Saturday, July 17th, 2010

French Women… [insert stereotype here]

Isabelle Huppert, 57. Photo from New York Times here.

Going through my e-mail Thursday morning, I saw that the lovely Rubiatonta had sent me a link to a NYT article entitled “Aging Gracefully, the French Way,” and my interest, bien sur, was piqued.  I didn’t have a chance to read the entire article (actually, two articles) and all of the fascinating reader responses in the comments section until later that night and throughout the next day. 

The article itself is mostly a re-hash of much of what has already been written about French Women™ including some truths (e.g. they pay more attention to skin care than makeup), some gross generalizations, stereotypes, and more than a few “bon” mots that almost made me spew cafe-au-lait all over the monitor.  (This snorter for example: “And even the average Frenchwoman — say, shopping along the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré or enjoying a leisurely lunch on the Left Bank, or strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens…” This is the equivalent of saying the “average” American woman shops on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive, enjoys an extended lunch at a posh restaurant and then goes for a stroll in Central Park.)  Several of the commenters including some French women or people currently living in France, pointed out the ridiculousness of these examples and the fallacies of many of the generalizations within the article, so I won’t fisk everything in there.  (I find that “lifestyle” and “trend” writers in the NYT tend to be from a rarefied, privileged demographic and assume everyone leads the same kind of upper-class lives that they do.)

As une femme americaine who has visited Paris three times in the last four years and tried to pay close attention to the women there, I do see some overall differences between the women of our two countries, even taking the broad diversity of both places into account.  Yes, les femmes d’un certain age in Paris and the few outlying areas we’ve visited do tend to wear less makeup than their counterparts here.  No, one doesn’t see the freakish, sometimes scary results of overdone plastic surgery while walking through the more upscale arrondisements that one might encounter in Beverly Hills (though some commenters observed that the obviously Botoxed face is becoming more common in Paris).  I did see exceptions in Paris, but generally women over 40 don’t try to dress like teenagers or 20-something celebrities. Nor does one see legions of women teetering around on stilletto heels.  True, the occasional high heel is seen, however low heels or flats dominate as is often noted, Parisian women do a lot of walking and climbing of stairs on a day-to-day basis. While generally well put-together, not every woman you pass on les rues is stylish or chic.  Frump is evident in Paris too, though you don’t see women schlepping around in baggy sweats or oversized tee shirts bearing the logo of a local radio station or a picture of their grandchild.

And yes, *overall* the women in Paris were thinner than a comparable cross-section of American women, but not all Parisiennes are whippet-thin.  While we’re on the (inevitable) topic of weight, the assumption that staying slim is a primary component aging well, repeatedly voiced in the article and comments, has limits.  While I’m not advocating that we abandon healthy habits and moderate portion sizes, especially as our metabolisms slow with age, I’ve also known women who maintain a fashionable gauntness through unrelenting deprivation, only to look haggard, tired and worn.  And how much joie de vivre can we experience when we’re always hungry? Do I even need to say that smoking to keep weight down (which French women are reputed to do in large numbers) plays havoc with the skin, not to mention health, or that the reducing “pills and creams” mentioned in the articles are dubious at best?

I say all of the above as a general admirer of French women and style, just to be clear.
But I think the major difference is cultural.  There was a bumper sticker from a few years back, “Change How You See, Not How You Look” and I think the French see women over 40 or 50 very differently than our culture does.  The French are very comfortable with The Feminine (and I mean that more in the grand metaphysical sense rather than just “femininity”) and don’t stop seeing or valuing women once they reach a certain age.  Though I think it’s slowly changing, women in the US seem to have an expiration date and are often culturally invisible after that point.  Duchesse once spoke of the concept of “granny goggles” in relation to hair stylists and older women; I sometimes think our culture wears granny goggles, and this spills over into how women see and treat themselves.  Here in the US, where so often beauty = youth, women go to great lengths to look youthful in the hope of looking beautiful and often wind up looking neither.  Or they give up entirely on trying to look their best or even thinking of themselves as attractive, as women.  Some mentioned in the article’s comments section that French women’s relentless drive to stay attractive and keep weight off stems from wanting to keep their husbands out of the arms of a mistress, in a culture that tends to be more tolerant of such things.   Perhaps in some circles that’s true.  But I also think there’s something to be gained from the attitude of valuing ourselves no matter what our age, taking care of our physical selves, not allowing ourselves to become drab and invisible, but rather using our appearance as a form of expression, and allowing our inner radiance to shine through.
Street style photos of les femmes fantastiques from Paris and environs by the gorgeous Tish from A Femme d’un Certain Age. Used with permission.
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All original content property of http://www.unefemme.net

