Thursday, July 14, 2011

The French Women Beauty Myth, or Happy Bastille Day

So French! So French.

A few months ago, a colleague walked by me and pronounced, “You look so French.” I, of course—in my navy blue draped-neckline polka-dot dress and slingbacks with red lipstick and a slightly disheveled updo—was très enchantéd by her remark, and secretly I think it’s the best compliment ever. (Oh, I know. I know! There are plenty of better compliments. Except not really.)

Of course, this is because I’m all aflutter with what Jezebel termed “our weird national girl-crush on French women,” primarily in reference to this NYTimes article about “aging gracefully, the French way.” As the ever-savvy commenters there pointed out, what the article is really talking about is less French and more generally cosmopolitan, though the French women in the thread did agree that being fat is emphatically Not Okay on their terroir.

So I don’t want to buy into stereotypes of any culture, even if those stereotypes are largely positive. I get that not every French woman has mastered nonchalant glamour; I know not every French woman possesses the elegance of simplicity from toddlerdom forward.

That said: I love the idea of French women. It’s like the best of American beach-babe natural beauty (“What? I just took a dip in the ocean and my hair magically arranged itself in these perfect waves and I have a healthy glow, what’s the big deal?”) plus a polished glamour that serves to simultaneously draw one in and intimidate. I love the appearance of effortless chic, I love the idea of jolie-laide, I love the idea of investing in quality fashions even if you can only afford the barest of bare minimum in quantity, I love the quintessential lipstick and the hair and the Gallic nose and the updo. I love macaroons.

And perhaps I love all this to my detriment. I suspect the very thing I love about my conception of French women is part of the double bind of femininity: Flat interpretations of third-wave feminism aside, I don’t think we can adhere to traditionally feminine ways as we please, reaping the benefits those ways bring us, without giving up something in return. When I heard my colleague say I looked “so French,” what I heard coded in there—and what my chosen outfit was an attempt to signal—was that my outfit had elements of glamour, but not so much glamour as to seem stiff or distant. That it seemed as though I simply had no other authentic choice in my very soul but to pour myself into that particular fitted dress and to sweep up my hair and draw on some red lips; that adhering to certain beauty standards was not being seen as an attempt to look pretty (and possibly failing) but was simply an expression of who I am, as a person—rather, as a woman.

Prompted by thoughtful reader comments on this post about applying makeup in public, I’ve been thinking a lot about my reluctance to give up the "beauty mystique." The more I think about it, I’m not actually offended that women on the subway or wherever aren’t considering me their audience for their grand performance of femininity; I’m irritated that players on my team are giving away our playbook. They're our secrets, the little things women can do with our appearance or demeanor to be alluring in a particular way that has little to do with our person and more to do with our persona. And every bit of common sense would dictate that as someone who fully believes that we should all strive for authenticity, and as a feminist who wants to remove the fog of beauty work to allow for a broader conversation on the matter, that I’d be all for a public revelation of those secrets so that we can see it for the emperor’s clothes they are.

The fact is, though, I have too much invested in that beauty mystique to genuinely let go of it. I’m working on it, and working on challenging myself to not cling to its trappings with white knuckles. But like any dual-headed social structure, a certain amount of opacity about my personal beauty labor has given me enough rewards that its severance will hurt.

Which brings us back to French women. From an L.A. Times article about how les françaises sont fantastique:
"There's an enormous amount of social pressure the moment you gain half an ounce of body fat," [Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know] says. "[In the U.S.] people say, 'You look great.' Anglo-Saxons say little white lies to make people feel good. The French don't give a damn what you think about them, and they will not mince words."

And yet, there's a positive side to the French tendency to not give a damn, and it's at the heart of their allure.

American women "grow up as girls with the mandate to be liked and to be like everyone," she says. "And popularity is all wrapped up in that. French culture doesn't have that. When I talk to French women who live here, one said the notion of popularity was so difficult for her to understand because it simply does not exist in France.

"Now imagine growing up in a culture where you don't have to worry about that," Ollivier says, noting that it's liberating.

