After a lifetime obsessing over French culture, I’ve found that the concept of the French woman is a gathering of contradictions — a woman who can have it all. I was first introduced to this seductive stereotype through old movies and was immediately taken by her. Effortlessly beautiful with an air of mystery and a touch of ennui, she trumped any It Girl America had to offer me. Then in the mid-2000s, every single fashion brand seemed to also catch the Francophile bug, churning out their own version of the jeune fille with trademark messy hair and a cruiser bike. She was chic yet undone. Romantic yet self-serving. Social yet rather coy. She enjoyed carbs and butter and drank wine with lovers late into the night but remained dewy and youthful. In a way, the French-woman stereotype feels like a modern-day fairy tale. But I’d always wondered, Could I make this fairy tale come true?
Earlier this year, I went to brunch with my Parisienne friend, Stephanie, who embodies the French-woman stereotype IRL as much as one can. She was chatting at length about her previous night's drama with a friend who also happened to be a love interest. She wore the same jumper from the day before — something she'd pulled out at a moment’s notice from the back of her closet — and the remnants of her lipstick offered an alluring, barely there stain. During our conversation, I felt a sinking sense that there was a hole in my life, unbeknownst to me until that very moment. Between the two of us, I was the one with the solid relationship and lack of hangover, but I felt insecure and envious. I began to seriously question whether my insistence on stability could be to blame for the lack of excitement and romance in my life.
The French-woman stereotype feels like a modern-day fairy tale.
This summer, I found myself very single and somewhat directionless. Uninspired by my work and going on one unenthusiastic date after another, one could say I was a bit lost. Here, I thought of my friend Stephanie and that long-ago brunch moment. The most impressive thing about the French woman is that she can be undone — even laissez-faire — but it doesn’t stem from laziness. It seemed to me that the French woman had simply laid down strong foundations in what she deserves. Once that foundation was set, all she had to do was watch everything roll into place. Could I embrace that ethos so that I could be unabashedly alluring? Perhaps, purposefully undone?
This was the first step in what I decided would be a full month of trying to live like the mythical French femmes I’d long adored. It was not only my right but my responsibility to myself, to become effortless. By being less critical of myself and treating myself instead, I believed that I could find that certain je ne sais quoi that the French woman was so well known for.
I started off my month stopping into a café for an espresso every morning. I watched the crowds go by and waited for the rain to pass before strutting into the office. One day, when the rain clouds didn’t lift, I stayed by the window watching hurried New Yorkers scurry through the streets with jackets tucked over their heads, fantasising what their lives might be like and where they could be off to. When I finally drifted into work — unrushed, hair damp — I smiled to myself knowing I couldn’t have started the day off more perfectly.
The next step in my quest involved streamlining my style. I traded in trends for simple, flattering pieces. Without the bother of deciding on an outfit based on trends, I was able to spend more time and money elsewhere. Like on food.
I introduced carbs and sugar back into my life. I had only been waiting for this day for five years. I bought a $20 jar of chocolate hazelnut spread — far from a regular expense — from a boutique around the block and a tiny silver spoon to go with it. I had a spoonful every day. I went on a rampant search for the finest croissant in the city. I bought the best sugar brioche I’d ever had in my life. For 10 whole minutes, I thought only about the dance of butter and sugar and flour while the pillowy bread melted in my mouth. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was the kindest thing I had ever bought for myself. I noticed that the satisfaction in this less-strict diet actually solved my habit of incessantly snacking at work.
In terms of dating, I decided my personal mantra would be "anything goes." I allowed myself to indulge in my romance and kept my fantasies quiet rather than dishing to my friends. I soon felt the reward in doing this, like a mystery inside of me was glowing outward. Romance found me when I looked at the world in this decidedly sparkly eyed way. One night a boy took me to a bistro where we sat at a tiny outdoor table and split a bottle of a wine and a charcuterie plate. I half listened to him tell me what cheese was what, half listened to the waitress tell us about the wine. I fully allowed myself to enjoy glass after glass until we finished the bottle and ordered another. We took it back to my place where we sat on my fire escape and talked about our fears, talked about past relationships, talked too much. The night ended at 4:30 without a kiss. My lips remain sealed about the second date.
I found romance by myself. I danced alone in my apartment. I dared to tell myself I deserved everything I could think to ask for.
I found romance by myself. I danced alone in my apartment. I dared to tell myself I deserved everything I could think to ask for. Latching onto the question, What would the French woman do? led me to perfume boutiques, luxury beauty stores, and cheese shops. I treated myself like a Very Important Person. There were moments — cooking myself dinner in lacy lingerie with vegetables bought from the farmers' market or strolling the Flatiron District with sunglasses on and a silky scarf around my neck on a cloudy day — in which I convinced myself I simply was a Very Important Person.
My month-long indulgence in the bread, chocolate, and wine didn’t make me feel "bad." And the date that didn’t end with a kiss wasn’t unfulfilling. I’m convinced that perhaps it is the guilt of indulging that fulfils our self-prophecy that indulgence is paired with destruction. I'm not suggesting that we throw ourselves toward every vice but that maybe we can afford to play with the boundaries of self-control. Perhaps the French woman understands that we know ourselves better than we think and that, possibly, the world has been waiting with its hands cupped for us to ask of it to be kind. Maybe the romance of the elusive French woman stems from the idea that when we give in to the voice inside of us that demands beauty, it just might be what we get.