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License.

46 thoughts on “French Women… [insert stereotype here]

  1. SMR

    Bravo and thank you for this post. My favorite part is your final paragraph, and especially, “… allowing our inner radiance to shine through.” What an inspiring way to start a Saturday!

    Reply
  2. materfamilias

    As we’ve come to expect from you, Pseu, a very thoughtful analysis with some wise advice about living well, ageing stylishly and happily, inspired by French women while not imitating them slavishly nor reducing them to clichés. Well done!

    Reply
  3. lagatta à montréal

    Oh, I’m looking forward to reading that article and fisking it, already the shopping street chosen is a good indication (there are all sorts of neighbourhoods and eateries on the Rive Gauche, and anyone can walk in les jardins de Luxembourg, but more affluent people are more likely to be thereabouts).

    I have seen baggy sweats in some deprived suburbs of Paris and Lyon – though never in garish colours – but it is less common than in poor areas in North America.

    Do confess I am pleased to see the chic woman with grey hair in the NYT photo on the right, as it still seems less common over there, and looking like a gran who doesn’t care how she looks would send me running to a salon (in a non-posh neighbourhood where some Algerian coiffeuse would take good care of my curly mop).

    But I’m out for an urban bicycle ride, along with many Parisiennes and les cousines over here… In a skirt of course. Funny how the article forgot the cycling chic boom. So, later…

    Reply
  4. Duchesse

    Yes! Great analysis.

    Would add, French women do not deck themselves in all-logo’d outfits, are not as inclined to buy knock offs (of said logos) and (at least the ones I know) will spend far more on lingerie, even if they are the only ones seeing it.

    No matter what the nationality, it comes down to keeping your joie de vivre, not denying it b/c of age.

    Reply
  5. laparesseuse

    Thank you, my dear Pseu. I nearly choked on my croissant (oh wait, I don’t eat them) when I read that article. Where are these women walking around in stilettos on cobblestone streets? A very rare breed, even on Faubourg St Honoré. Perhaps one might get that impression from the Sartorialist’s photos during fashion week. And where are the 18 euro haircuts with shampoo and styling? Beauty school trainées? The only thing that rang true for me was the emphasis on skin care over make up.

    Karen in Paris

    Reply
  6. Nancy K

    I read the article with interest and wondered at the writer’s rather elite bias too. I’ve been to Paris, and yes women look good, but not usually in the first stare of fashion. It’s clear though that most of them care enough about themselves to take care of themselves. This is certainly not the case with American women, and when you get out of the major cities it is even more apparent.

    Reply
  7. Nancy K

    Oh, I wondered at the $18 haircut myself. My dd spent her junior year in Paris and bemoaned being unable to find a salon that she could afford that gave her a good haircut.

    Reply
  8. Anne (in Reno)

    My neighborhood esthetician, Martine, is concerned that so many of her young clients (age 12 and up) go outdoors without sunscreen. Maybe she shouldn’t worry. A survey by the market research company Mintel found that 33 percent of French girls between 15 and 19 are already using anti-aging or anti-wrinkle creams.

    I love that the NYT seems to think that anti-wrinkle cream is just as good as sunscreen. And I love even more your take on this whole article. There’s a reason I subscribe to your blog and not the NYT, and this is it!

