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!