When I arrived in Paris at 19 years old to study at the Sorbonne for a year, I also arrived with an enormous zit on my forehead. It was the hugest pimple I’d ever gotten in my life—the cystic kind that hurts deep down and forms an obvious red mountain at the surface. It was only after a few hours of meeting Marianne, my host mother, that she instructed me to come to her bathroom. I cautiously entered her stately boudoir, where she selected a tube from the marble counter neatly littered with at least 100 products and beauty tools.
“I have something for that,” she said, eying my blemish and placing a generous dollop of a thick clay from India or Indonesia or Tunisia on my forehead. “This will make your zit go away in no time,” she told me. Embarrassed, I thanked her and went back to my room. Fifteen minutes later, I headed to the kitchen to see if I could help her and my host brothers set up for dinner. Before she could even hand me a fork, Marianne gave me a sharp stare, approaching me before her sons could see me. “I do not want to see this when I am eating,” she hissed, and instructed me to wash off the clay and pin my hair over my blemish during dinner.Um, what? Hadn’t she just told me to keep the weird Israeli goop on my head? Offended, I still did as I was told, looking even more awkward with my bangs swept nearly horizontally over my forehead as I dug into my pot au feu. It took me a while to understand that Marianne was offering to me a lesson on French beauty, which was this—discretion. At all times, discretion. This is why I was unsurprised to read in today’s New York Times a quote from a French grandmother, who said, “I never discuss [matters of beauty] in front of my husband.”
This points to an intrinsic difference in how French women and American women approach beauty and the aging process. Americans fight old age aggressively and obviously. You can see it in the Joan Rivers’ facials and the too-tanned tones of the New Jersey housewives. It’s out in the open, and if anything, looking old is a big problem. But French women approach their bodies holistically, taking “the pampering of the skin, hair and body as an enjoyable, gratifying ritual,” and starting at a young age (“a survey by the market research company Mintel found that 33 percent of French girls between 15 and 19 are already using anti-aging or anti-wrinkle creams.”). In a nutshell, explains this Paris-based New York Times writer, French women are obsessed with beauty: They get their kicks at spas with fancy treatments, at the dermatologist with luxe creams, and occasionally a minor nip/tuck.
Knowing my experience with French women and beauty, I’d have to add to this that secrecy is half the secret. Even if French women’s secrets aren’t so hidden (they’re advertised everywhere in France and the pharmacies are dedicated to them), there’s still this notion of I wonder what she’s doing behind that bathroom door. Maybe it’s because American women talk and blab so easily (all you have to do is sit in a nail salon for five minutes before you hear about someone’s sagging breasts) that they just seem older, or less refined? If ever a French beauty company wanted to market a cream as honestly as possible, I’d suggest they call it La Jalousie. [New York Times]