    Reply
  9. Tabitha

    Great post. I’ve seen a huge change in the way Parisian women dress, sixteen years ago plus ( I go once a year or so) everyone looked so chic, when I was there last year, I barely gave any woman a second glance.

    Reply
  10. Veuve

    Completely agree with Tish, you should have written this article, Pseu! I read it the other night and while I love the photo of Isabelle Huppert, the article itself was full of missteps and generalizations and some just plain silliness. (Yeah right, stilettos on cobblestones.)

    One thing that did ring somewhat true was the mention of portion sizes. Getting used to eating less is not a bad idea in general (as my doctor says, it’s all about portion control, and she’s right). We Americans so used to enormously sized food. Since I turned 50, I’ve had to train myself to get used to eating less (though I’d never starve myself). My body just doesn’t need the calories, so I try to make what I do eat count (and taste good).

    Thanks for the great post!!

    Reply
  11. La Rêveuse

    Yes, I completely agree. And one addition–French men appreciate women of any age, not just the 23 year olds. A woman is as sexy or sexier when she is older, and especially when she is pregnant (which is unheard of in the US.) It’s all about her allure–there is no expiration date on sex appeal.

    I miss that about living in Paris. In the US, my husband makes me feel attractive, but I rarely get “that look” on the streets. In Paris, it was the norm, every day, everywhere. C’est dommage…

    Reply
  12. Anonymous

    Thank you for your post. I read the NYT article and found your post more thoughtful and realistic.

    Reply
  13. Rubiatonta

    Ah, Pseu, I knew that you’d have fun with this article — I so enjoyed your insights.

    I’m considering doing a Madrid version while I’m here, except without the silliness of assuming that the average Spanish woman shops exclusively on Calle Serrano. And thank goodness I’m allowed into my friends’ bathrooms!

    Reply
  14. WendyB

    I don’t know why the French have a reputation for perfection. Maybe they hired a very good publicist: “Tell everyone everything we do is PERFECT.” I want that publicist. Anyway, from my hotel room in Paris, where I am having a lovely time, I will say that my opinion hasn’t changed: New Yorkers are more chic overall.

    Reply
  15. laparesseuse

    Oh, and that bit about “les toilettes”? Not true, in my experience. My French guests seem to have no qualms about using the facilities chez moi, and friends I’ve surveyed about the etiquette do not view it as a faux pas. In any case, inspecting the bathroom shelves of one’s hostess would seem to be a more significant breach of etiquette. Logistically, it would also be difficult to do such spying, as the toilet in many French apartments is in its own separate room, often with a small sink. Anyway, I think the WC mythology comes from the book French or Foe, which was once required reading for anglophones moving to France. I believe the same book (or another of that genre) stated that the signal that a dinner party was over was when the hostess offered orange juice — a custom I’ve never observed in countless dinner parties and one my French friends have never heard of.

    Reply
  16. fabulous finds

    fabulous post! as it is true that french women have a reputation for being “perfect” there is a lot we can learn from them…perfect or not…in my visits – the one thing that i found over and over is that they look put together…and it is not necessarily with designer duds…but as you pointed out…not in sweats or oversized t-shirts…
    loved your line “frump is evident in paris too”
    as i tell my clients – it really isn’t that difficult to look fabulous…it is about wearing what is right for your body type & age…why put on sweats and an oversized t-shirt…when it takes the same amount of effort to put on black pants & a fitted tee…no matter where you live…
    i am going to post this on my facebook business page… =)
    http://www.facebook.com/fabufinds

    Reply
  17. sisty

    Honestly? I think we might be protesting too much…

    the only thing more predictable than The New York Times being on the absolute tail end of any real trend, is the reaction of non-French people to these alleged “stereotypes.” Stereotypes are not the same as untruths. Try as i might, I can’t figure out which ones we are actually disagreeing with.

    Lighter makeup looks better? check
    Avoiding mutton-dressed-as-lamb? check
    Taking better care of your skin, rather than just covering it up with makeup? check
    Walking briskly instead of torturing oneself at the gym? I can definitely get behind this on

    I think the article makes all of these points, too, including about living well. I took the parts about treating yourself to the seawater spa treatment as license to treat yourself well, not as a slavish devotion to a uniform beauty ideal.

