I love wearing perfume. From the time that I was a little girl, I’ve loved to envelope myself in a delicate scent and know that those closest to me would associate the smell of that perfume with me. Having a spritz of my favourite perfume on my neck and wrists was, for many years, as much a part of my getting dressed as putting on my clothes. When I had a cuddle with other peoples’ babies, they’d mention how lovely their infants smelled when I handed them back, which I took as a compliment – that is, until I had babies of my own.
Once I’d had my own babies and read up about the importance of scent in the bonding process, I understood that maybe some of those mothers hadn’t actually been so pleased about my perfume masking the special sweet smell of their own infants… As a Mama, I wasn’t so keen to drench myself in fragrance – no matter how nice that fragrance might be. And I moved away from using scented laundry products, too; I knew that my little ones’ senses could be easily bombarded by all of these olfactory stimuli, and I didn’t want to overwhelm them. But once my babes were a year old or so, I gradually returned to my practice of spraying a light perfume on my pulse points each morning.
I really like feeling ‘dressed’ with my scent, but lately I’ve become more and more aware that there are some people who really struggle with sensitivities to fragrance. In particular, there are a few people in my church who are actually allergic to scents. And when I was having physiotherapy in the local hospital earlier this year, they had signs posted to alert patients and visitors to their ‘Scent Free’ policy; so of course I respected those rules and opted to not to put on perfume when I was going to see my physio.
There’s a lot of talk of ‘rights’ these days; there’s a big push for everyone to stand up for their own rights and champion the rights of others. And that’s not necessarily a negative thing. But I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that rights should only be exercised within the confines of our respect and responsibility, and with consideration, towards others.
I have a right to wear perfume. If I want to, I can waft around in a cloud of fragrance wherever I go. But knowing that my fragrance might cause someone else severe discomfort and possibly even prevent them from being a part of a worship service or attending necessary medical therapy has curbed my enthusiasm for putting it on every morning. I still do wear perfume fairly often, but when I know that I might be in contact with someone who’s sensitive to scents, I choose not to put my fragrance on.
I believe in a woman’s right to feed her babies where and when and how she needs to. I also understand that some people find the sight of women’s exposed breasts a bit distracting – so when I was breastfeeding I made some effort not to flash those around me. There are degrees to which I feel this is necessary (I’d never bother about covering up if I were in a room full of women, for instance – and I wouldn’t have worried if I had an easier time feeding without showing a lot of flesh), and I take umbrage to the assertion that breastfeeding is, in itself ‘disgusting’ or ‘offensive’ – but to be considerate of the comfort and sensitivity of others, I did try to nurse discreetly.
I am very supportive of people bringing their young children into church services – as we have always done with our little ones. I love the little sounds of babbling babies and the whisper of a child to a parent, and I adore the sight of whole families of different generations lined up along the pews. But when my babies are fussing so loudly that nobody can hear the prayer or if they start yelling during a sermon, I take them out. My feeling is that my children’s right to be in church shouldn’t hamper the ability of others to be nourished by their time in church – so although I’m determined to give them the opportunity to be a part of the service, if their behaviour is too distracting/disruptive I take them out of the room. The same is true of kids in movies, concerts, or whatever – we can’t expect truly mature behaviour of them (and I’m not asserting that anyone would be reasonable to think they have a ‘right’ to have a kid-free environment all the time), but if their childish behaviour is interrupting things then they shouldn’t be there.
Many of the rights we’ve accepted in the past have had a direct and negative impact on others – and when we have weighed their practice against the responsibilities we hold towards others it has resulted in a reduction of the exercise of those rights. For example, for a couple of centuries, tobacco smoking was a very much accepted right (at least for men); but over time the general tolerance for that practice has waned, because it is now understood that even second-hand smoke has a tremendously detrimental effect on the health of those subjected to the fumes. The constitution of the United States upholds the right of its citizens to own guns. And yet there is an inarguable correlation between the ‘right to bear arms’ and high rates of violent crime and gun-related accidental deaths. Just north of the 49th parallel, we in Canada do not (as a whole) support the right of our citizens to possess such weapons – and thus we enjoy relatively lower rates of gun-related violence. We hold our responsibility to protect our citizens from the dangers of firearms above any right we might claim to own guns.
It’s easy to see from these examples that many of our ‘rights’ are relative. Perception, understanding, and situation all inform the decision about whether or not something is an ‘inalienable right’ or just a discretionary practice.
A few weeks ago there was a bit of a furor in my facebook newsfeed involving the story of a young girl who had been given a detention, and then a suspension from school, for wearing jean shorts that were deemed to be unsuitably revealing. When the school’s vice-principal was pressed to explain why she felt that the girl’s attire contravened the dress code, she said that she believed that the shorts would be ‘distracting’ to the male students. A friend’s comments on the case elicited a storm of opinion about the ridiculousness of this school’s policy and the injustice of its actions; many of those commenting were up in arms about the suggestion that a girl might have a responsibility to avoid distracting her male classmates.
Now, the jean shorts in question didn’t look to me to be much different from what you’d see in a shopping mall or park or other regular public venue in the western world. They didn’t offend me, and nor did I think they’d be any more distracting to the males in the class than, say, a tight top or plunging neckline; however, I wonder why this story became so much about championing a girl’s right to wear whatever she wants (without concern for the effect it might have on others) and not at all about being respectful of rules and being responsible in our choice of attire.
To me, the right of a student to wear what she chooses is secondary to the responsibility of that student to uphold the dress code of the school. And all that conviction and emotion being focused towards supporting this discretionary right to dress as one pleases just seemed ludicrous, when you consider that there are countless situations around the world in which basic human rights are being ignored and even violated.
I love wearing perfume; but if I stride knowingly into a situation in which my fragrance is going to restrict someone else’s ability to breathe, then I may smell good but my attitude stinks. I need to be respectful of my responsibilities to those around me as I choose to exercise my ‘rights’.
Across the globe horrors like slavery, poverty and corruption are robbing millions of people of rights that we take for granted in this cosy corner of the world – rights like freedom, sustenance, democracy…
What if we stopped decrying the restriction of our own rights in this privileged sector of the planet and concentrated on how we can better meet our responsibly to others?
I think it would make a world of difference.
PS Since my blog posts tend to cover the main themes of parenting, faith, and relationships, you may wonder why I would wade into such a politically-charged topic. And if you have wondered that, here is my response:
This is important to me as a parent because I feel that it is necessary to instill in my children a sense of respect for and responsibility towards other people.
It is important to me as a woman of faith because I feel that it is important to follow Jesus’s example in putting my own desires aside for the good of others. I aim to show deference to the needs of others instead of claiming the superiority of my own person and agenda.
It is important to me as a citizen because I feel that to champion ‘rights’ without also teaching ‘responsibility’ is at odds with the ideals of a free and democratic society. I believe that acting in the interests of self without consideration of others is the worst kind of hedonism, and it leads to chaos in society and the disintegration of relationships.
And there you have it! Thanks for reading!