When I’m asked, as I inevitably am, to explain the elusive style and beauty secrets that French women of a certain age all seem to possess, I respond with a resounding “Absolument!”
After more than two decades of total immersion in the culture, I have figured out and stolen (excuse me, appropriated) many of the remarkable practices that allow Frenchwomen to seemingly transcend age and appear youthful, vibrant, and stylish throughout their lives.
It’s taken time and intensive study, bordering on obsession, I admit, but I finally understand the famous phrase ” je ne sais quoi ” that everyone employs to explain what Frenchwomen have and we (reputedly) don’t. Let me assure you that we, too, can have that inexplicable something. Read on.
WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT FRENCHWOMEN OF A CERTAIN AGE?
My intention in examining Frenchwomen of a certain age is not to denigrate the rest of us. But after years of close scrutiny with an intellectually honest eye, I am forced to admit that very often, they look better than the rest of us do.
Let me clarify. They don’t always look younger, but they definitely tend to present themselves in more chic, more soignée, and more polished packages that can make them appear younger. Furthermore, they seem to pull this off with the greatest of ease, while deriving sensual pleasure from every gesture.
Radiant self-confidence is a big part of Frenchwomen’s success. But perhaps what many of us don’t realize is that pragmatism is also a crucial factor. Frenchwomen of a certain age are realists; realism is at the heart of all of their choices and actions. They accept that life is unpredictable, which makes it rife with both possibility and peril. It’s best to be prepared at all times, inside and out.
Their pragmatic nature makes them resilient on the one hand and flexible on the other. Growing older is not without obstacles, but Frenchwomen expect obstacles. Happily ever after does not exist in the real world, but beauty, substance, joy, culture, and the ability to accommodate and accept these realities can make for a rich, fulfilling life.
Frenchwomen appreciate the beauty of simplicity, and they understand that the essence of luxury is always quality over quantity. They have constructed their unique styles with a critical eye toward what works specifically for their personalities, their bodies, and their best features, and as the decades pass, they adjust and polish their images into nonchalant, uniquely personal expressions of timeless elegance.
I often think back to an interview I conducted many years ago with the director of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. I asked him why French culture is so universally revered. He maintained that the inherent elegance and style that permeate most aspects of French life can be easily explained as the “natural result of centuries of everyday exposure to beauty in everything from architecture and objects to clothes and food.”
An almost unconscious cultural absorption of the lovely and celebration of the pleasing: I think he was onto something. Frenchwomen of a certain age are the very essence of their rich culture—the standard-bearers of its traditions, elegance, and art de vivre. I can attest to the fact that they become more and more fascinating over time, while remaining ever vibrant and alluring—inside and out.
HOW FRENCHWOMEN REDEFINE BEAUTY
With the exception of, say, Catherine Deneuve, few Frenchwomen are (or were) great beauties. Look at Inès de la Fressange, for example. She is one of a kind and spectacular. Is she a classic beauty? No, she is not. (And, what does she recommend as the world’s most important, ageless beauty secret? A smile. I don’t believe I have ever seen a picture of her without one.)
Frenchwomen do not aspire to be anyone other than themselves. Perhaps that at least partly explains their general disregard for age as it applies to beauty. And it stands to reason that a culture that creates its own definition of beauty can and does ignore negative connotations associated with age. Frenchwomen, in my view, have refined and redefined both aging and beauty. Birthdays are of little importance, and beauty is wide open to interpretation, by women and men. Instead of dreading her birthday, a Frenchwoman sees the day as an excuse for a celebration of a life well lived, full of experience and adventure, and perhaps a good reason to go shopping and have a facial before taking her time dressing to perfection for a dinner honoring another anniversaire.
When I interviewed Jean-Louis Sebagh, the rock star of French plastic surgeons, who practices in France and London, I asked him whether or not Frenchwomen undergo face-lifts. “Of course they do,” he assured me, but he qualified that statement, saying, “They do not want anything obvious. They want natural.”
Naturel: Frenchwomen’s inevitable approach to just about everything in life, even though the means to the end may involve some unnatural intervention.
In my experience, age is not a French obsession. Frenchwomen simply aspire to look the best they can for their age, and they apply themselves to the task. Some have face-lifts and many—I see them sitting in the waiting room at my dermatologist’s office, side by side with major French film stars—have youth-enhancing “tweaks.” No one is visiting a dermatologist or a plastic surgeon for a radical, unrecognizable change to her visage. Basically, they like themselves, or they’ve learned to accept themselves and make the very best of their natural resources.
From my friends, I hear little complaining about the march of time, except in jest. Maybe a brief mention of needing to loosen a notch or two on a favorite belt, or to wear it slung lower (but never to abandon it). Many prefer to take the ultra-natural approach by eating well, which they have done their entire lives, watching the scale, exercising, and generally getting on with life with no help from needles or scalpels. When we are together, we discuss our favorite face creams, whether to cut our hair (or not), the sometimes unpleasant truth about upper arms, the life-changing benefits of kiwis for breakfast … all interspersed with detours into what books we’re reading, who saw the latest art exhibition, the new trend in the political primaries, the latest app on flower arranging. They care about style, but also about substance.
Frenchwomen are curious, not necessarily spontaneous or whimsical, but most definitely informed and lively. This is part of their allure. They have opinions—informed opinions—and love nothing better than a heated, though never aggressive, debate. They are, as you know, great flirts. Harmless coquetry, sparkling exchanges, and charm are their greatest arms. All timeless, all recipes for staying young.
What we sometimes forget—and the media is helping us lose our memories in this regard—is that beauty, style, sensuality, generosity, wit, and charm have no expiration dates. We must learn to believe this and act accordingly, like Frenchwomen of a certain age.