    Also, I think we should be aware of the difference between provincial French woman and Parisians….which I suppose is the same difference as between people who live in New York City vs. people who live in Akron, Ohio. Of course there are exceptions, but there’s a reason why the major urban centers — wherever they are — are ahead of the style curve.

    Finally, if you read the cobblestones sentence carefully, the author is not suggesting that all French women walk around in stilettos. None of the beautiful examples in the photos are wearing them, either.

    And finally, about weight. What I took from that is that French women are aware that weight gain is insidious and sneaks up on you, and seek to deal with it sooner rather than later. What’s wrong with that? I wish I had dealt with it 15 lbs. ago, when I was 5 lbs over a weight I felt comfortable at. And I wasn’t skinny then either.

    I think it’s great to see Segolene Royal as an example of a French woman who is aging gracefully. Clearly, she’s put on quite a bit of weight since her campaign, so it’s not about obsession with thinness — it’s about staying at a healthy weight.

    Reply
  18. lagatta à montréal

    Rubiatonta, Stéphanie Mortederire agrees with us:

    Stephanie Mortederire
    Paris
    July 15th, 2010
    11:56 am
    I am French, and I burst out laughing when I learned that it would be deemed rude to go to the bathroom in a French home. Who is this writer? And to whose house in France has she been invited? Rest assured, world, that if you are invited to a French person’s home, you will be wined, dined, and allowed to feel comfortable even in that place where, as the French say, the King goes alone!

    —-

    I’ve been in all sorts of French dwellings, from tiny studios (kempt and slovenly, to professors’ chic flats, Rive Gauche, to country estates and country hovels, and working-class apartments in the suburbs, and never once has anyone seen using the loo as rude.

    But some of the NYT readers’ comments are just as silly. Some seem to think French people don’t get any exercise because they aren’t often gym bunnies (though there are many top athletes from France) but walking everywhere, and a resurgence of cycling in recent years – no, not in lycra, in normal attractive clothing for men and women alike – are forms of exercise better integrated into life. Many Frenchwoman also take classes in yoga, tai chi, and other such disciplines. These are available in community centres in working-class districts as much as in posher settings in the upscale arrondissements.

    Reply
  19. sewducky

    Wow. I got some validation that my prematurely white hair and the fact that I don’t want to look like my teenage sister is given! (Not that I needed it.)

    Nicely thought out, and for the most part, yes I think Europe looks at aging and women much differently then Americans do which I believe accounts for quite a bit of the differences.

    Reply
  20. Faux Fuchsia

    Love this post and LOVE the notion of using appearance as a form of self expression. I know it’s probably wrong of me but I always think that staying slim as you age is the absolute key, along with hardcore grooming and really chic clothes. I love looking at the mature age ladies in Paris, to me they are all Catherine Deneuve-esque and I never tire of staring.

    Reply
  21. Deja Pseu

    SMR – thanks, and glad you enjoyed!

    Tish – mille mercis, and anyone who wants the REAL scoop on French women should be reading YOUR blog!

    materfamilias – thanks so much! It really irks me when *any* group of people are reduced to clichés.

    NancydaQ – thank you.

    Reply
  22. Deja Pseu

    lagatta – yes, les Parisiennes et les velos…tres charmants!

    Duchesse – thanks, and you’re right about the logos; generally one doesn’t see that at all. One does spot a lot of Hermès bags, though. Designer goods are bought and worn, just not the obvious, flashy ones.

    Belle de Ville – thanks so much!

    laparesseuse – Hi Karen, thanks,and I’m glad you chimed in. I wondered what your take on the article would be.

    NancyK – I haven’t visited outside of Paris much so can’t really speak to how the women in less cosmopolitan areas appear, but yes, I think once you get outside of the cities here, you don’t see the same level of self-care. Whether that’s a function of culture or economics, hard to determine.

