breaking up with the ‘french girl’ obsession
The French Girl is just another way we can punish ourselves for not being as pretty or thin or cool as other girls.
Image via YouTube
Of all the ingenues pop culture has suggested we aspire to be, the fetishized French Girl seems to be the most persistent. If you haven't Googled "French hair" at least once in your life, you are in the minority. The idea that the French Girl is the ultimate fashion icon could've started anywhere: Anna Karina's dancing, Brigitte Bardot's beehive, Françoise Hardy's stare or honorary French woman Jane Birkin's sheer dresses and wicker baskets. Whoever kicked things off, the allure of the French Girl is undeniable. She is, perhaps, the original #styleinspo, predating street style photography and Tumblr by decades.
We all want to be her. The sheer scale of online resources teaching us the ways of the French ingenue attests to that. With a quick search you find there are certain ways to wear perfume, certain ways to dress for the gym, and certain ways to eat. You shouldn't use a straw and don't even think about wearing a beret. It doesn't stop at beauty. Popular fashion site Man Repeller has a recurring series called "Ask a French Girl" that goes beyond the way you look and seeks to imitate a lifestyle. How do French girls date? How do they order wine? How do they celebrate Thanksgiving?
The French Girl has moved out of Paris and onto the web, but her core features are immutable. Her hair is tousled, her high waisted pants fit perfectly, and with a cursory look over Vogue's archive of French Girl Style — she's rarely a women of color. The only POC in their 40-strong list is turn-of-the-century dancer Josephine Baker. That constitutes an entire article in itself.
The obsession with the French Girl is a little darker than the Pinterest boards and YouTube tutorials would attest.
This may seem somewhat harmless, but the obsession with the French Girl is a little darker than the Pinterest boards and YouTube tutorials would suggest. The idea of this fictional woman (obviously not all French women love the gym, loathe straws, and are white) is symptomatic of internalized gendered surveillance. Our fixation on this mythical women speaks to the way women are taught to behave. The French Girl is always ready to be looked at, but never lets on that they desire the attention. As Angela Chase put it, "With boys… you have to pretend to not notice them noticing you."
We are told that trying is the antithesis of being French; because making an obvious effort and wanting praise is vain and undesirable. You are a subject of the gaze, but shouldn't invite it.
The French Girl expects to be looked at, but never lets on that they desire the attention.
The French Girl is the summation of an old expectation that women are supposed to look beautiful, but also natural. Though there are thousands of guides on faking French hair, we're always told that there's an authenticity to the French Girl that we could never replicate. As soon as you try to be the French Girl, you've failed. In interviews, the famous French Girl stresses how simple her beauty routine is — she doesn't actually do that much in terms of makeup and hair — and usually wears the same thing everyday. When asked by Refinery 29 how to be Parisian, Caroline de Maigret replied, "to not to care about it".
That's the catch-22 of the French girl: everything about her is a contradiction. She is supposed to be thin, but love food — apparently smoking can help with that. Women who spend too much time thinking about their weight and diets are considered vain, silly, and boring. To become the French Girl, we have to look perfect and appropriate at all times, but we can't let anyone see the work that goes into that. It's the ultimate performance of femininity because it's meant to be invisible. Is the French Girl just the Cool Girl with messier hair?
This is not the fault of these glamorous French Girls, they're not our enemy.
Is this what we think we're meant to be? A low-maintenance beauty who is stylish, without giving a shit about style? Is anyone like this? After consuming all these tips and tricks it's hard not to see it as arbitrary nonsense. It's like assuming every Australian Girl looks like Miranda Kerr, uses coconut oil and sea salt as cosmetics, and swims in the ocean to keep fit. It's ridiculous to accept that an entire nation of women embodies this one stereotype. The French Girl is just another way we can punish ourselves for not being as pretty or thin or fashionable or cool as other girls.
This is not the fault of these glamorous French Girls, they're not our enemy. Sure, French women write most of the How To Be a Parisian-style guides, but non-French women are responsible for the demand. We created this need. Really this myth benefits no one, not even French women.
This doesn't mean we should beat ourselves up for wanting to look perfectly effortless. Women admiring other women for their wit, intelligence, or clothes isn't inherently bad. But we also shouldn't feel dejected when we can't achieve it either. Looking "effortless" requires work, something women know inherently but can easily forget when we see pictures of 90s-era Vanessa Paradis. Pretending otherwise keeps us imprisoned in a performance of gender where we're constantly hiding the strings. Emulating outfits you like is cool, but let's not hinge our self-worth on someone else's idea of the perfect woman.
Ce'st la vie, y'know?