So French

The eternally moisturized Frenchwoman. (By loki11, via Wikimedia Commons)


The Frenchwoman's beauty routine. (Because there's just the one woman - rich, Parisian, works in fashion - and therefore just the one routine.) This is, as you probably already know, a thing. Beauty writing aimed at American (and British? Australian?) women has a way of breathlessly celebrating that-which-is-French. Any vaguely pharmaceutical-looking bottle bearing a Gallic label must, by definition, contain a serum or cream that will improve your life tremendously.

To be "French" about beauty is to look low-maintenance (i.e. no visible makeup) while spending like Marie Antoinette on skin products at the parapharmacie. But this is not vanity. It's caring for your skin, which is almost like a health concern. Extra Frenchness points if you pore over makeup ingredient labels, but cheerily admit to smoking, drinking, and eating whatever you feel like. (A good percentage of the admittedly addictive "Into The Gloss" profiles more or less amount to, the woman being profiled is French, so French, and this is why we the Anglophone audience should listen to her beauty tips.)

I have something of a love-hate relationship with the looking-French obsession. On the one hand, for entirely subjective reasons, I want to embrace it. I would have a much easier time pulling off all-French than all-American. I far more closely resemble Charlotte Gainsbourg than Reese Witherspoon. I'm small and pale, and if I don't wear eyeliner, I will be asked if I'm feeling OK. I've never gone in for fake tans or tooth-whitening. (The coffee stains, so French!) And my default style, for better or worse, is gamine. I'm in grad school for French, I've lived in Paris, and I have accumulated too many marinières over the years to plausibly deny Francophilia.

On the other, it just gets old. Of all the countries in the world, do we really need to take our beauty advice from the most predictable? Is the French approach to beauty the most beautiful, or is this all circular - we define "beauty" as that-which-is-French, giving those-who-are-French an advantage? Why not Japan, with its miracle hair-care products that I randomly discovered while shopping for groceries at Sunrise Mart? Do the French have an insouciant "je ne sais quoi," or is what we're calling "French" an actually quite rigid approach to self-presentation, one that discourages risk-taking, even among teens? Is it charming that they embrace a gamine physique, or oppressive to women who are built otherwise? Is it all maybe a touch offensive to actual French women, not all of whom spend used-car sums on quasi-medicinal ointments, and not all of whom asked to be put on this pedestal?

And is the whole thing not a little bit racist? Can a woman of color - heck, can a woman of Scandinavian origin - look "French"? What about the many Parisiennes who are themselves not of French ethnic origin? Sure, anyone can wear a scarf, and anyone can overspend on anti-aging cream, but consider the craze for French-girl hair. A commenter at my blog, Fourtinefork, alerted me to Vogue's instructions on achieving this look. If one is going to be French, one must use low-end shampoo and no conditioner; let the result air-dry without brushing it first; and if, in the course of washing your hair infrequently, things get too greasy, you're permitted dry shampoo. If you have a hair texture that requires the addition of oils, as opposed to a daily battle against greasiness, this "French" thing isn't going to happen.