Botox, Fillers & Facelifts: The French-Girl Beauty Secrets They Don't Want You To Know
French women do get work done. They're just better at hiding it.
"Je ne sais quoi," a popular French expression that translates to "I don't know what," is defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as "a pleasing quality that cannot be exactly named or described." It's a Mona Lisa smile, a suggestive wink that is, by definition, beyond explanation — but it does explain why even women who live half a world away from the heart of Paris strive to imitate a certain can't-put-your-finger-on-it French beauty ideal.
Of course, the "ideal" only accounts for one type of French woman: fashion-conscious, conventionally attractive, overwhelmingly white. The stereotype overlooks the fact that Paris is a wonderfully diverse city of over two million people who do not all look like Jeanne Damas, Jane Birkin, Marion Cotillard, Catherine Deneuve, or Brigitte Bardot. Let us not forget the beguiling entertainer-turned-activist and French Resistance agent Joséphine Baker, whose reign was before this time but whose own je ne sais quoi quality was utterly inimitable, or Tina Kunakey, the radiant model-actress whose 30-year age difference with now-husband (and French film icon) Vincent Cassel is the stuff Parisian tabloid dreams are made of.
And French women age like — well, they age. They look natural, not poreless or plastic. They roll with the punches, sunbathe topless, and wear their thousands of Gauloises on their faces with pride, not obsessing over fine lines or sun spots or how their boobs look on the beach. Jane Birkin today does not look like Jane Birkin 30 years ago, and that's fine.
But the truth isn't that French women don't get facelifts, as one best-selling (though understandably controversial) book once declared. That said, they're getting significantly less cosmetic surgery than Americans overall: The most recent global study from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), which accounted for procedures in 2017, found that the U.S. is number one for cosmetic procedures, with 1,562,504 performed, followed by Brazil, Japan, Mexico, and Italy, whereas France doesn’t even rank in the top 10.
It's not that French patients don't get plastic surgery; it's just that implant sizes are smaller, and conservative facelifts and eyelid surgeries are more prevalent.
Dr. Stafford Broumand
As far as what they do get? The services offered by France's estimated 925 plastic and cosmetic surgeons are the same as what you can get from the estimated 8,600 in the U.S.; it's the technique that's different. When patients from all over the world — as far-flung as Hong Kong or Dubai — enter the office of plastic and aesthetic surgeon Olivier Claude, MD, in Paris' 16th arrondissement, they ask for it by name: the French touch. "The patient wants a result, but they want a result that nobody will notice she has done something," Dr. Claude says. Says Paris-based plastic and aesthetic surgeon Déborah Obadia, MD, "They want an 'improvement' so natural, not even their husbands know what they did."
The absolute number-one priority is a natural look — and, as it happens, the secret to looking like you did nothing is doing a little bit of everything. "If you just treat a specific area, it won't look natural," Dr. Claude says. "If you use only Botox, you get a frozen look. Only hyaluronic acid injectables, and you look too perfect. Only facelift surgery, you'll have no more wrinkles, but you'll look too tight and too flat. We need to combine all of it, and use minimal doses of each." Dr. Obadia says, "For example, when we do Botox we often respect the lines around the eyes, or inject quite high in the forehead so that patients can still elevate their eyebrows."
Now based in New York City, Stafford Broumand, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon at 740 Park Plastic Surgery, completed his cosmetic training in Paris. Where people flock to Paris to see Dr. Claude and Dr. Obadia, Dr. Broumand seeks to bring a similar subtle touch stateside. "If you are traveling around Europe, there is this natural beauty that is pervasive in France that isn’t necessarily prevalent in other European countries," he says.
But the perception that it's all fully natural is off-base. "It's not that French patients don't get plastic surgery; it's just that implant sizes are smaller, and conservative facelifts and eyelid surgeries are more prevalent," says Dr. Broumand. "Women never say that they went to a plastic surgeon," says Dr. Obadia. "They say, 'Oh, I went to a dermatologist and had a peel' — when they really did get a facelift." Dr. Obadia says that French women frequently look to actresses over 50, like Sophie Marceau, Carole Bouquet, and Fanny Ardant, as examples of aging well without looking like you've had work done.
Perhaps it's not just a matter of taste, but also a matter of the cultural implications: In its 360° Aesthetics Report, Allergan polled over 14,584 "aesthetic-conscious consumers" from 18 different countries and found that only 69% of French citizens polled agreed that the stigma associated with cosmetic injectable treatments has lessened over the past five years, compared to a global average of 82%. "Cosmetic surgery in France has a bad reputation," says Dr. Obadia. "Even to say you did Botox is still a big taboo."
They want an 'improvement' so natural, not even their husbands know what they did.
Dr. Déborah Obadia
Discretion, too, is absolutely essential; unlike in the States, very few Parisian plastic surgeons advertise dramatic, full-fledged top-to-toe transformations detailing the specifics of each procedure on Instagram, and you won't hear of "celebrity plastic surgeons," the mere existence of which would imply that French celebrities get plastic surgery. It's possible that, while visibly plumped lips, breasts, and cheekbones have since become a calling card for American models, celebrities, and "influencers," French women still don't see themselves as people who get visible cosmetic surgery; given that they are so fetishized for their natural, effortless beauty, a Parisian with overdone surgery may stick out like a sore thumb.
"The pressure is different. You want to have something done that shows that you're looking younger, but doesn't show that something has been done," says Paris native Marie-Laure Fournier, president of Fournier PR+Consulting, a public-relations and consulting firm that represents numerous French-owned beauty brands, including Embryolisse and Leonor Greyl. "Injectables are more and more common in France, but it's very, very subtle. People who are overdoing it and end up looking like Kim Kardashian, for French women, look vulgar; they don't have chicness. I have friends who will not get things done out of the sole fear of looking like a Californian." Indeed, Dr. Obadia says, "The first thing many women say in consultations is that they don't want to look like American celebrities."
U.K.-based cosmetic surgeon and aesthetics expert Dr. Jonquille Chantrey, whose role as an International Key Opinion Leader for Allergan often brings her to Paris, says that, in her experience, it does come down to the stereotypical French temperament: "They judge more." Intriguingly, Dr. Broumand also sees the preferred French look as being specific to France for another reason. In a culture that has been fueled by fashion for centuries, the face echoes the current mode: elegant and understated. Adds Parisian plastic, restorative, and aesthetic surgeon Dr. Nicolas Zwillinger, "All women like to refer to Dior or Chanel." Yes, the luxury-goods industries that flourished under Louis XIV and brought about society's distrust of the flamboyant and glamorous Marie Antoinette still affect the way French women wish to be seen by the world today.
But, just as powdered wigs and billowing fleur-de-lys robes have been replaced by sleek Saint Laurent smoking jackets and Isabel Marant's upscale bohemian vibe, the Parisian perception of plastic surgery may very well change as more and more women do opt for cosmetic enhancements, effectively turning the trend away from the taboo. France may not be adapting to the prevalence of plastic surgery the way other Western countries have just yet, but, Dr. Claude says, "It's going to become a necessity." As for whether they'll actually open up about their experiences, the way many American women have? Well, je ne pense pas.