Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, cellulite, Chanel, Chanel No 5, Chardonnay, Coquettish French Nymph, Eva Izsak-Niimura, French Vogue magazine, French women, French women do get fat, French Women Don't Get Fat, Hermès, Italian Mama, Jewish Mother, little black dress, Marie Antoinette, Mata Hari, Obedient Japanese Wife, Parisienne, Velib
“At a certain stage in a woman’s life, she has to choose between her face and her butt.” – A New York Plastic Surgeon
“French women choose the butt.” – Me
The super Frenchy myth and how we are all measured by it
The moment you step off the plane at Charles de Gaulle airport, you are told in no uncertain terms that you are inadequate. Actually, it starts long before that. Women’s magazines in every spoken and unspoken language around the world rave about how chic French women are.
That “Je ne sais quoi” with which she swirls on her ballerina shoes from dropping off her perfectly dressed four little kids, bows in their neatly braided hair at the nursery school, hops on the nearest Vélib’ (the famous Parisian bikes), her hair effortlessly tied in a little messy, but just right way, chignon or loose, blowing in the light wind — she is as charming as a bright spring day. Large Chanel sunglasses on her naked, no makeup, nevertheless beautiful eyes.
She’s on her way to work where she spends a few hours in the office contemplating the latest cover for French Vogue (smaller circulation but definitely more fashionable than the American edition). A two-hour lunch in the happy company of colleagues, while sipping some red wine and — how mischievous — smoking a cigarette on the terrace. She then shops at Hermès for that little scarf she ties around her neck in 365 secret methods passed down from grandma to granddaughter throughout the generations. And heads home, baguette under her arm, to prepare a fabulous, fresh and healthy meal for her incredibly handsome husband and adoring, obedient, children.
No need to even mention that, once all four perfect little angles are tucked in their exquisitely-made beds, she hurries to put on the black négligé and Chanel No.5 in order to engage in virtuoso-level love making. Of course, she has those evenings when she casually slips into that legendary little black dress that always fits (she is never bloated before her periods) and high heels to engage in lively conversation in the company of a group of intellectual friends in a hidden little bistro on the left bank.
Tons of this rubbish is printed and miles of film recorded every year. It weighs heavily on the shoulders of every Russian, Korean, South African (whether living in a hut in Soweto or a gated palace in the richest neighborhood), Afghan (even behind the Burqa), Argentinean and, of course, American woman. Yes, the American woman — the easiest target of them all for the condescending literature on the subject.
But the burden weighs mainly on the French woman. Because you, a French woman, can’t possibly disappoint those herds of admirers. And you must think that you, and only you, among all 25 million French women, have trouble keeping up with the image. You are the only one who genetically does actually gain weight. You are the only one who doesn’t cook a five-course meal with the ease of Joël Robuchon. And, you are the only one who bought a warm pajama instead of that black négligé during last winter’s sales.
So, you must try harder. And be slimmer. And be as tall as Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in flat shoes. And you must, of course, massage your thighs for an hour every night with that special cream for fear of — God forbid — a shadow of cellulite. You eat even less and you cycle even faster. You grind your teeth and pretend harder…but it shows. Your expression is strained and you do get wrinkles even if you rarely, if ever, smile. Perhaps, you do make love to your husband but it’s more out of fear that he will opt for another myth, the famous French mistress, than pure lust.
Because where there are myths to live up to, there are no winners — only victims. You are not the only one. Societies over the centuries have excelled in putting their women on one pedestal or another, admiring them but at the same time confining them to stand still in that assigned role. Any deviation was severely punished. You are the “Jewish Mother.” You are the “Obedient Japanese Wife.” You are the “Italian Mama.” You, my dear, are the “Coquettish French Nymph.” Deal with it.
