Bien dans sa peau, encore - une femme d'un certain âge

Bien dans sa peau, encore

(Because I needed to give myself a pep talk, this is a repost from last year.)

“Bien dans sa peau.” It’s that mythical state that French women supposedly embody from birth (though the vast number of minceur creams and pills in French pharmacies may be a chink in that armor), and, we’re told, the foundation to achieving effortless chic.
Being comfortable in one’s own skin is not a state that comes easily to some of us. We struggle with our failure to meet cultural standards or even just our own. We starve, crunch, pluck, dye, wax, inject ourselves toward an arbitrary and unattainable ideal. We practice denial: the comfort of going sleeveless on a hot day, ice cream from Berthillon, sex with the lights on, a day at the beach, clothes that actually fit our bodies as they are now.
Not to be morbid, but recent deaths of family, friends and people we knew only from their work bring home the point that Life Is Short. Life is too short to worry that your thighs are too dimply or your ears are too pointy or your boobs are too small or your upper arms sag. Life is to short to get upset at finding another wrinkle or grey hair. Life is too short to spend apologizing for the genetic hand we were dealt.

But “bien dans sa peau” also goes deeper, I think. It’s a type of comfort and acceptance of our likes and dislikes, our choices and values, and how we live our lives. It’s the knowledge that we’re not perfect, and mistakes do not make us worthless. It’s a form of grace, of living (and yes, dressing) in alignment with who we are, and not trying to fit ourselves into a mold.
In his usual eloquent way, the Manolo sums it up perfectly: Dress well, live well, treat others well, and do all you can with joyful confidence and others will invariably come to love your flaws as you yourself cannot.
Photo of Simone Signoret from here.

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  1. September 21, 2009 / 1:13 pm

    Ah yes …the French do have better pharmacy products! And better clothes shops and probably a better attidude.

  2. September 21, 2009 / 1:33 pm

    pseu, tellement contente de voir Simone Signoret (à un certain âge) ici plutôt que la mythique “Française qui ne grossit pas”.

    It is very hard to fight that deep self-loathing. (Confess I’m just as happy that there are few beaches hereabouts). Duchesse had a good response a while back on why the mothers of women of our generation were so very hard on us and seemed to try to instil self-loathing and feelings of worthlessness.

    I’m working on a report on family caregivers (for a client, and can’t say any more) that touches upon the great gap between these two generations; the older one sought economic security in marriage, the now middle-aged in work. Such a gap is part of the reason for toxicity I’ve never seen towards sons.

    Make do style, yes there are very good pharmacy products in France. Better clothes shops? Yes, if you are a size 12 at most or smaller. There is very little choice for anyone curvier or more ample, and little indeed for plus-sized women, who are more common than you might think, although obesity rates remain below those in most of North America and many other European countries.

    A better attitude? Yes and no. Becoming middle-aged doesn’t mean one is seen as no longer desirable or becomes utterly invisible. But there are a lot of pressures on Frenchwomen in terms of how to look and dress. Not necessarily a bad thing – I’m rather shocked when I visit certain middle-Canadian or American places and people who do have the wherewithal to look good seem to find their clothes in WalMart… but although I love France very much it is important not to idealise French society and how people really live there.

    I love Simone Signoret and could spend all day googling about her, but I do have work to do!

  3. September 21, 2009 / 2:39 pm

    Very well said. Life is far too short to spend time obsessing about our flaws.

  4. Katriona
    September 21, 2009 / 2:40 pm

    It seems to me the Big Carrot of the North American lifestyle is the urge to reinvent ourself, hence all the reality shows featuring a new wardrobe, the Big Reveal, and an orgy of social acceptance at the end. Not that that’s a bad thing, and it seems a healthy remedy to lot of ingrained misconceptions(I can’t wear patterns! Or skirts! Or red!).
    But the idea that a better us is forever just out of reach, and then we can start living the fulfilled life we were meant to have, keeps us from seeing the present moment.But it sure sells a lot of clothes and cosmetics.
    The French seem to be clearer about finding their own personal baseline and working from that. They have a Gallic pragmatism that says: we are proud of our old monarchy and the glories they created, but a democracy worked better, so we cut off their heads. Similarly, a Chanel suit is sublime thing, however if one has wide hips the four pockets make one look like a large garden gnome so I will not wear it, I will wear Schiaparelli instead. It is the art of what is possible Right Now, not in some distant slim-hipped neverneverland.

  5. Northmoon
    September 21, 2009 / 3:10 pm

    I believe part of the problem is finding a balance.

