Friday, August 10, 2012

Important Shit I Have Been Reading: Some Reflections on Creating Fragrance-Free Space

Also file under: "stuff I haven't talked about that much but should."

Read it all, the author talks about not just the challenges of this issue of accessibility and large gatherings (excerpted here) but also methods of implementation and the point of the whole thing.  If you don't know much about fragrance accessibility, this is a great post for learning a whole lot in a short amount of time.  It's something I've been working on for the past few years, negotiating and figuring out what things are most important to get fragrance free, and where/when fragrance can still be in my life.  It's a process, and it takes time, but I do think it's pretty important.

via Tape Flags and First Thoughts
The first challenge is that many people don't know that they are making a choice about fragrance. It is so ubiquitous in the products we use that it comes to seem a natural part of our environment; the proverbial water the fish are swimming in. Why would people who don't have sensitivities think about this on their own? You'd be astonished if they did. So it's necessary to, first, let people know that there's a problem.
This leads directly to the second challenge: a lot of people--perhaps most people hearing about this for the first time, if my experience is any indication--don't believe there's a problem even once they're told about it. I don't, in general, blame people for this. If they've never known anyone who was affected, they probably have no idea how bad it can be. I have sometimes been tempted to tap someone on the shoulder and say, "Excuse me, I need to leave now, but I wanted to let you know before I go that your decision to wear perfume to this event not only excludes me from it but means that I will probably be sick until next Thursday." But hardly anyone has ever received that shoulder tap, from me or anyone else. So they've never enountered a sufferer in the wild.
Even if they believe there's a problem, and that for some people it can be quite bad, they're inclined to assume that these folks are very rare. The first time I brought up the issue of fragrance at the summer gathering, many years ago, the person I spoke to assumed that I was the only one affected, and that the problem of one person was not sufficient to merit asking 1500 people to change their behavior. In other words, the problem might be real, but it's the job of the sufferers to manage it.
One friend told me that she met a woman at the gathering two years ago who was ranting about the FF policy. She thought it was just another pointless PC thing. My friend told her about me, about how hard gatherings had always been for me, and how much my experience had improved since the FF policy had started to get some traction. The woman was surprised and moved. She'd had no idea this actually mattered to anybody.
I also suspect that many of us progressive types suffer from issue fatigue. We've gotten on board with "Column A: The Essential Social Issues." However imperfectly, we've embraced racial justice; gender equality; the gay and lesbian rights movement; physical accessibility for people who use wheelchairs, scooters, canes, and walkers. In addition, each of us has probably also chosen to prioritize some or all of the "optional" social issues in Column B as well: factory farming, a struggling educational system, the dismantling of voter rights, conditions for workers in overseas factories, animal rights, over-reliance on petroleum fuels, global warming, the environment, the existence of bisexuals, the bottled water industry, invasive species, and whatever else I can't think of off the top of my head.
It can be very frustrating when you try to introduce the fragrance issue to the very people you think will be most open to it, and instead they resist. But I do think that resistance often comes from folks feeling like they have enough on their plate and they don't have the energy to take on one more thing.
I also wonder if some of the resistance might come from a desire not to seem even more like whacked-out troublemakers than we already do. I can imagine--and this is entirely my imagination, not anything I have any knowledge of--but I can imagine the person whose job it is to talk to universities or retreat centers about our needs ranting, "I already have to tell their cafeteria staff that they have to learn to cook vegan food, turn off the ice cream machines at Wednesday's lunch, and get us re-usable cups instead of the paper ones they usually have at the beverage station. And I need to tell the facilities people that we need some of the bathrooms re-designated from Male and Female to Gender-Neutral. Now I'm supposed to tell them, what? That we want them to switch out all the bathroom soap for fragrance-free, and that they can't use their usual cleaning products in the bedrooms? Well, I sure look forward to that conversation!"
Even once people decide they'd like to make some personal changes to help with this problem, there are challenges. They might not know where to find FF products for instance--though this has gotten much easier in recent years. I used to be able to use only Clinique makeup, for instance--$15 for a lipstick!--but a few years ago, when I needed to buy makeup for the first time in years for a choir concert, I was able to get cheap FF lipstick, blush, foundation, eyeshadow, and mascara at my corner Rite Aid.
But people who haven't looked before may not know that somewhere in that wall of shaving cream is one brand whose "extra sensitive" product is fragrance-free, or that Common Brand Of Lotion makes a FF moisturizer you just have to read the fine print to find. It can be disorienting and overwhelming.
People might also be concerned that FF products won't work as well as what they're used to. And that might indeed happen. Sometimes that's a trade-off people should just resign themselves to making (are your perfect hair and blinding-white gym socks really that important?), and sometimes it's a trade-off they can't make. I had some things to say about this previously in a post called The Hierarchy of Harm.