Friday, July 24, 2009

Myths about La Francaise in the Summer

I need to blog faster, as soon as the urge hits me. I keep coming up with post ideas and then being beaten to it by someone else. Case in point: I've been meaning to write about topless bathing for a while now*, and then MCM noticed that The Guardian published this article just two days ago.

That's okay. I have lots more to say!

Most anglophone women seem to view La Francaise as an emaciated, effortless, elegant style icon, who brazenly bares all on the beach, in spite of a rather lackadaisacal attitude towards personal hygiene and grooming.

Wrong. Wrong again. Here, the Accidental Parisian debunks and updates some summertime myths about La Francaise:

1. French women all go topless on the beach: I was talking to two of my students recently about this - both of them women my age - and was surprised when they told me that their mothers always went topless when they were kids in the 80s, but neither of them would now. Why not? They shrugged. "I guess we're more conservative now," said one; "I just don't feel the need to," said the other. Hmm. Intriguing!

Le monokini is banned at my public pool, so I had to wait for my vacation on the Cote d'Azur to find out if there were true. My unscientific test results: going topless won't shock anyone, but very few under-35s do it. I quizzed MCM. What did he think? He shrugged. "I think women don't feel they need to. They know that they can, but they don't feel they have to in order to be noticed and to be sexy. Or maybe there are just lots of nice bathing suits available now." Would he mind if I did? "Of course not. It is your body and you are free." Yeah, but would he be a little bit embarrassed? "No, you're the most beautiful woman on the beach." (Awwww.)

I still haven't found a satisfactory answer to this cultural shift, but I'm quite sure that there has been a shift. Thoughts, comments and theories welcome!

2. French women are all really thin, even though they eat tons of cheese. French women come in all shapes and sizes, and many of them worry about, and struggle with, their weight, just like women in the rest of the developed world. They go about it quite differently, though. Pharmacies are stocked with dozens of weight loss tinctures, drinks and creams. French women's magazines recommend detoxing with asparagus and green tea and paying big money for spa treatments that claim to suck inches off thighs. Exercise? Whah dat? These magazine articles seem even funnier to me because French is written in the first person, present simple: "My first day, I eliminate. I eat asparagus and drink green tea. I offer myself an institute of beauty. Day 2. I prepare a tisane with three teaspoons of diuretic, purchased at my pharmacy. Day 3. I sweat. My hammam removes the toxins."

At one of the offices where I teach I ran into the snippy receptionist in the lunchroom. I was getting my coffee, she was decanting a brown liquid into an empty 1-liter bottle of Contrex. (Contrex is an appalling salted bottled water that is wildly popular, marketed as "ma partenaire minceur" - my slimming partner. Apparently the salt kills your appetite. Bring on the bloat). "Ooh, that's not something to drink, is it?" I asked. "Of course. It's for losing weight. It eliminates and cleanses," she replied, shocked, like I was a complete moron. Here's me thinking it was plant food. Now I know why she's always in a foul mood.

3. French women dress so well, all the time! Let me set the record straight. La Francaise is the queen of winter: black wool is her secret weapon, and she has no competition. But summer? Good gawd, it's awful. I was recently in London and the London summer uniform is: fitted, solid-coloured jersey, knee-length cotton print skirt, bead necklace, cute flats. Perfect! In Paris, women are either wearing their winter clothes (just less of them), or things that are better suited for a beach or nightclub.

I was recently wondering if I could get away with bare legs in an office (with brown cotton sleeveless shirtdress and wedge shoes). In some North American offices, you'd need hose. Well, any concerns vanished when I saw that the sales manager, a woman my age, was wearing a slinky halter minidress with glitzy sandals and a regular bra (with shoulder straps). A black lacy one. How do I know? Half of it was showing. I thought this was an aberration but I saw 2 other women sporting the same look while I was taking the bus home. Eek!

I am fascinated, in talking to French women my age, that they consider the right to dress sexily to be a fundamental one. In an office, I feel like I couldn't dress like that and be taken seriously - I also wouldn't feel comfortable. Talking to my students, they consider it their right to dress how they like in the workplace.

4. French women don't shave their armpits!
This is just outdated: I haven't seen a single female hairy underarm in France in the last five years. Not one. If anything, French women are a bit obsessed with above-mentioned instituts de beaute and epilation. Waxing is fairly cheap here, too - a bikini wax costs about 10 euro.

*I never in my life thought I would write a sentence like that.


  1. In another (to remain unnamed) country, the attitude to slimming is similar. Lots of pills, creams, diet teas (and posters advertising them with outrageously optimistic claims). The advice given on TV is to go to the slimming clinic and get wrapped in plastic and sat in a steam room (or something). It is NEVER "eat a salad" or - heaven forbid - "go to the gym".
    I read an article a while back in an American magazine that said we AngloSaxon women are more skeptical of thigh cream, etc, and perhaps it's a protestant guilt thing: if you are too lazy to go to the gym, you don't deserve the 'easy way out' of some miracle cream that will dissolve 10lbs from your hips. What do you think?

  2. Hmm. Intriguing question! I think...
    1. We (us "anglo-saxons" - wow, that's so French!) know that such products are bullshit,
    2. We do not think it is un-feminine to exercise,
    3. We think that hard work is good and rewarding, and something to be proud of.

    I don't know if it's a religious guilt thing, but it may have to do with attitudes towards work and femininity.

  3. (I thought I posted earlier but it seems to have vanished)

    Anyhow, I think you are right, but also that this transects issues of femininity, virtue, and protestant work ethic.

    I am disturbed to see food regarded in this way, with chocolate cake that says "sinful" on the package, and grown women talking sheepishly about "being naughty" when they have dessert.
    And "being good" when they have salad. I find it just weird. (Notice how men never say these things)

    Going to the gym likewise fits the protestant work ethic, and notions of "self restraint" in calorie counting.

  4. I'm loving your blog!
    Especially since I put out there the so-called dream 5x a week
    I dare not tell what I know.
    Best to feed the imaginations working overtime.
    I was a tad amazed to notice every fem mag had the same promises as ours on the cover
    LOSE 10 kilos OVERNITE!! by whatever method.
    I find Fr women incredibly conservative
    Grey & black - that's it plus the uniform combo of the season.
    Jeans + black top
    Or Black jeans + black top et. etc.
    Thank you for amusing me and aiding in my procrastination
    Carolg :)


Please leave me a comment! (As I am writing this blog anonymously, please address me as Accidental Parisian, even if you know my name in real life).