I mean, what an (apparent) subversion! That because French culture doesn’t have the people-pleasing mandate for women, they somehow...wind up thinner, because others aren’t afraid to rap them on their knuckles? That it’s somehow sleekly rebellious to not gain weight? I don’t believe this is true—certainly not in American culture, anyway—but it’s intriguing, and it’s appealing as hell if you’re a woman who sometimes feels trapped in the double bind of wanting to be conventionally attractive but not wanting to feel as though she’s caving to The Man (or, worse, as though she’s betraying her own needs, and those of other women) in doing so. In other words, it’s incredibly appealing for women who want to find a comfortable place to reside within the beauty mystique. It’s incredibly appealing to me. And if I want to ne regrette rien in the grand scope of things, I’m going to have to examine this with an unflinching eye—because as comfortable as the faux French solution might seem at first glance, its eventual restrictions make it just as uncomfortable as the American beauty bind.

And with that: Happy Bastille Day!


  1. I've been meaning to write something about stereotypical Frenchness and feminine roles for a while, but I've never quite managed to get to it. This is really good, really interesting.

    My own thoughts were coming from my childhood (..and continuing) adoration of Claudine from Enid Blyton's St Clare's series. A French girl in an English girls' boarding school, who's naughty and unconventional and selifsh, but still somehow so undeniably charming and sweet and pretty and good at girl-skills like embroidery?

    It's the pre-adulthood version of Ineffable French Chic.

    It makes me uncomfortable because nationalistic stereotypes are no good, and because other characters who act the same way but without the frenchness are cast as villains or fools - it's acting like a jackass and getting away with it, and adhering to the How Girls Should Be but assuring oneself that I'm still doing it my way. Like you say. Thank you for this post!

    It's troubling. But.. I still want to be like her.

  2. Great post. I love to hate French women. It's that "I don't give a f****" attitude. I am so not chic, so I guess it just comes down to jealousy.

    Sounds like a hot outfit!

  3. If the "French tendency" is to "not give a damn," then where does the "enormous social pressure the moment you gain half an ounce of body fat" come from? Does this mean the tendency's only to give a damn about OTHER people's perceived flaws?

    I do love the idea of being devil-may-care, but I don't particularly associate it with France.

  4. Claire, I'd love to read your thoughts on this whenever you get around to it--I feel like the English-French relationship is similar but different from the American-French connection. (I mean, we're pretty much gaga over anything European, so...) In any case, I don't know the series but it sounds like it's exactly what we're talking about here--that in-between space of embracing and rejecting certain notions about how we should be. Interesting!

    Verging On Serious, I'm with you--I'm far too enthusiastic and earnest to ever be truly Frenchy. I never realized how American I was in that regard until my time in Prague, when I found myself suddenly being the class cheerleader, a position I've never occupied...

    Rebekah, the French paradox, mais oui! It's such a different way of considering "not giving a damn" from what we know. I'm not sure if I smell a rat or a genuine cultural difference.

  5. I suspect there is huge pressure to conform to social norms like thinness and other style matters (Read Le Divorce, for example). It's just different from the pressure to be "likable" Americans feel.

    For one thing, I like likability--I'd rather be mistaken for a super-polite, warm, generous Canadian than a snooty French person.

    I do find that it took me decades to get over the social pressure to eat to make others happy or to eat because I was feeling compelled to do things I didn't want to do make others happy. Now I eat when I want to, and, for the most part, do what I truly want to--which may be helping others, but may not be, and I find that I weigh 50 lbs less....

  6. Not French but Italian, and there is a lot of overlap. One is my being creeped out by the whole "popularity", as in "the popular girls" American thing. We didn't have that in Italy either, and there are pros and cons.

    Pros, obviously, a lot less bullying and a more pleasant teenage experience: you only have yourself to make you miserable, yourself and the Pink Floyd. Because I have the feeling that popularity is a power game, that has nothing to do with being liked.

    Cons: despite the ways in which they are totally horrible to each other in high school, or perhaps because of it? Americans grow up to be amazingly warm, kind-hearted, generous persons. I may be judging on a skewed sample here, because my friends are geeks and therefore the losers in the popularity contest earlier on. But still. There must be something.