    I want to care about my appearance, not let myself go, start gaining weight. I want to look reasonably put together, possibly even chic on occasion! I enjoy treating myself to good clothes, provided I decide I can afford it. My credit card must be paid in full every month!

    I don’t want to become obsessed by my appearance. I won’t dye my hair, put any needles in my face, starve myself, endure constant self analysis.

    Of course that’s the thing about “Bien dans sa peu” – it must look effortless!

  6. September 21, 2009 / 3:26 pm

    Northmoon, I’m surprised to see you put “dyeing hair” in the same category as botox, starvation diets and constant-obsessing.

    In the photo Simone had stopped dyeing her hair, but most Frenchwomen old enough to have some grey do colour their hair. However they wear far less makeup than a lot of women in much of North America and several other European countries (yes, Italy, I’m looking at you – too much foundation)…

    pseu, am I allowed a WEE bit of professionally-deformed pedantry? Bien dans sa PEAU. Yes, we all make TPYOS.

    Today is the last day of summer (in the Northern Hemisphere) and a perfectly beautiful sunny, warm day in Montréal.

  7. September 21, 2009 / 4:12 pm

    Bravo! However I think that I’ve taken comfort in myself too far in recent years – as I’ve gotten busier and busier, and had less time for myself and more need to cram what I want to do in life into stolen moments, my usual disinterest in fashion and style has dropped down to zero interest and permission to allow myself to gain weight.

    I have to work on the weight, at least, though at some point I appear to have decided that since I am, and have always been, a brain that uses a body to carry it around [in that everything of what the body uses to keep it from going naked no longer matters.

    Though it is getting me closer to adopting a workday uniform that will eliminate all need to think about what I’m going to wear, and that would be good… and then I’ll find that job where I can wear jeans, flannel, polarfleece and hiking boots every day and I’ll really be set.

    And to lagatta a montreal – so right you are about the generational issues. At 40 I’m having tremendous issues with my 70+ mother on appearance. She, who never worked much, is appalled at my giving up 1950/60 standards such as skirted suits, hose, heels and “dressing fit to kill” and I can’t understand why she’s always so concerned about frivolous things. Doesn’t she realize that my professional work and publications are the only things of value to me????

  8. lagatta
    September 21, 2009 / 4:38 pm

    Artful Lawyer, whatever makes you “bien dans votre peau” is great, and I have friends who prefer very casual, practical dressing (work permitting). Although I’m glad I don’t have to dress corporate, at a good decade more than you, I’m much girlier and rarely wear jeans or trousers. I love earrings, do colour my hair, and like to look pretty.

    Some of my friends (who look well-groomed and fine) couldn’t be bothered with that in the least. Me, it raises my spirits. I have a background in the arts and love beautiful fabrics and colours, and interesting jewellery, especially silver.

    My mum is much older than yours (96) and had me at well over 40. She hasn’t long to live – just the inevitable ending to great age.

  9. Katriona
    September 21, 2009 / 4:42 pm

    These later posts made me think about my dear deceased father.(You really opened up a can of worms here, Ms. Pseu!) Where my Mom spent a lot of money on fashionable clothing that ended up hanging in her closet, because she was not continually attending luncheons or dining out or working in an office, my Dad wore well-tailored suits to work in the classic Mad Men styles, and after he retired switched to a uniform of well-tailored khaki trousers, pale blue cotton-twill shirts with oatmeal cashmere pullovers–very Land’s End. We would buy him variations of colour to augment his wardrobe, but left to his own choice that’s what he wore. He always looked together, and classy without ostentation, and when I see a man dressed like him in the street now, a lump comes to my throat. That to me, is style. I would like to acheive a female version of that. Simple, well made, functional classic clothes that wear well, are comfortable and set off my coloring, that I never have to think about. Artful lawyer, go to Brooks brothers, Talbots or Lands end and shop like a man, so how you live is beautiful as well as functional!
    But that’s what I think Pseu has been talking about all along… (by the way, currently I am my mothers daughter, and have a wonderful wardrobe of which I wear abt. 30% )

  10. Northmoon
    September 21, 2009 / 5:06 pm

    Hey Lagatta, I’m not knocking hair dyeng but it is an artificial chemical enhancement. I’m aware that it’s become the norm for women today to use hair colour rather than go grey. Just my personal choice not to.

  11. September 21, 2009 / 5:56 pm

    I’m sorry, I had to jump out the window after seeing the dreaded phrase “effortless chic” and was not available to read the rest of post 😛

  12. September 21, 2009 / 6:25 pm

    Well worth re-posting, Miss Pseu. And worth remembering every day.

