“Beauty is not caused. It is.” -Emily Dickinson
Warning: this blog entry may be a bit girly-touchy-feely. If that’s not your thing (and truthfully, it’s not mine, but here we are), I apologize, and promise something positively brotastic (a word coined by my best friend and me) for my next post.
I spent my first four months here silently cursing French women for the same reason that, as a nerdy, awkward pre-teen, I cursed the popular girls. What reason is that?
Because next to the average French woman, with their smart fashion sense, soft features and spotless skin, I feel like the offspring of an ostrich and Napoleon Dynamite.
French women, each and every one of them, are effortlessly beautiful, and they are beautiful independently of one another, each in their own unique way. I have literally never seen a French woman that I thought was ugly. Are they genetically more attractive than American women? Maybe. But spending time in France is teaching me that genetics have little to do with physical beauty. The differences in a French woman versus an American woman’s approach to our three fashion obsessions–clothes, makeup, and hair–have revealed some interesting truths.
I’ll start with a disclaimer: As usual, when I make cultural observations, I don’t mean to pretend that I know and see everything, or believe that what I observe is true of every single individual. I recognize that any woman, or any man, has days of feeling unattractive, and I certainly don’t want to assume or imply that French women can’t possibly ever feel badly about the way they look. This blog is nothing but a space for my observations and reflections as painted in broad strokes, in response to my subjective experience of living in Paris.
French women always dress their best. I’ve never seen someone out on the street looking like she’s having a “grunge” day (a.k.a. my default setting absent any need to impress someone, and even that is a high threshold). They always wear nice clothes, nice shoes, and well-coordinated accessories. To them, every day seems to be an occasion to look one’s best. To wear sweatpants in public seems to be a cardinal sin.
The motivation behind the French dress code seems to be pride–always taking pride in one’s appearance, and never taking a moment in the public eye for granted.
In contrast, if I’m popping out for a quick errand, I’ll run to the grocery store or post office in my running shorts and dirty ball cap with no hesitation. It’s just for a minute, I say to myself. Just a quick trip out, so why bother going through the whole beauty ritual?
But in thinking like this, aren’t we taking that time in the eye of the public, however short, for granted? We write it off as “just Target” or “just the dry cleaners,” and then, doesn’t looking and feeling grungy make the whole trip seem like a chore? Wouldn’t it put a seemingly tiresome errand in a whole new light if we went into it looking and feeling our best, feeling fresh and put together?
And here’s another point, isn’t it mortifying when we run into someone we know while we’re looking like a mess? I can’t say I’ve never been embarrassed to bump into someone I know when I’ve run out for a quick errand looking like I just rolled out of bed (and when chances are, I just did…).
Funny story, there is a hopelessly, adorably cute guy in my building and, due undoubtedly to some curse from the universe, I only manage to bump into him when I’m looking particularly shittastic (a variation of brotastic, I suppose). Recent encounters have been while I was wearing 1) oversized sweatpants with barbecue sauce spilled on them, and a male friend’s t-shirt, 2) hiking clothes, of course complete with dirt and mud, and 3) pajamas with mismatched socks (which also happened to be ridiculous socks that had things printed on them). None of these encounters even had the decency to be mitigated by makeup, or clean hair. At some point, while I was red-faced, forgetting how to speak French, and wondering why in the hell I still own socks with cats on them, I swore I would never again leave my room without getting properly dressed first.
And yet…I can’t pretend that I’m ever going to completely break my habit of going to the grocery store with a dirty ball cap over my messy hair. Nor will I suggest that every trip out of the house should be preceded by a “night on the town” beauty regime. But I think there is something to be said for putting some pride into one’s step with a nice outfit, never taking a trip into public for granted.
If I could take back every minute that I’ve ever spent armed with hot styling tools, cursing into the mirror while trying to get my hair to lay perfectly, I would be able to earn another degree. And I know I’m not alone.
French women take a different approach, and I learned this not only through observing how they wear their hair, but from having my first haircut in France this week.
I resisted getting a haircut here for four months because I was too nervous about trying to do it in French (convinced that my butchered version of the language would have me ending up bald), but once I decided that the overgrown weed look wasn’t suiting me anymore, I sucked it up and ended up finding a wonderful stylist who also spoke English. When she styled my hair, she didn’t use any straightening tools or products. She literally used hand lotion and water to coax my hair gently into place, and encouraged me to let my natural waves do their thing.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. For months, I’d already seen that most French women sport long, naturally colored hair that is, yes, wavy, maybe even a little frizzy. To that they say, so what? That single patch of hair I spent forty-five minutes this morning trying to spritz, flatten, brush, and spray into submission is as unruly as it was when I started. Why bother? The hair is going to do what the hair is going to do, and no amount of products or curse words will change that. Natural is better. And on that note…
…it goes for makeup too. I am one hundred percent guilty as charged of gunking on as many concealers, eyeshadows and mascaras as I can find, in hopes that with enough makeup I can hide the features of my face that I hate. Thick lines of eyeliner make bony, Pinocchio-sized noses shrink away, right?
We tend to have a goal in wearing makeup of looking as little like ourselves as we possibly can. The average woman I see in on the street in Paris, in contrast, wears very little makeup, and what little she does wear is just to accentuate her best features. She looks fresh and natural, and all the more beautiful in her confidence not to hide behind products.
Confidence is what ties the whole look together–from always taking pride in one’s appearance, taking no moment in the public eye for granted, to highlighting one’s natural features without trying to hide the things we don’t like. French women have dynamite confidence and strength.
To return back to my haircut story, the woman cutting my hair kept telling me to hold my chin up higher, put my shoulders back, and look at myself in the mirror. I’d been avoiding the judging retort of my own reflection demanding to know why I’d set foot into public looking like, well, the offspring of an ostrich and Napoleon Dynamite. But when I locked eyes with my own face in the mirror, she said to me, “You are beautiful–your hair is an accessory to you.”
I warned you this was going to be a girly-touchy-feely post.
She was right about the way we should approach our hair, and it applies to makeup and clothes as well. The goal should not be to hide what we don’t like, but to highlight what we do like. I think American women, and especially this American woman, could learn a lot about the link between beauty and confidence from French women. Beauty is not about conforming to a standard of what is or is not “beautiful.” It is unique to each and every one of us, and (most importantly) independent of the other beautiful women around us.
That’s all a terrible cliche, but worth being reminded of. We should stop asking the question of whether or not that girl I was cursing a few minutes ago is prettier than I am. Instead, we should recognize that another beautiful girl’s beauty does not take away from our own, if we can only maintain the confidence and comfort in our own skin that French women seem to have mastered.