    In Italy, it's certainly not true that you don't give a damn. You don't give a damn to be LIKED, maybe, in the same way Americans do (but come on, being liked is very much a human trait), but you do want to not be disapproved of. People who tell me how glamorous and beautiful Italians are (men and women) have no clue how much effort and dread goes into it. It's not only fat. It's the dress, the tan, the hair, the makeup that must not appear to be there, the style.

    When I first came here to London and saw all those banker women going to the office in trainers (TRAINERS?) I was gobsmacked. How could they let themselves be seen in public with those shoes under those outfits? What was the point of putting the heels on in the office?

    Of course in part it was a liberation, to come here: but not a total one. In Italy the code is socially mandated, and you can wear jeans as long as you're fabolous in them. Here the dress code is enshrined in your contract, and feels like an encroachment of your personal space even if, in the end, it is far less controlling.

    Of course London is a particular place, where dress is so varied that people have given up trying to enforce a social code, and you can dress up pretty much as you want and hardly be noticed.

    Which makes me realise how much of this is not just culture-specific but related to location and local codes. When I spent a summer in an American campus in North Carolina, it wasn't long before my nice fitted jeans and brand t-shirts made me feel acutely uncomfortable in an overdressed manner. I am about to go out and buy a hat for a wedding that I would never in a million years be able to wear in Italy.

  7. This is very interesting to me, too, because I had a totally different experience while living in Paris myself. Note, I only lived there a year, didn't have money to do much fashion-wise, or hang out with the fashion crowds. But here's my deux centimes...

    In France, beauty is a fact. It is not in the eye of the beholder. Something is beautiful if it is beautiful, whether it is your taste or not. Beauty just IS. And the French are obsessed with it. They think about the beauty around them all the time. They think about themselves and their beauty or lack of it all the time. They spend a large portion of their money on making themselves look better. And they do care what other people think, though they work hard to look as if they don't. They care what you look like, too. This was never more clear to me than the Monday I dared leave the house in jeans, a white t and athletic jacket and retro sneaks. (This was 6 years ago.) I got poopooed because it was MONDAY. You can do that on Saturday. Not MONDAY. The fact that I didn't have to work that day meant nothing. I was breaking a rule. I went home and changed.

    French beauty and fashion is wonderful, yes, but it is just as rigid as the rules are here, probably more so. I agree that the popularity thing doesn't factor in, so perhaps we have more pressure socially. In France, it's perfectly fine to be a bitch.

    However, being an American, being friendly (which is a concept they do not seem to have much less understand), and being as your previous commenter said, "amazingly warm, kind-hearted, generous persons", I got along great. People loved me because they could tell I was genuine. They didn't know what to make of it at first, but by the time I left, the woman at the market was offering to mail me "the good butter" and my baker teared up when I said I was leaving. I've kept friends I've made there that still write to me regularly. We may have to slog it out here in the US to be popular, but those skills go a long way when it comes to diplomacy and politesse. And, I was soon mistaken for French. ;-) Bof!

  8. As a long-time American-in-Paris, I think it's worth pointing out that there's really no such thing as a "French" woman. What the NYT calls "French women" is really a small group of relatively wealthy, mostly Parisian women. If you leave the neighborhoods these women live and shop, you find a much broader range of body shapes, clothing styles, and attitudes towards both.

    And if you leave the cities altogether and go into poorer areas, smaller towns or rural places without public transportation or local shops, you find, as journalists love to lament, large numbers of overweight people, as obesity has grown along with (paraphrasing here) dependence on cars, video games, and fast food outlets. With that has come a cultural demonization of "les obèses," who can (conveniently) be condemned not only as unhealthy and costly to society, but also as "American."

  9. Speaking as a woman who lives in Paris, and who is possessed of large breasts, hips and a love for cheese in large quantities, it is simply not the case that French women 'don't give a damn' in general. They don't give a damn about hurting your feelings by telling you to your face that you're fat, or the music you're playing at your party isn't cool enough, or the wine isn't up to their standards. In terms of what's acceptable vis-a-vis appearance, dress, and particularly body types, France is far far more overtly restrictive than any other country I've lived in.

  10. KBFenner, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, La Rêveuse, Ellie, and Anonymous--thank you so much for reading!

