Bee Shapiro Reclaims The Scent of Sensuality

Bee Shapiro – NYT beauty columnist & founder of Ellis Brooklyn – discusses the rich science behind our sense of smell & the ways she is reclaiming the scent of sensuality from decades of male noses.
Bee Shapiro Reclaims The Scent of Sensuality

“Scent our most primal and unfiltered sense. Instead of filtering through our analysis center like all the others do, scent hits our frontal cortex. Smell is instinctual. When you smell something amazing, you draw closer. When you smell something unattractive, you might have a physical reaction like jumping back.” 

“The words primal, sex and scent naturally go together. But there is also something very modern about scent and sex. They ask us: what does modern sexuality mean? What is today’s definition? Historically, the fragrance industry has been dominated by a male nose and styled under a male gaze. Men telling women what sexy smells like.” 

Bee Shapiro is a New York Times beauty columnist and the founder of Ellis Brooklyn: a clean & eco-present fragrance & bodycare line. Bee started the company when she was living in Brooklyn, pregnant with her first daughter Ellis, and cleaning up her beauty routine. She found that, despite skincare & makeup lines moving towards all-natural, there were no clean, sophisticated fragrance options out there. 


It wasn’t just the lacking ingredients that caught Bee’s attention. She was interested in the way that scent is entangled in our definitions of sensuality – and why men have dominated these decisions for so long. 

“One of the main reasons I started Ellis Brooklyn was to reclaim that definition of sexy – and to even explore what it looks like for a woman to tell a man how to smell. Before I created my own line, I remember going through so many fragrances and not wanting to wear any of them. They smelled like a stereotype.”  

“When I started working with perfumers, I had to create an entirely new vocabulary. I had to revise language around ‘sexy’ to communicate the scents that fit my definition. Now, when I say ‘sexy’ to my perfumer, they know I’m not talking about that heady, over-the-top, red-dress feeling. To me, sexy is about skin.”

“What creates that tangible skin feeling in a scent? In American fragrance, we have always been after a very clean smell. European noses are more comfortable with dirty skin and more primal smells. I, of course, put clean notes into my scents, but I don’t want my perfume to smell like soap, so I always add a little dirty.” 


As a writer, the storytelling around fragrance is what first drew Bee in. Scent is intimately linked to memory, impressing itself upon that frontal cortex, so when we smell a scent, a well of stories is unlocked in our minds. But because we all experience scent so differently, we all describe it differently. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a true beauty geek and love all beauty categories now, but my initial interest in covering the beauty beat began with a love for fragrance. When you review a thousand lipsticks, it becomes hard to distinguish after a while. When you're testing skincare, there are only so many results you can see right away. Scent is different.” 

“For me, scent is a fantastical world that goes deeper than the surface. A smell immediately unlocks this rich story in your mind, yet it’s so difficult to describe. I find that conundrum fascinating.” 

“Think about a ‘clean’ smell. It means something different to each of us. To one person, ‘clean’ is a bar of soap. To another, it’s a lemon. But the French grew up with orange blossom smelling baby products, so that smells clean to their noses. And just as everybody has a different idea of ‘clean,’ everybody has a different idea of ‘sexy.’” 


“I read an article a few weeks ago that claimed, in the marketing world at least, that we are experiencing the end of sexiness and the rise of purpose. I think that’s completely wrong. It’s not the end of sexiness, just the introduction of a different definition, beyond old ideas previously pushed forward by men.”

There is a purpose in exploring our senses, Bee explains, but it’s not a replacement for sensuality. It’s a return to a rich relationship with our bodies and the environments around us. And in a highly visual world, there is something revolutionary about returning to our sense of smell. 

“For some reason, American culture has divorced scent from the idea of well being.  If you talk to other cultures, they are all very sensitive to scent in their own unique ways. American culture is extremely visual, from our websites to Instagram to eCommerce shopping. We have lost touch and, I feel, we have also lost our sense of smell.” 

“There’s a scientific aspect to scent – citrus smells boost your mood for 30 minutes,  vanilla and cinnamon have brain-soothing capabilities – but there is also this idea of wellbeing that we have lost that comes from curating scent intentionally. Choosing a really lovely scent for my home during quarantine is a mode of wellbeing. Or maybe it’s the basil you’re growing, that you can smell when you rub between your hands.” 


“I love to be out in the woods, to take my girls hiking, and there are so many scents out there. Fall is an earthy smell. The leaves are changing, especially in the Northeast, so you experience hints of decay, dirty. The leaves fall and get stamped into the earth. But the turnover happening with the trees is contrasted with fresh fall air: crisp and never stagnant.”

“Your experience of scent doesn’t have to come from perfume, but I do believe people would have a richer life if we explored our sense of smell more.”

Covering the beauty industry for over a decade, Bee may be an advocate for smell, but she’s a realist about how visual our world has become. As aesthetic people, we can enjoy expression and artifice, so long as we don’t start to confuse these things for authenticity. 

“I’m thirty nine. When I first started covering beauty in my twenties, the marketing mentality was one of exclusion, talking down to consumers, convincing them that the reason to buy was to stay “cool.” I feel extremely lucky to have grown up alongside a shifting industry. Now, brands are talking straight to their customers. Today’s mentality is open, transparent, inclusive. That transformation I have really loved.” 


“I do think we have to be cautious, however, about what we consider ‘authentic.’ The rise of social media was aimed for authentic conversation. There were no filters and far less professional lighting being used in each post. Today, everything is shot on a filtered lens, or underneath the perfect lighting. That’s okay, as long as people remember what it is. I think we need to question today’s claims of authenticity a little more than we do.” 

“The younger generation is quick to get caught up in this crazy desire for perfection. But the idea of perfection is really twisted right now. I interact with a lot of celebrities and influencer-type people who don’t look like that post in real life. It’s okay to recognize that we are aesthetic people who like pretty things and enjoy expressing ourselves. Artifice is okay as long as we’re aware that artifice is happening. I’m more nervous about artifice being projected as reality.” 

“My daughters are really young – one is six and the other is almost four – but they already want to steal my lip gloss and put it in. They will ask me, ‘Do I look pretty?’ I think parents need to be careful with that question. On one hand, they do look pretty. And they inherently know that matters, because when they go out wearing a pretty dress, they get complimented right and left. But I’d rather engage and say, ‘Yes, you look pretty, but you always look pretty. And most of the time, pretty is not enough. You can’t rely on prettiness.’”

“Things like confidence and kindness are everything. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that beauty products can help with confidence. If I didn’t get enough sleep or I’m really anxious, then at least I can outwardly pull myself together, which can help. A really amazing outfit can help. Wearing the perfect lingerie can help. All these layers you put on top can help. But, at the end of the day, you also have to work on the interior.”



Interview and Article by Molly Virostek. Photographed by Stephanie Lavaggi. Styled by Emily Newnam. 

Tags: bodytalk , sensuality

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