    Reply
  23. Julianne

    Great post. Can’t wait to go back and read the article. I struggle with this thinking. I know it is how I should think, but it’s difficult in our culture. I hope one day to get to Paris, that is after I conquer my intense fear of flying.

    Reply
  24. Deja Pseu

    Anne in Reno – aww shucks, you’re too kind. Merci beaucoup!

    Tabitha – having only begun visiting Paris recently, I found general levels of dress to be more casual than I’d expected. Even so, I did find that hardly anyone I saw looked sloppy. The most casual ensembles seemed to be well thought out.

    A-Dubs – thanks so much! I checked out your blog and it’s really fun. I’ve added you to my blogroll.

    Veuve – thank you. Regarding the portion sizes, the good news is that I find that my appetite has adjusted and that I really can’t eat so much at one sitting. Even in Paris, there were some meals I couldn’t finish.

    La Reveuse – Yes, that’s one aspect of French/European culture that I think most of us would welcome. Going from being almost invisible when I walk down the street here to getting looks from men in Paris was unnerving at first, but also an a little ego boost.

    Anonymous – thank you very much. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Reply
  25. Deja Pseu

    Rubiatonta – thanks again for alerting me to the article. I’m really looking forward to reading your observations about Spain!

    WendyB – LOL about the publicist! I think the aesthetic is different between NY and Paris. But yes, one sees some incredibly stunning and stylish women in NY, can’t argue with that.

    laparesseuse – yes, I wondered about that. It did seem odd. I was told that in public, one wasn’t supposed to ask where “les toilettes” are, but rather to find them on one’s own. I tried to do that, but some waiter would always see me looking around and point for me.

    fabulous finds – YES! That’s the gist of it. Looking put together doesn’t mean one can’t be comfortable. Tee shirt and jeans with some nice flats, and a couple of bangles is my “go-to” outfit.

    Reply
  26. Deja Pseu

    sisty – I’m not sure if you’re responding to my post or the comments, but here’s my take. There’s plenty about *real* French women to admire and emulate including those items you’ve mentioned. The author of the article seems to imply the seaweed wraps and personal bankers as something that “everyone” does and the mythical French Woman she invokes with these assumptions(though probably unintentionally) reads to me like a character from a Judith Krantz novel. I get irked by these NYT trend articles where the author seems to have done no more research than speaking to a few of their closes friends, and then extrapolates that to “everyone.”

    sewducky – thanks! May I say that I’ve always been envious of women who go “silver” early in life? I think it’s such a sophisticated look.

    Faux Fuschia – thanks! It’s interesting how concepts of grooming differ. The French version tends to be a bit more touseled hair wise and natural makeup-wise than here. It’s a different look, but it works for them.

    Julianne – thank you, and I hope you do get to visit Paris someday.

    Reply
  27. M

    Pseu, From the photos of you I’ve seen on your blog, I think on your trips to Paris, most people on the street would assume you are Parisian!

    I agree that on average it does seem that many French women have a more natural look- which I admire.

    Reply
  28. LPC

    Well how about if we join forces and create our own mythology about American women as they age? Our resourcefulness, the way we stay fit, our sense of humor? French women clearly have a great brand manager. Let us learn from their example.

    Reply
  29. lagatta à montréal

    LPC, not everyone here is from the US.

    That said, I think a lot of the myth of American women has to do with youth, as the “Old World” stereotypes the “New” in that way. But there can be a cultural shift.

    Reply
  30. metscan

    Having seen French and American women as tourists here in Finland or Sweden or Denmark, I do see a difference. Many are those Deja already mentioned, but Americans dress in a different way. The young look like campers with their flip-flaps and backpacks. The older women really wear makeup and have their gray hair ” done”. Everyone really looks interested about what they see. The French seem to have packed along better clothes and they wear them with an ease.
    Great article, Deja, thank you.

    Reply
  31. Anonymous

    About weight:

    I went to Paris in 2001, at which time I was very overweight. I always felt very self-concious here in US, but strangely I did not feel that way in Paris.

