Says the NYT in a piece on "aging gracefully, the French way", "Looking attractive, at any age, is just what Frenchwomen do, especially the urban ones." How, you ask?
Not afraid of cliches, the piece goes on, "For Parisiennes, maintaining their image is as natural as tying a perfect scarf or wearing stilettos on cobblestone streets. Beauty is a tradition handed down from generation to generation." That said, while generalizing about a whole country is always dangerous (and the latter-day, immigrant-hatin' Brigitte Bardot never seems to come up in these conversations), it is true that there is a different beauty culture in France. My ideas about grooming changed a lot during the year I worked there; it had never occurred to me to get a facial - let alone regular ones - and I remember the bewilderment of my French friends, for whom it was considered basic maintenance. While we were all young, a lot of them were already using anti-wrinkle creams, and talked about their mothers' massage regimens (when I asked.) But it's not as simple as learning to tie said scarf, or getting facials, or learning to love yourself, or having a culture that values older women (even if that is, to a degree, true.)
Here's what we learn in the article about said French-style "graceful aging":
If you get plastic surgery, keep it discreet.
Did we mention being thin?
The No. 1 response to my informal survey of Frenchwomen about the years of magical aging is not gaining weight. Ever. If a Frenchwoman happens to see an additional kilogram or two on her bathroom scale, she will do whatever is necessary to force the needle back where it belongs. "I keep my weight steady, no ups and downs," [Leslie] Caron said. "I avoid all excess." She claims to eat all kinds of food in small - her friends say minuscule - portions, and she doesn't drink alcohol. It's not so much that "French Women Don't Get Fat," as the title of Mireille Guiliano's best seller had it. Rather, Frenchwomen won't get fat.
No joke. Anyone who's spent any time in a French pharmacy knows that weight-loss aids are matter-of-factly front-and-center.
If Frenchwomen don't walk enough to stay en forme, there is always a pill, a lotion, a machine or a treatment to do the trick. Pharmacies have counters full of diet and figure-improving remedies. One cream promises "accelerated reduction in the areas resistant to diet" (hips, thighs and buttocks). Capsules assure a flatter stomach in four weeks. A poster recently plastered all over Paris Métro stations advertises a tiny Slendertone "Electronic Muscle Stimulation" belt that claims to provide, in a single session, the equivalent of 120 abdominal crunches. (It's available in the United States, too.)
Even Debra Ollivier, who's written not one but two books in praise of les dames Francaises, writes the following in her What French Women Know:
What's the real reason French women don't get fat? Yes, we know they eat sanely, with great pleasure, and in moderation. But, ladies, let's cut to the chase: French women don't get fat because it is undeniably, unequivocally not okay to be fat in France. This social consensus, which is inexplicably woven up in their perceptions of womanhood and sexiness, is so deeply ingrained in and stridently endorsed by French women that they will not mince words when they see any signs of creeping corpulence.
This is no joke; I remember a saleswoman in a department store coming into my dressing room and pinching at my tummy chidingly.
Again, this is a lot of generalizing about a lot of people (as is the entire "French Women" industry) but as long as we are generalizing, let's not just choose the warm-and-fuzzy generalizations. All cultures are complicated. The issue is not so much with what Ollivier calls a "pernicious paradox, "as in not glorifying and simplifying another culture beyond all reason. Are there things we can learn form "French women"? Sure — and we can also learn from anyone who, as the article puts it, "feels good about themselves, right down to their La Perla 100-euro panties." And, like I said, for every stereotype, there are a million exceptions. I wrote my friend Marie for her "aging secrets" (yeah, she's 30, but still.) She wrote back, "Huh? I drink. I smoke. I guess I ride my bicycle a lot for America. Here, everyone's obsessed with 'French women' in this weird way. Frankly, I think I disappoint them because I'm not some cross between Marion Cotillard and Amelie." A few minutes later, I heard from her again. "Okay, called my mom. She said, 'Only drink good wine.'"
Aging Gracefully, The French Way [NY Times]