stuff like a razor the color of raspberry sour candy and deodorant that smelled like cucumbers. It was exhilarating and intimidating, and so special for my mom and me to have been able to do together.

Through middle school, those products provided me with an extra sense of security. I remember feeling like my body didn't look like many of peers. I was tall and muscly with a flat chest and bulky legs, the latter of which made me feel gross and unfeminine. I rejected the way I looked and often felt, but I loved the shaving cream and face wash that, clichés aside, made me feel like the woman I one day could be. I'll never forget what Skintimate Shave Gel for Sensitive Skin smells like: baby powder and a hint of hand lotion.

We all have those scents, don't we? Smell is the scent that's famously most linked to memory, with fragrances triggering stronger emotional reactions than images, sounds or words. And I believe it, especially during adolescence, when memory formation is processed differently than in other life stages. Not only do we remember what those formative years smell like but we can still buy the products that bring us back there.

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I started getting into perfume that next year, in eighth grade. My mom has always been a proponent of having a long-term signature scent and never revealing it. I smell hers and I'm a little girl, burying my face into one of her sweaters in a hug as she came home from work. My first was a fruity Escada concoction called Island Kiss. They still make it. It has a pink-to-blue ombre bottle and was heavily advertised in the pages of Teen Vogue. I stopped using it suddenly, around the same time that I discontinued my Girls' Life subscription and began locking myself in the bathroom to pluck my eyebrows when my parents weren't home. A travel-sized vial still sits in my closet at home, and I sniff the bottle every so often to see if it still holds up. It's sweeter than it once was.

It was also around this time that my forehead became an incubator for splotchy, teenage-girl pimples. I tried everything, including some tea tree oil that made my face smell like bark. But I had the most luck with Clean & Clear's Acne Spot Treatment and its space-like silver tube, which I burned through for years and years. It looked official and smelled like medicine, and I was pleased; in my 15-year-old brain, if it was in any way pharmaceutical, that meant my acne would be cured. It was first time I ever truly believed in a product. Which is why I went straight to the Clean & Clear with that same urgency when my skin was being ravaged by a mysterious and epic breakout last spring. It was comforting to apply it every night with the regularity that I did so many years earlier. My skin cleared after a few weeks, but most of the container remains. I think I'll save it for those more dire occasions, when I'm willing to revert back to my teenage self and pull out all the stops.

And then there were Neutrogena's Makeup Remover Towelettes, which I started using my freshman year of college. I always kept a pack on my dorm room dresser, where I'd methodically sponge off my makeup each night. I use micellar water now, but the Neutrogena wipes crop up every now and then; over the summer, I used a couple at a friend's house after a long day in the sun. They smell like all those evenings early on in college when I spent trying (and subsequently failing) to use liquid eyeliner; like that month or so that I heaped on BareMinerals powder because a cool-girl-type on my floor did and I thought it looked sophisticated; like new friends and round-table discussion sections and theme parties and dining hall breakfasts. 

I often think about where I'm at right now and which products, if any, will come to define this particular period of my 20s. You don't recognize a memory while it's happening, but I'm happy now — much less filled with the self-doubt that so heavily influenced my teen years — and I can only imagine that has changed how I perceive my perfume or my skin care or my makeup. Instead of fixing me as I once thought they could, they complement me as they're meant to. 

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