    I chalked it up to good manners, or something. But I never felt that “checking you out, and you don’t pass” look on people’s faces.

    Maybe it’s just another one of those cultural differences!!

    cg

    Reply
  32. Katriona

    Terrific post– I read that NYT article with not a little eye rolling and forehead smacking myself— you are spot on.

    Reply
  33. Deja Pseu

    M- you’re entirely too kind, mille mercis! I agree that overall the women we saw in Paris displayed a more natural look regarding hair and makeup.

    Imogen – thanks! You’ve been a great ambassador for Australian style!

    LPC – Hmm, part of me thinks there’s already too much generalizing going on, whether good or bad. I enjoy exploring the style zeitgeist of different cultures, though.

    nononsensebeauty – thanks so much!

    Reply
  34. Deja Pseu

    LBR – thank you! Glad you enjoyed.

    metscan – thanks for adding your observations. You have an interesting perspective, living in an area where tourists from both countries visit.

    cg – that’s very interesting. I think the French tend to be more reserved and reticent, whereas we are more open about giving everyone the once over. (I *really* noticed this when I first moved to LA from northern Calif. In LA, you walk into a restaurant or store and everyone turns or looks up to check you out. Weird.)

    Make Do Style – thanks so much!

    Katriona – thank you. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

    Reply
  35. Rosina at Middle Ageless

    …and don’t stop seeing or valuing women once they reach a certain age. Though I think it’s slowly changing, women in the US seem to have an expiration date and are often culturally invisible after that point.

    C’est vrai but it seems to be slowly changing Pseu… there seems to be a movement towards valuing older women a little more. I think blogs like Advanced Style are helping. It’s a slow process though.

    When I was in Paris, I found that (in general) the women were markedly better pulled together than West Coast Canadians. I spent a lot of time trying to put a finger on it. Perhaps the fact that trends never take the place of fashion or style… I loved the pulling back of the hair and the scarves and earrings. It was simple and beautiful.

    This “pulled together” ness isn’t confined to Paris though. I find Roman women just as remarkable in their style sense.

    My husband says it’s not so much what they wear as how they wear it…always proudly with heads held high. Perhaps this in itself is stereotyping, but it’s what I observed in my short time there.

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  36. Kalee

    Great post! I think the generalizations can get a bit odd. There indeed are frumpy or ridiculous looking women in Paris, same as anywhere. But the cultural mindset is different. I think the best thing we can do as women is value ourselves and value other women, taking the best advice from all over the world about living with a bit of joie de vivre.

    Reply
  37. Anonymous

    I absolutely agree with this. I am determined for people not to see me with granny goggles. It’s shocking how early it starts, too. That’s why I detest the whole identifying women as “over 40” thing. As if once over 40 you’re part of this huge, undifferentiated mass of old chicks. Like 20, 30, OLD. LOL. Not that there is anything whatever the matter with being older. It’s just that identifying women who are middle aged and older as “over 40” strikes me as oddly dehumanizing. I’ve also noticed with age how everyone is so hung up on age. To hear the 28 year olds going on about how they have two years before they’re old is just silly. Everyone always needs to know how old you are, as well. I don’t like mentioning my age, personally. It always elicits gasps and parlor guessing games. I imagine this type of behavior is uniquely American as well. By the way I’m 46, and I look 15 years younger, if what people say is any indication. I am told I should be proud of my age. Why? For continuing to beat fate and wake up every morning? Aside from not wanting to be the center of side-showesque attention, I’m indifferent to my age. It’s just a fact of life. I pretty much go on as I always have, making adjustments based on experience along the way. I don’t want to jump on the middle aged band wagon of complaining to anyone in earshot about my power surges. I don’t want to dress in purple and wear a floppy red hat. I also don’t want to be reminded at every juncture about what’s appropriate for me to do, say or wear just because I’m “over 40.” I find here in America, people get older and suddenly you’re no longer an individual but an age. It sounds as if France is the place to be for a 40ish woman.

    Reply

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