Women have rebelled. One would be hard-pressed to find an obedient Japanese wife in all of Tokyo nowadays. And Jewish mothers got tired of being the conversation piece on every shrink’s sofa — they moved on to sunbathe on the edges of swimming pools in Florida, never to be caught alive in another selfless activity. They have already figured out that rather than waiting for saintly rewards in heaven, it’s safer to order Chinese and live a few more leisurely years on earth. Even the famous Italian Mama shops more often for shoes at Prada than for tomatoes and garlic. But, your role is so glamorous, so flattering; that you feel inclined to continue playing it, losing count of the cost.
No, you are not the only one to have to try hard in a role you were hired to play even before your birth. Women all over the world are indoctrinated (usually by their own well-meaning mothers), to try harder. We are self-motivated to please. We all juggle work, husbands, mothers-in-law, monthly visits to the hairdresser, the housework, kids’ homework, and on and on. Admittedly, most global women have it much tougher than you. You don’t have to carry water from the well, chop wood for the fire; you are not sold to a much older husband for a meager dowry (though a significant age difference between husband and wife seems to be another French “tradition”). But, you do have to be perfect.
We, the plebeian women of the world, do get wrinkled and are tired. Millions of faked orgasms attest to the fact that we don’t always feel like Mata Hari at the end of a long day sandwiched between the boss and the kids. And we would like to lose those extra 10 kilos. And gain an extra 10 cm.
But, unlike this exquisite specimen, the French Woman, we don’t have such a heavy burden of hundreds of years of reputation to carry on our thin shoulders. We can sometimes be our sloppy selves and eat ice cream straight out of the freezer late at night in our sweatpants, have some leftover chicken wings from KFC for dessert and wash it all down with two glasses of an expensive white wine that was forgotten in the back of same fridge two months ago — no earth-shattering event has occurred. Maybe a bit of guilt but nothing that can’t be brushed off with another glass of Chardonnay (or vodka, depending where said pigginess occurred: a Californian suburb or an apartment building in Moscow). History was not made or altered. We can be fat and our ancestors won’t turn in their graves. On the contrary, if they are Irish, they may comment that “Mary looks in good form nowadays,” and juicy girls were highly priced last time I walked on the streets of some neighborhoods.
But, Marie Antoinette — “mais, non!” She’d rather be guillotined again than see her descendents stoop so low. And even your aunt Thérèse, who was never even remotely related to royalty — but, as a matter of fact, comes from farmer stock near Toulouse — would have uttered “quel horreur” from the stiff corner of her mouth while turning her nose even higher had you behaved that “mal élevé.” No, my French sister, I do not envy you.
Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans was born in Transylvania (a Hungarian-speaking province in Romanina) and educated in Israel. For more than twenty years, Eva practiced law at some of the largest law firms in New York and served as In-House Counsel with U.S. and French financial institutions before pursuing a career as a writer. Eva, mother of two daughters, has lived in Tel Aviv, Tokyo and New York and is currently residing in Paris where she is working on her first novel.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Indulge at Le Meurice Hôtel, Paris, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who shares how to achieve a bit of luxury, when “constraint” is a word more in vogue than “indulgence,” at Le Meurice Hôtel, Paris, for afternoon tea or evening cocktails.
Vive La Femme: In defense of cross-cultural appreciation. Kristin Wood finds Francophiles around the world divided about Paul Rudnick’s piece entitled “Vive La France” in the New Yorker magazine. As is often the case with satire, there is a layer of truth to the matter that is rather unsettling. Including comments from readers worldwide.
French Impressions: Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans on the richness of experience other cultures firsthand. Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans, who has lived and worked on three continents, writes about her experiences as a young wife and mother in Tokyo, a professional and working mother in New York, and currently at a more mature stage in Paris, and the mix of feelings of being at the same time at home everywhere and nowhere.
French Impressions: Perspectives from Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, Angela Davis, D-Day tour historian, and Parisian teenager. This entry in our interview series celebrates the culture of transformation. A sea change: the dramatic shift that comes from living abroad, divorcing the land of ones birth or staying in place and growing up.
Text copyright ©2012 Eva Izsak-Niimura. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©2012 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.