Thursday, February 14, 2013

So French

The eternally moisturized Frenchwoman. (By loki11, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Frenchwoman's beauty routine. (Because there's just the one woman - rich, Parisian, works in fashion - and therefore just the one routine.) This is, as you probably already know, a thing. Beauty writing aimed at American (and British? Australian?) women has a way of breathlessly celebrating that-which-is-French. Any vaguely pharmaceutical-looking bottle bearing a Gallic label must, by definition, contain a serum or cream that will improve your life tremendously.

To be "French" about beauty is to look low-maintenance (i.e. no visible makeup) while spending like Marie Antoinette on skin products at the parapharmacie. But this is not vanity. It's caring for your skin, which is almost like a health concern. Extra Frenchness points if you pore over makeup ingredient labels, but cheerily admit to smoking, drinking, and eating whatever you feel like. (A good percentage of the admittedly addictive "Into The Gloss" profiles more or less amount to, the woman being profiled is French, so French, and this is why we the Anglophone audience should listen to her beauty tips.)

I have something of a love-hate relationship with the looking-French obsession. On the one hand, for entirely subjective reasons, I want to embrace it. I would have a much easier time pulling off all-French than all-American. I far more closely resemble Charlotte Gainsbourg than Reese Witherspoon. I'm small and pale, and if I don't wear eyeliner, I will be asked if I'm feeling OK. I've never gone in for fake tans or tooth-whitening. (The coffee stains, so French!) And my default style, for better or worse, is gamine. I'm in grad school for French, I've lived in Paris, and I have accumulated too many marinières over the years to plausibly deny Francophilia.

On the other, it just gets old. Of all the countries in the world, do we really need to take our beauty advice from the most predictable? Is the French approach to beauty the most beautiful, or is this all circular - we define "beauty" as that-which-is-French, giving those-who-are-French an advantage? Why not Japan, with its miracle hair-care products that I randomly discovered while shopping for groceries at Sunrise Mart? Do the French have an insouciant "je ne sais quoi," or is what we're calling "French" an actually quite rigid approach to self-presentation, one that discourages risk-taking, even among teens? Is it charming that they embrace a gamine physique, or oppressive to women who are built otherwise? Is it all maybe a touch offensive to actual French women, not all of whom spend used-car sums on quasi-medicinal ointments, and not all of whom asked to be put on this pedestal?

And is the whole thing not a little bit racist? Can a woman of color - heck, can a woman of Scandinavian origin - look "French"? What about the many Parisiennes who are themselves not of French ethnic origin? Sure, anyone can wear a scarf, and anyone can overspend on anti-aging cream, but consider the craze for French-girl hair. A commenter at my blog, Fourtinefork, alerted me to Vogue's instructions on achieving this look. If one is going to be French, one must use low-end shampoo and no conditioner; let the result air-dry without brushing it first; and if, in the course of washing your hair infrequently, things get too greasy, you're permitted dry shampoo. If you have a hair texture that requires the addition of oils, as opposed to a daily battle against greasiness, this "French" thing isn't going to happen.

12 comments:

  1. Right. I'm French, and apart from spending tons of money on face creams (I use coconut oil and suchlike; I did buy a clarisonic though!), everything in there applies to me. I feel like such a stereotype! I thought I was just lazy, but I guess it's Gallic laissez-faire? I'll take that, as long as it gives me an excuse not to brush my hair!

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  2. Oh, the best thing about "French beauty" is without a doubt that we can call lax primping something chic. I'm very much on board with this, despite not being French. Like, I never figured out foundation, and could well look better wearing it. But my not bothering with it isn't because I'm lazy. It's just more French not to wear the stuff.

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  3. "Because there's just the one woman - rich, Parisian, works in fashion - and therefore just the one routine." Yes! I've always thought the use of French as a short hand for a particular type of look (stripy shirt, scarf, either very short or very long hair) very very strange. See also: why french women don't get fat, and why french children are better behaved. I almost get it from an american point of view, at least france is far away, and if you're gonna go, you're gonna go to Paris and probably not anywhere else, but it's rampant in the Uk as well. And we really should know better!

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    1. That's it exactly - Americans go for a week to Paris, and only to the posher areas, and then remark on how different "France" is from back home. They imagine a really romantic life that's far closer to 'being on vacation' than 'being French.' They don't hop in the car and go to the hypermarché.

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  4. I am French, ethnically and culturally, and am often told I look very french--dark hair, striped sweaters, etc--and I can't possibly do that "French hair." No conditioner indeed!

    As if we needed any more evidence that this French fetish thing was bizarre and invented.

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    1. I feel as though there are some Parisian women, at least, who have "French-girl hair," but that the ready availability of conditioner at Monoprix and the like suggests this is far from a universal approach.

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  5. You read my mind and then you write better posts than I would!

    The image is enticing as hell, but that it exists is so complexly dodgy.

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    1. Well, thanks! And yes, it's quite an image.

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  6. Another thing the French women do is LIE...admitting that one does lots for their looks is quite gauche. Loads of French women (especially famous ones) go on in print about never wearing foundation or having surgery when in fact they do all sorts of things to keep their faces (and their fortunes) looking good. I think it's part of "Keeping One's Mystery", though as a more forthright American (and indside-track beauty blogger) I'd pretty much fail at that!

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    1. That's entirely possible. The impression we have from the media is that cosmetic surgery hardly exists in France, and I remember having to correct people's impression once I actually lived there and would see women who looked no less obviously operated-on than one sees in equivalent parts of the States.

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  7. Great write up. I really enjoyed while i am reading this post. I love French culture, French food, French life style. Last summer i have visited France as well as i have enjoyed this vacation.

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  8. Nice post. I love your post. French is one of the five main Romance language in the world, including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian. It is a beautiful language, however, it takes a certain ‘moving of the mouth’ skill that I have not yet mastered. My French has a bit of a Kentucky twang to it at the moment, which my teammates and coaches enjoy.

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