American women, American women in Paris, books about Parisians, des roundolettes, flirtation, France, French, French Women Don't Get Fat, Frenchmen, Frenchwomen, little black dress, Paris, Paris expatriates
Before moving to Paris, I devoured every book I found on life in this city. They typically go like this:
“Sally (not her real name), met Martin when he was sent to Iowa by his company. Two years later, when Martin was to repatriate to France they decided to get married and she moved back with him. They arrived a year ago. Sally, a potentially pretty tall blond with blue eyes is wearing a pair of ill-fitted jeans and sneakers on her feet. She surveys the elegant living room of her Parisian hosts with a look of amazement on her face, staring at the old oil paintings featuring portraits of family members long deceased and exclaims in excitement: “Why, this is so beautiful.” When Marion, in a little Christian Lacroix little black dress and high heels, serves her a coupe of Champagne, Sally comments in her Midwestern accent “Why, in Iowa we only drink Champagne on special occasions!”
And, so on and so forth, the poor hillbilly American is portrayed as unsophisticated and pathetically naive. But, thankfully not all is lost. She does have potential. Three years later, volunteers the generous author, Sally has learnt the way of the locals, lost 5 kilos and is wearing a pair of stilettos to the monthly girls’ luncheon. Sigh of relief.
Book after book and article after article lament the hopeless quest of the American woman to resemble her French counterpart. Alas, her smile is too broad, her teeth too perfect, her manner just too plain. And, her voice… Her shrill, loud, voice, the nightmare of all but, thankfully, the deaf. She lacks what every French woman is born with. But what exactly is it? You’ll buy many more books in an effort to resolve that mystery. Save your money.
While French women do get fat, it is true that you don’t see on the streets of Paris the kind of obesity that we learned to associate with Americans. The French, even the overweight ones, are reasonably overweight, not sickly so. The standards are different. In a recent article published in a well-known French magazine they interviewed five “round” French women, “des roundolettes,” about their ways of coping with the problem. What problem? I take another look at the pictures in disbelief. Those women wouldn’t even qualify as “curvy” in the U.S. “Sexy,” perhaps. There is an obsession, a quite unhealthy one, in Paris, with thinness.
But, back to the poor American. Does she deserve all that bad rap? Definitely not! There are those unsophisticated ones, of course. But, even they compensate greatly with their openness, generosity and willingness to learn. Not to mention their radiant, friendly, smile that melts your heart. American women are good friends to each other in a way that is rare in European societies. My old Hungarian mother’s warnings — “beware of your women friends” — which I found so ridiculous back in the U.S. are practiced here in all earnest. And my American friends were not afraid to make fools of themselves in a way that the French woman will never feel free or confident enough to do, because a lot of the French elegance and perfection is due to fear.
The educational system, the culture, promotes criticism (the famous “esprit critique”), and mockery of others. Teachers put down kids in front of the whole classroom and have no qualms about pointing out their faults in public. One’s grades are never confidential, nor are one’s weaknesses. This results in a lifelong fear of public humiliation. As opposed to the self-deprecating humor so highly priced in the U.K., the French maintains an air of self-importance and, at all cost, protects himself (or herself), from ridicule.
A French woman would never openly admit to me, as did a very high ranking American lawyer, that she sometimes gets so anxious that she simply opens the fridge late at night and stuffs her face straight from the containers she finds there without even bothering to sit down at the table. No, that would not be lady like, or “bien élevé.” A French professional would never, as many of us did, go to a drinks-after-work event and down as many martinis as needed to be carried home by her understanding friends. That would not at all be in line with respectable behavior and her friends would not be understanding. The following day’s office gossip would be anything but forgiving.
I find the American woman’s honesty, her occasional misbehavior, willingness to make fun on her own account, and forthcoming admission of weaknesses quite refreshing. It comes from a position of strength. The French approach reminds me of women in the U.S. in the ’50s — before the workplace revolution, before they earned their own money and gained the self confidence that naturally accompanies self reliance and independence. At the time, they too aspired to be the perfect wife, slim in a tight pencil skirt waiting for her husband with a welcoming smile (at least that was the stereotype, regardless of what actually happened behind closed doors).
But, a career or even the potential thereof (for those who choose to be housewives nowadays as well), has created a very different type of woman — one who works as hard and plays as hard as men — one that does not have to be a “lady.” Interestingly enough, a very high percentage of French women do work and are just as financially independent as their American counterparts, but social stereotypes refuse to die.
To avoid any misunderstanding, I find nothing wrong with a feminine, sometimes coquettish, behavior. I am very far (many fur coats, hats and about two hundred pairs of shoes far), from believing that women should look or act like men. On the contrary, we should cherish the differences and bask in the attraction resulting from the man-woman playful interaction. Seduction quite often requires the exaggeration of these different qualities. It’s fun. But, that is the key word — it has to stem from a sense of fun — not fear. It has to come from a position of strength, of choice.
So, the American does deserve a few cheers for her guts and honesty.
In our global village there is very little room for stereotypes. I enjoy crashing one every time I order my steak extra rare (“Bleu,” I tell the waiter who repeats the request in disbelief), “rognon” (kidneys) or even andouillette (intestines), living proof that not all “Americans” eat only overcooked steak and potatoes. And when I walk into the local pharmacy, I sometimes do get complimented on my perfectly put together outfit, gloves and all, which impresses even the Parisian vendeuse. “Très chic,” commented my fellow co-workers on many mornings.
I am not adverse, by any means, to spending an hour picking out the perfect top that would go with my new designer skirt. It’s one of the great pleasures of life. And it is nice to know that in the capital of feminist sophistication I, a foreigner, am not falling behind. But, I only do it when I feel like it — not as an obligation, not as a duty. I am not afraid of the humiliation in the event that I am running late to the store, trying to make it before closing, racing out of my apartment building in some oversized pants that I use for lounging around and my hair a total mess.
If George Clooney happens to pass by and I missed my chances of having him fall head over heels in love with me just because of my shabby outfit, so be it…that’s life. One has to take chances. I think even French women would agree with that analysis. What they wouldn’t be able to take, though, is the look of disapproval on the sour face of their concierge or the 6th floor neighbor. Which I, ignorant foreigner that I am, luckily don’t even notice.
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, French women do get wrinkles, by Paris-based Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the super Frenchy myth of the coquettish French nymph — her “je ne sais quoi” — in her ballerina shoes, hair effortlessly tied in a messy chignon blowing in the wind, large sunglasses on her naked, no make-up, nevertheless beautiful eyes, and how we are all measured by it.
Indulge at Le Meurice Hôtel, Paris, by Paris-based 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 experiencing 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.