If you’ve gone anywhere near beauty blogs or the actual internet over the last decade you’re familiar with the French Girl aesthetic. It’s a glittering melange of unbridled sexuality, twee Tomboyishness, and aloof sophistication, which sounds contradictory until you look around at the iconic women it’s based on, (and the amount of revenue their identities have generated for countless brands.)
Think Brigitte Bardot. Jane Birkin on the arm of Serge Gainsbourg. Leslie Caron, but only in the 1960s. Jean Seberg in Breathless. It is only Catherine Deneuve who is allowed to transcend her youth.
Earlier this month, Eliza Cooke wrote in shrewd detail about the billion-dollar myth of the French Girl, tracing its real origins back to what is essentially America’s uptight projection of what it is to be a member of a wildly chic tribe of women, who, as Cooke writes, include only those “bicycling along the Seine in mini-skirts with baguettes tucked under their arms.”
Australia too, has latched on to the idea of the Parisian princess, albeit with less froth than your average champagne-sipping, Breton-stripe-wearing American beauty influencer.
The reason, one might hypothesise, is because Australians are a little more laidback than our American counterparts, a little more cynical, too. This means that French-flavoured beauty mythology in Australia leans more toward an unvarnished, (read: young hipster) ideal. We’re talking France via Fitzroy; rue Saint Honore via Redfern.
Oh, we love our pink roses, our Diptyque candles, our kohl-pencil cat eye makeup. But we’re not about to tie our hair in grosgrain ribbons and go prancing toward the closest Chanel makeup counter. That would be, in a phrase, Le Basic.
This is not to suggest that the French aesthetic carries less allure for Aussies. But what exactly is it? And why, after almost a century, does it still persist?
The cornerstone of the French Girl myth is the seductive promise that you don’t have to follow the hyper-restrictive rules of post-modern beauty.
These days, women can be ridiculous, hideous, vain, craven, immoral, bland and or stupid and still be held aloft as a role model provided they have a pleasing, (youthful) face, and fat deposits in the right areas.
These are the rules and if you obey them then everything else you do will be called “empowering.” But in France, you may have your cheese and eat it too. And then roll your eyes at all those silly lactose intolerant individuals and their striving for — how to say? – bull shit.
If you follow the (mythologised) French, you don’t have to worry about looking bad while hung-over, all you need is an aggressively seductive lipstick and last night’s eyeliner. For skincare, you use a small, perfect bottle of lavender oil or its equivalent.
You don’t have to give up smoking, you don’t have to exercise, as long as you’re having plenty of sex, (and you don’t have to worry about your sexual dignity because in France, you see, nobody is so uptight as to demand monogamy).
The hair on the French Girl’s head is never brushed, it’s teased and tussled and promptly forgotten in favour of deep intellectual pursuits. She is either naturally buxom or naturally small-breasted, either way, the only bras she owns are for the boudoir.
And here is the trouble with the French Girl Myth. It is not, as NYMag playfully asserted, the ability to slap “French” onto any random act and make it marketable. Sad to say, the French Girl aesthetic is not quite that vague.
No, the greater problem is that, while The French Girl appears to sit topless on the beach, cigarette in one hand, book in another, while she laughs at our neediness to conform to restrictive beauty standards, the truth is that she has her own she follows just as closely, they’re just a different set of rules.
As iconic French fashion blogger, Garance Dore once put it, “the French woman is a nice and beautiful myth”. And just like every “grass is greener” tale, this one has its own version. “French women,” she admits, “would love to be like American women.”