  13. September 21, 2009 / 6:37 pm

    discours de motivation à l’intention d’Une femme première partie:

    pseu, heartfelt thanks for all your informative, well-written … and thought-provoking … posts.

    deuxième partie:

    The countdown is how many weeks now? Time to start exploring exhibitions to see (but not too many) and interesting corners of Paris to explore.

    Wishing you comfy but pretty shoes even more than new ones right now!

  14. September 21, 2009 / 7:13 pm

    Amen, sister! Many thanks.

    I’m sad when I hear a woman say, “I was bad” and what she means is, she ate a cookie.

    There is pressure among my Parisienne friends my age to be still attractive, but they APPEAR offhand about it. They certainly do not rotate their wardrobes like North Americans do. (I’m posting soon on “When French Women Shop” based on two who visited this summer.)

    Lagatta, I read recently that French manufacturers are making larger sizes (12, alors!) to meet demand.

  15. September 21, 2009 / 7:19 pm

    And getting ‘political’:
    There is an agenda to making women in the wealthy, developed world feel they are never good enough: all those treatments, products, clothes and feather someone’s nest. If we were having a blast with what we owned and were content with how we looked- who would make money? The big late-capitalist engine “has” to run.

  16. Sal
    September 21, 2009 / 2:47 pm

    Amen to THAT. And I adore Manolo’s quote. Might have to do a needlepoint sampler of that one.

  17. September 21, 2009 / 10:41 pm

    What a great post. I’m glad you re-posted this gem. I totally agree with everything you’ve said. I’m slowly working my way around to this and it takes real work to get rid of all my old hang ups.

  18. Penny
    September 21, 2009 / 3:51 pm

    Absolutely! Life is too short to get caught up. While it is important to take care of oneself; it’s more important to look at the bigger picture — of what we need to accomplish here on earth before our time runs out:)

  19. Lisa
    September 21, 2009 / 6:11 pm

    Aahhh, Pseu, Sounds to me like all you need is a glass of good champagne and a new pair of shoes. Let’s put the worms back in the can where they belong.

  20. Rubiatonta
    September 22, 2009 / 1:20 am

    I spent some months in France during a formative time (just before turning 20), and soaked up a lot of good advice from Madame, with whom I lived (kind of like having a French gran). Having made it through both the Depression and German occupation, she was a pragmatic soul — taught me to get good things that lasted, and to take good care of them. She didn’t have a lot of clothes, but she was always immaculately turned out.

    Recently, I found myself seduced by the plethora of cheap (and I do mean cheap) clothing out there — and let myself clog my closet. I’ve now taken myself in hand, and am ruthlessly weeding out anything that I don’t wear often. Yes, the closet’s still a lot fuller than it was when I was younger and poorer, but finding something to wear to teach at the university is a lot less angst-producing. Everything fits, everything works.

    Another lesson I learned in France is that you can’t replace your hair or skin. I’ve taken good care of both since I was fairly young, haven’t smoked or overdone the sun, and haven’t hewed to outrageous expectations of what I ought to weigh, so I’ve held up pretty well. (The advantage of being chubby is that a little fat holds your wrinkles up longer!)

    Finally I learned to enjoy all kinds of food in moderation — chocolate, cheese, insane pastries, fat on pork chops (“Cela se mange,” Madame always said). When I stick to that principle, I’m usually in better trim than I am when I’ve tried to deprive myself of something. And I’m a lot more fun than my constantly-dieting sister, too!

  21. Leanne
    September 21, 2009 / 9:42 pm

    Thank you so much for re-posting this! I have taken on “Bien dans sa peau” as my new motto in life (I know, how Americain, non?). But we need this as a continuous antidote to all the garbage about women’s bodies that’s out there.

  22. thoughtsinthecity
    September 22, 2009 / 5:49 am

    Thanks for reposting this. I’m reading for a while already, but haven’t yet commented.

    I can only second all the things you wrote.

    I guess, one crucial thing is, when we feel down, we are even more ruthless against ourselves. We suddenly find flaws even were there are non, just because something else in our lifes is off. We transport this into our appearance and then feel worthless.

    I just experienced that yesterday. I applied for a project I found highly intriguing and wasn’t lucky enough to be chosen as one of the participants. I felt worthless and that directly translated to what I saw in the mirror.
    So today, I returned to comfort-clothing, which, in that case, means a fool-proof outfit. My asolute favourite sweater of the moment and a well fitting jeans. All flattering shapes and colours. No way I cannot like myself in that when seeing my reflection.

    We all have flaws. But as it was once so well put by Mrs. Carrie Bradshaw: Why should we let the one thing we don’t have make all the others appear bad and worthless?

