Over my years of becoming acquainted with life as a French resident and wife – which I spent discovering more and more intricate parts of French culture and lifestyle – I’ve learned certain truths about what it means to be French, what their heritage represents, and how best I can maneuver my American-self into that passionate web of life à la française. In particular, in a series of four posts, I give you my findings on four Truths about this Passionate Web of French Life.
Passionate Web of Life Truth No. 1: That ‘just something’ that French women exude, what is that exactly?
One evening my husband and I invited some friends over for dinner. That night was my introduction to Camille, my husband’s friend’s wife, who had been touted to me by my husband as the essence of French beauty. My intrigue, needless to say, peaked. When the couple walked through the front door and we exchanged the traditional two cheek kiss hello, I immediately and shamefully sized-up Camille. She was a tall and thin, fashionably-dressed woman in her mid-thirties, with long unkempt hair down her back – attractive but not the essence of French beauty, at least as far as I was concerned. Confused by my husband’s description of the sweet woman in my living room who was totally undeserving of my brash critique, I shot him a secret what-in-heaven’s-name-are-you-talking-about look and promptly went about serving the aperitif.
Over the span of the next two hours at dinner, however, I watched Camille from across the candle-lit table transform into one of the most striking woman I’d ever met. Through her facial expressions, the slight tilt of her head and delicate pursing of her lips, she emitted an utter brilliance, a sheer attractiveness that converted her into – truth be told – the essence of French beauty. Camille was the first woman I’d ever seen embody a woman in every sense of the word. At that very moment, I realized what the French thing is – that “je ne sais quoi” – that French woman have, which has for decades made these woman some of the most desirable in the world. The thing? In all its simplicity, the French woman’s trick to seduction is her ability to unapologetically express her vulnerability and emotions. In a word, it’s that fabled French pout.
As opposed to American women like me (and here I generalize), who were taught to be strong, independent, assertive and opinionated, French women are impulsive, emotional and emotionally transparent. They tell you directly when they are needy, frightened, sad, weak, threatened. They have nothing to hide, no shame in being sentimental, and they certainly have no use for the American woman’s powerful, unaffected, almost-masculine veneer. Even if a French woman is not particularly self-secure – as many of them are not, come to find out – her ability to express her emotions gives the impression of utter self-awareness and self-respect, and thus confidence. If she doesn’t want to be where she is, she says so, making her preferences known and clear. The result is action on the part of those around her, especially men who want to please and accommodate her. (But even I found myself falling under Camille’s spell that evening at dinner, wanting to satisfy her every wish.) Essentially, a French woman desires and expects chivalry on the part of the men who surround her and as a consequence she receives nothing less.
As an outsider observing this phenomenon, I can say with confidence that – unlike the rumors which circulate to the contrary – not all French woman are born with an over-abundance of self-esteem or external beauty. Rather, the sense that these women are “bien dans leur peau” is a direct result of this mastering of their emotions, as well as the wish of these vraies femmes for male attention and companionship. Unlike those of us from the American persuasion who were taught to swallow our fear, our insecurity, and any possible need for a male – which in hindsight has been digested in North American society as a quasi-threat to the opposite sex, highlighted by nothing more than a growing sensation that men are relatively unimportant, no longer necessary for birth, support or protection, and certainly no longer useful in killing those bears – French women suffer no shame or self-depreciation as a result of gender difference, nor do they enter into competition with men. (I speak here specifically to the emotional and sexual realms. Competitiveness in the work place is ubiquitous, I think, in Western society. But that’s another topic for another book.)
French women are coy, not officious. They are seen as women rather than business partners, lovers rather than associates, and human beings rather than rivals. This is not to say that French women cannot be business partners or associates or rivals – indeed they most certainly can and excel in doing so. In fact, a number of prominent Ministerial offices in France are occupied by women, including the Minister of Finance, not to mention the dominance of female participation on French corporate boards and in the CEO spot at large, prestigious firms such as the French nuclear company Areva or AXA Private Equity, for example.
I recognize that to some readers this whole idea of being sexy, being seen as a woman and being defined by our gender is repugnant. I understand the feeling well because I used to feel the same way. But once privy to a society based on the equality of gender difference rather than gender equality, one begins to realize the natural beauty in women being women and men being men – different and proud of it.
Certainly, men and women can succeed in various occupational universes. Being a woman does not a priori infer being a stay-at-home wife, nor does being a man necessarily negate the possibility of being a stay-at-home husband. These gender-based stereotypes or molds are not natural. They were created by bureaucrats of political and religious influence to instill order and eradicate what was thought to be the most frightening and damning of all social creeds – free will.
Yet, when we take a moment to consider women and men as sexual beings (which we are) and as differing sides of the same coin (which we are – the human coin) then we begin to see that equality is a cogent conclusion. Heads or tails, one side doesn’t inherently mean better or worse. So the remaining question is how to embody difference-equality without losing our gender uniqueness. And all this brings me back around to French women who seem to have so beautifully mastered the art of being women equal to, but different from, their male counterparts.
From the French example, we see that both women and men have their place in society, and not in a backward or oppressive way toward women, either. Instead, both genders are seen as capable, worthy, necessary, and different, creating a social web without animosity lingering under male interactions toward women or vice versa. Men are chivalrous and affectionate which attracts women. Women, for their part, are passionate and exposed which radiates sexy and feminine.
For my part, understanding this alternative exchange between the sexes opened me to a new manner of being a woman and of expressing my own femininity. As a result, I have moved football fields away from that corporate attorney, that asexual, hardened feminist I had once been. I have now begun to appreciate being a woman, rather than concentrating so hard on the fact that I am not a man. I have embraced the fact that the differences between the sexes are not hyper-examined in France; they aren’t ignored in an effort to reach equality, nor are they undermined or criticized. Instead, differences between a man and a woman are relished and treasured, thereby creating a harmony between the genders. And an appreciation of woman.
© Becoming Madame 2011