    FBFenner and Anonymous, you both make the excellent point (as did Rebekah earlier) that the idea that the French don't give a damn is highly at odds with certain social constrictions--like, say, thinness, or adhering to a certain sensibility, or, as La Rêveuse pointed out, wearing sneakers on a Monday! That very contradiction is what's interesting to me here--certainly it isn't actually that the French don't give a damn. (If anything, it would seem that we Americans are the ones who don't.)

    I think this ties into what Ellie was saying: There is no such thing as a "French" woman. I'm thinking here of the American counterpoint, which is that if you judged all of America by New York, we'd have a very different reputation abroad--and that certainly within New York, there's no real "New York woman," more a stereotype of a very specific kind of New York woman.

    Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, I'm so intrigued by this comment: "Here the dress code is enshrined in your contract, and feels like an encroachment of your personal space even if, in the end, it is far less controlling." It seems like there are pretty strong codes we enforce in supposedly more laid-back cultures that at their heart as just as strict as, say, the French or Italian codes. I also really like what you have to say about popularity--really, it's about mastering a certain set of codes, not about being liked. I'm wondering if having a stricter social enforcement of those codes for EVERYONE somehow means that "popularity" in Europe might have more to do with, well, actually being liked instead of simply being adept in social codes?

    La Rêveuse, I love what you're saying about how beauty is a fact in Paris--not in the eye of the beholder. I feel like we say that a lot about America, but A) there's a pretty strong backlash against that sentiment, and B) we as a nation are so much about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps that I think we might inherently have a deeper appreciation of individual beauty? Maybe, I don't know.

    You're making me think of a visit to Paris in which I went into a shop I couldn't afford, and the shopkeepers could probably tell I couldn't afford, but they took pleasure in selecting clothes for this warm American who came in there all gaga at being en Paree and obviously having no clue but appreciating everything so much. It was an experience deeply tied to beauty--they dressed me up in dress after dress and kept clucking at what didn't work, and then when there finally was a dress that worked they marked it down. It was almost like we'd had this shared experience over a yearning for beauty, and they really just gave me a gift, both of the experience and of marking down the dress.

  11. I've just stumbled upon this post, and I must add my two cents (0.015 euros ?).

    I must preface by saying that I AM French, 100%, born and bred, so my experience is first hand and untinted by prejudice.

    Popularity does exist. Maybe not in the same shape as in the US ("cheerleader"-like popularity), but go to every woman group and you'll find cool girls and loosers. Actually, the whole high-street garment industry thrive on it : many expensive brands have earned millions SOLELY on their "cool" image. Quality ? Fit ? Forget it. Put the right brand on any pilling sweater tee and it'll fly out of the door.

    Anonymous said it well : French people "don't give a damn" when it's convenient for them (errrr ... I mean us). Hence rude comments, snobiness and world-famous road behaviour.

    In a nutshell, please stop idealizing us. "French girl glamour" is based on a handful of cookie-cutter fashionable girls that have made mean-ness, selfishness and peer-pressure a way of life. It's like every non-American were in awe of the blonde, popular, shallow, nasty girls that made everybody's life so miserable in high-school.

    (Oh, and sorry for my poor English. Not my mothertongue, obviously :) )

    (And just in case you wonder, I'm dead in the market to be a "cool girl". I'm just too realistic for my own good :D )

  12. QuickMind, I loved reading your perspective here! That's an excellent point: By idealizing French women, we're idealizing a stereotype that isn't really fair. (I remember being in awe the first time I visited Europe in adulthood and having men winkingly mention "Baywatch," as though that were at all representative of 99% of America!) And your English is just fine, no worries--meilleur que mon francais!

  13. As a french women myself, I'd say a lot of the looking proper things are very true. My grandmother would not let me leave the house with an un ironed shirt, or trousers that were a little bit stained by food or something. And makeup was a must when going outside the house, not my grandmother's request, but you just saw it instantly.

  14. Whoever idealises French women has obviously never met "ma belle-mere"- a hugely overweight slob with atrocious manners, a voice like an air raid siren, zero culture, a total inability to cook anything, and whose one pleasure in life is malicious gossip. Yet, should you suggest to her that she's letting down the nation with her appearance or attitude, she'd probably stick a knife into you. French, and proudly so, but not perhaps a "French" woman?