  23. September 22, 2009 / 4:03 pm

    Make Do Style – better pharmacies, for sure! Better clothes, probably. A better attitude and approach to life, yes in many respects. I know that some will disagree but I think for the most part the French are better at achieving balance in life.

    lagatta – thank you for all of your comments on this thread and for correcting my late night typo! I agree that it is quite tough to keep from focusing on what we’ve come to think of as flaws. It’s true that most French shops cater to smaller sizes, however I’ve passed a gorgeous plus size shop on Rue St. Honoré on both of our trips.

    Belle – thanks!

  24. September 22, 2009 / 4:08 pm

    Katriona – thanks so much for your eloquent and thoughtful comment. I think it’s part of our American cultural heritage to always be looking toward what’s just over the horizon as opposed to enjoying what’s around us. I can’t remember who said this, but it was something to the effect of “whatever is good for the economy tends to become a moral imperative” and I think that’s definitely part of it.

    Sal – that would be a very cool needlepoint!

  25. September 22, 2009 / 4:16 pm

    Northmoon – I agree that each woman has to find her own balance. To me, it’s about enhancing what we’ve got. I dye my hair because I really like how I look as a redhead, and feel it suits my personality. I’ve seen some people whose pursuit of physical perfection has become so consuming that the rest of their lives suffer. And for all of that, they’re never happy, never satisfied. Who wants that?

    Penny – yes, what we want to accomplish but also what we want to experience. Sometimes the best life moments are when we’re doing nothing.

  26. September 22, 2009 / 4:21 pm

    Artful Lawyer – I don’t think style and comfort have to be mutually exclusive. Nor is style solely the province of the young-and-thin. If jeans and polar fleece speak to you, then go for it.

    WendyB – if it’s any comfort, the qualifier near the beginning of the paragraph was “mythical.”

    Lisa – both of those sound like a good idea. I’ve been on the hunt for some very specific shoes (which I’ll post about later this week or next).

  27. September 22, 2009 / 4:27 pm

    Miss Janey – thanks. I needed the reminder myself.

    lagatta – I’ll have a “countdown and planning” post up at the end of the week. But it’s less than three weeks now!

    Duchesse – I very much enjoyed your “How French women shop” post! Very insightful. I think in some ways French women make more of an effort in the areas they ultimately can control (such as the cut of a jacket) and don’t fuss so much over what they ultimately can’t control (ageing in general). I think they have the right idea when it comes to good skincare vs. cosmetic surgery.

  28. September 22, 2009 / 4:31 pm

    Leanne – thanks, glad you enjoyed it. It’s a good motto, non?,

    Bonjour Madame – Thanks! sometimes shifting our long-held attitudes is like turning around a tanker…slowly and a little bit at a time is how it works.

    Rubiatonta – oh how I envy your experience! Thanks for sharing these lessons from Madame! And I agree that good food in moderation is a recipe for sanity and good health.

  29. September 22, 2009 / 4:35 pm

    ThoughtsintheCity – so true! We have a tendency to deflect our negative emotions onto our bodies. As a therapist used to remind me “Fat is not a feeling.” I’m glad you have some no-fail items in your closet ready to pick you up. We all need those!!

    Sher – thanks! It’s so true that some of what we think is wrong is actually what is unique.

  30. Sher
    September 22, 2009 / 1:03 pm

    Flaws are what MAKE us perfect. Awesome post!! I copying and keeping that motto.

  31. September 24, 2009 / 6:36 pm

    One of my favorite actresses and a role model for anyone, male or female, who seeks some comfort and confidence in growing older.

    I look to my grand-mère also as a source of inspiration. When I was growing up, I loved to visit her. She had very few hang-ups that I can remember.

    Although I am American, I always cherish my “Frenchness” and keep it with me, in my heart, and in the name I carry.

    Thank you for re-posting this. I came upon the original post this afternoon in a Google image search for Simone Signoret, and found that by happy coincidence, you had re-posted it. Also by coincidence, you re-posted it on the anniversary (eighth) of my “French” father’s death, which occured (yet another coincidence) on his birthday.

    If you care to see…

    Link to my 50th birthday tribute to myself on my blog:

    Link to my tribute to Simone Signoret:

    Link to my tribute to The Shaggs and ‘Little’ Edie Beale of Grey Gardens, more examples of revolutionary non-conformity:

  32. September 26, 2009 / 1:51 am

    ThatsMrRobert2U – I’m so glad that Simone guided you here. A belated happy 50th and I very much enjoyed your post about Mme Signoret.

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