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The French Feminine Mystique - Part 1

A favorite Paris passe-temps (pastime) for both residents and visitors alike is sitting in one of the ubiquitous sidewalk cafés and people watching. An international metropolis such as Paris offers an endless parade of people from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all styles. From traditional B.C.B.G. types to avant garde artists to colorfully-attired immigrants from Africa to students wearing all black as a manifesto, the changing spectacle fascinates-and even challenges.*

Years ago, I decided to use my daily Paris café time to decode the mystique of the beautiful, stylish French woman. I wanted to figure out the source of that fabulous je ne sais quoi that une Française (a French woman) possesses. Accordingly, I spent a lot of time in Parisian cafés over a period of months watching French woman after French woman walk by.

Here's what I found out: The French woman does not have to possess beautiful features like actresses Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve. She does not have to be wearing the latest fashion styles. She does not have to display the most toned or exercised body. She does not have to be dripping in makeup or awash in jewelry real or faux (fake).

I discovered what makes a French woman belle (beautiful) is not what's on the outside (her expertly tied scarves excepted!) but what's on the inside. She is feminine, sexy and stylish from the inside out. In a nutshell, la Française exudes an internal confidence and self-assurance that is the epitome of external beauty and stylishness.

What's most interesting about this form of beauty is that it cannot be bought. Of course, French women generally have stylish clothes in their wardrobe. They take skincare and related treatments, les soins, very seriously. They watch what they eat yet are not enslaved to diets and major exercise regimes. Whereas American women go shopping for their look and tend to regard beauty as something to "put on," French women know innately that beauty is something to "turn on."

So what's a non-French woman to do if she wants to acquire the French-styled notion of beauty and sensuality? First, accept yourself completely and fully. Authenticity is very attractive in a woman (and men for that matter). Next, dig deep within to find what you like-passions, pursuits, pleasures-and cultivate these with all your senses. Last, be assertive but not aggressive. The iconic French woman is not afraid to speak her mind. She is not polite at the expense of her true self.

For additional ideas, I suggest going to Paris and parking in a café to observe French women in their own milieu (environment). Or if that's not immediately possible, pull out a few French films, sit back and watch fictional French women in action. There are definite nuggets of French beauty truisms visible in Audrey Tautou's character in "Amélie" or in Catherine Deneuve's roles in "Indochine" and "Belle du jour."

I have been on my own journey to become completely bien dans ma peau (at ease in my own skin), and I continue to marvel that this way of being seems to be second nature for most French women. As American culture does not offer a lot of role models in this area, I am thankful for the time I've spent living, working and traveling in France to absorb this essential women's wisdom. And lest I get off track, I remind myself often of the famous quote of the late, French haute couture (high fashion) designer Yves Saint Laurent:

"The most beautiful makeup for a woman is passion but cosmetics are easier to buy."

Cancel that visit to the department store makeup counter!

* B.C.B.G. stands for bon chic, bon genre and connotes an upscale, preppy appearance. An Hermès scarf for women or an Hermès tie for men would complete the picture.
* An interesting read on the je ne sais quoi of French women can be found in Debra Ollivier's book "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl."

September 10, 2008

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