French women are surrounded by myth. They’re supposed to be the sexiest, the chic-est, the most feminine, the best mothers. The list goes on and isn’t helped by recent books like “French women don’t get fat” and “French children don’t throw food.” Sickeningly smug titles that can really make you want to slap someone, if you happen to be a woman and not French.
With François Hollande’s affair coming to light last week, the British press has been awash with articles about French women and the role of women in France. Pieces about the experience of French women living in the UK, what French women really think, stories from real-live French mistresses, etcetera.
But are French women really so different from the rest of us?
Pick up almost any book about expatriation in France and you’re almost bound to find a chapter dedicated to them. Speak to expat women about it and they’re sure to have an opinion about their French counterparts.
First, though, we need to clarify, most of the articles and myths are not actually about French women at all, they are about Parisian women, who are a very particular breed. This is very important to note in the whole chic-er-than-thou argument. Parisian women might, on the whole, be quite an elegant bunch, but I defy anyone to go deep into Northern France and come away with any fashion tips. I once went to a small town in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, where a trip to the local summer boat show yielded a delightful display of tight lycra tops over too-large frames, badly dyed hair and, my favourite, a particularly large couple walking hand in hand each wearing their own branded and snugly fitting tee: her’s said “Babe,” his said “Stud.”
This excursion, amongst many of my other French jaunts, has also provided sufficient proof that, should you meander beyond the periphérique, French women can and indeed do get fat.
The subject of Parisian women often comes up in conversation with female expats who have recently moved here. One after another we all end up asking, why are they so damn cold and unfriendly? Of course there are exceptions, but the fact is that all of my female expat friends have had similar experiences. Take, for instance, attending a party where you hardly know anyone, it is completely standard to be ignored by the other women. You’re greeted with a frosty smile, a couple of air kisses and then, more often than not, a slow look up and down, their hard, cold eyes filled with judgement.
And the Parisiennes don’t seem to be enjoying the parties much either. A sketch by Florence Foresti, a famous French comedian, has her impersonating French girls at parties, drinking just one glass of wine all evening and talking about their diets. Although clearly a bit of an exaggeration, it’s true that you don’t often see the ladies loosening up at parties. There is certainly none of this British notion of keeping up with the boys and everyone drinking as much as each other (albeit usually too much). Honestly, they just don’t seem to be having as much fun as the men; something that British women just really wouldn’t stand for.
So what’s going on, why do Parisian women hate expat women on sight and why aren’t they having any fun? Having lived here for five years, I have managed to cross enemy lines and now count a number of French women amongst my circle of friends. According to them, Parisian women are under a lot of pressure to keep up this perfect woman image. On top of that, a huge amount of emphasis is placed on being in a relationship. Paris doesn’t seem to have a thriving singles community of the kind that exists in London or New York. Here, people are in pairs. As such, their first instinct on meeting a woman they do not know is that she constitutes a threat. The danger is apparently even greater if you’re foreign because you have a sexy foreign accent that will deter French men away from her and towards you. So much for the sisterhood, eh?
Clearly the strain of living up to this image of perfection isn’t doing these women any favours. It looks like years of trying to achieve the unattainable has led to a whole lot of unnecessary insecurity that means instead of getting tiddly on a few drinks and having some laughs at a party, they’re more concerned about how attractive they look to the men. Madness!
You may be wondering, based on the above, how on earth I managed to make any female friends here. The truth is, my girl friends might be French but they sure ain’t Parisian. I’ll admit I have met one or two friendly Parisiennes in my time here, but on the whole the rule goes: if we get on and have a giggle, they’re not from Paris.
Of course, culturally, French women – and men – take longer to develop proper friendships with people; probably due in large part to staying in their hometown and therefore keeping the same circle of friends since school. This also helps explain why women who live in Paris but are from “les provinces” (anywhere outside of Paris) are more willing to make an effort; they’ve left the safety net of their hometown and actually want to make new friends.
On the one hand I have a lot of sympathy for les Parisiennes. Women everywhere are expected to aspire to ridiculous notions of beauty and encouraged to spend thousands of pounds annually on grooming, whilst men just slap on a bit of cologne if they’re making a “special effort.” Add to that the idea that women from your country are supposed to be the sexiest in the world and it’s no wonder Parisian women end up a bit more uptight than their Anglophone equivalents.
Luckily it looks like women this side of the Channel are starting to wake up, wise up, stick two fingers in the air and shout: “merde!” to the unattainable ideal of the perfect French women. A surprise literary success of 2013 was a book titled “La femme parfaite est une connasse: guide de survie pour les femmes ‘normales’” (The perfect woman is a bitch: a survival guide for normal women). The book, written by twin sisters Anne-Sophie and Marie-Aldine Girard, respectively a stand-up comedian and TV executive, seeks to undo the myth of the perfect French woman one stereotype at a time. In an interview for madmoiZelle the authors explained how their aim was to stop women feeling guilty about not being perfect, because the perfect woman is a fiction and simply unattainable. The book contains nuggets of wisdom such as: “a women who never puts on weight, is a women who never eats.”
Frankly I’m impressed that the book has sold so well considering the immense popularity of lifestyle bible “La Parisienne,” by Ines de la Fressange, a how-to guide for being the eponymous perfect Parisienne.
It’s encouraging. After all, the people most capable of debunking the myths surrounding les Françaises are the French women themselves. Anything that takes the pressure off by injecting a bit of humour into the situation can only be a good thing. Who knows, I might even end up with a Parisian BFF?
“La femme parfaite est une connasse” might be one small step for Franco-Anglo female relations, but it’s a giant leap for French womenkind.
Still not convinced? Think the “femme parfaite” image is worth pursuing? Then I suggest you click here for my essential how-to guide for becoming the perfect Parisienne…