Why I’m No Longer Calling French Beauty “Effortless”

Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images.
On my first trip to Paris, the City of Lights was just as I had always imagined — only in more exaggerated form. The buildings laced with wrought-iron balconies were even more charming, the rich food even more mouthwatering, and the women even more breathtakingly beautiful — as if they had just ridden their vintage-style bikes straight out of the pages of Vogue Paris. I had been awestruck by French beauty before I even got that stamp on my passport, but this trip further fueled my infatuation. Earlier this year, I interviewed the lovely actress Clémence Poésy and asked her what she thought of the American love affair with all things French. She first questioned if it was actually a thing, and then nonchalantly brushed it off as if it weren't a topic worthy of discussion (which felt very French). But I know I'm not alone. I work in the fashion world and am surrounded by Francophiles — if the Breton-striped shirts in our overstuffed New York City closets weren't your first clue. I have read countless articles (and written a few) that try to bottle and sell that je ne sais quoi or bien dans sa peau or joie de vivre. In our less romantic-sounding language, we refer to it as “effortlessness” — and people eat it up like crème brûlée. Though Poésy undeniably embodies that French air, she did bring up a good point: Is it really worth obsessing over? After my chat with her, I read an article about how Elle France put Kim Kardashian on the cover, despite the fact that her routine is the opposite of effortless. The writer shared her own struggles with having to covertly live up to the French beauty standard, and applauded the reality star for being honest about the efforts she makes. It's obvious that a lot goes into maintaining Kim K’s hyper-dramatic, contoured appearance — whereas French women always make their style seem so easy and natural. Have I been looking at it through Champagne-colored glasses this whole time? And should we be putting all these French women into a box in the first place — even if it is a really pretty one? I decided to reach out to a few French women to get their takes on the obsession with French beauty and some insight into what their average routines entail. They all agreed on one thing: Despite how easy they make it look, it's anything but effortless. "It is true [that] French women have a natural flair for beauty," my colleague Catherine Masraff told me. "But it is not true [that] it comes magically. It's a routine, constant practice. Like sport, you become really good with regular practice...years of regular routine."
Lou Doillon by Everett/REX Shutterstock.
The routine begins early. "We are taught about art and art history very early in school," she says. "Commenting on paintings, sculptures, music trends, architecture, furniture, clothes, etc. Beauty is simply part of our background from a very early age. [It starts] from the crib. Now that I think about it, I do it with my kids [age four and six] as well. They never go out in the street if they are not perfect. We prepare their clothes at night, so they can dress up by themselves in the morning. Before going to bed, we talk about the following day...I challenge them on colors that work together, teach them about the different fabrics, etc." Over lunch at a French bistro in Tribeca, Marie-Laure Fournier — the founder of Fournier Communications — told me that she believes French women are born with a certain self-confidence. But as I ate my salade niçoise, it became apparent that what she really meant was that they learn it through example. Fournier told me about her 70-year-old mother, still without a wrinkle (or a Botox injection), who bestowed on her lessons in skin care, confidence, and posture from a young age. (Her mother actually made her do that balancing a book on your head thing when she was a teen.) "[I was] taught that you have to look good. If you look good, you feel good, and you show it," Fournier says. Many French women are also taught not to broadcast what they do to look this good to the world. "The typical thing is, like, 'Oh, I just put on some liner,'" she says. But the women Fournier knows do facials once a month, hair treatments, lymphatic drainage, LPG for cellulite, and the list goes on. "It’s a lot of effort," she says. "But a lot of it, we do ourselves." Because of this DIY mindset and the fact that so many more products are available at drugstores, French women don't have to spend a lot of money on their beauty routines. Fournier adds: "The advantage of doing it yourself is you know your skin and your body so well." But there is a flip-side here. A Parisian friend now living in Berlin says she only has negative impressions of growing up with this outlook on beauty. "I hate the pressure this puts on women to match a certain ideal — I suffered a lot from it," she says. "Because if you don’t match the ideal — which is never an ideal you defined yourself — you just don’t fit. It’s really difficult to get rid of this pressure and to just be yourself. My mother started criticizing my body when I was a child. She never stopped getting me presents which had something to do with beauty. She always told me a girl has to be feminine and refused to listen when I told her that a girl has to be happy, whatever she looks like." Though not all French mothers are like this, of course, Fournier understands the sentiment. "In France, we are obsessed with cellulite, obsessed with stretch marks, obsessed with weight. [French women] look good, but at what price?" she says. "The pressure [to be beautiful] in France can be unbearable — people don’t realize it." Masraff was in France when I asked her to participate in this story, and she decided to bring up the topic with friends and family. One of her friends says she thinks some American women may idolize French women because they would love to be able to choose style over comfort — but often opt for the practical. "[This is the] total opposite of French women. We are used to walking with high heels on unpaved ground, martyrizing ourselves for the sake of beauty and style," she says. Her mother-in-law adds, "American women have some freedoms we do not. I sometimes envy them to be able to go in the street in their pajamas and flip-flops to walk their dog, which is simply impossible for me." These conversations could make me feel disappointed that the French women I idolized don't in fact #wakeuplikethis, or relieved that the veil has been lifted on their seemingly innate perfection. But it's really neither of those things. They make me more conscious of the beauty standards that we all feel pressured by (and sometimes perpetuate without realizing it). I still eagerly await my next trip to Paris, when I can sip on glasses of red wine and watch French women as they whiz by on their bikes, taking mental notes on exactly how their hair falls and how they tie their scarves just so. This time, I'll delete the "e" word from my thoughts. I may not have grown up with a French mother, but I had an American dad who always told me, "Nothing is easy, Megan." Now I'll add something to his phrase: "no matter how effortless it may look."

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series