We’re all familiar with the articles and books about French women’s beauty secrets. The secret moisturizers, the insouciance, the je ne sais quas - we in America are held in thrall waiting for the next magical secrets of French Beauty. But there’s another secret you won’t read about in the books or magazines, one that great French Beauties will take to their graves.
French women lie. They lie about their diets, their visits to the dermatologist and what goes on there, their surgeries, and even their undergarments.
The gorgeous ex-model who swears she never wears foundation? The famous movie star d’un certain age who tells reporters she wouldn’t dream of having a face lift? Once in a while they’re telling the truth, but those of us behind the scenes know they’re usually lying – they’ve done all those things and more.
Why lie? Well, certainly it’s better for actresses to talk about their craft and directors than their upkeep. After all, if we had to listen to movie stars talk about their surgeries, what a big crushing bore that would be. There’s also a French (maybe European?) desire to keep one’s mystery. Our American forthrightness can be very useful, but our tabloid blabbing about who’s had what surgeries is not very elegant.
That French insouciance isn’t entirely natural – that perfectly imperfect bun may have been practiced for years. Certainly the classic Parisian Frenchwoman cultivates her look over time, so that today it may be thrown together in an instant. But the assumption that French women (especially the super-beauties we read about) do so little upkeep creates an expectation that beauty is somehow effortless – at least for those lucky enough to be French, that it is.
There is another side to this, however: aside from being a big bore, talk about the work involved in looking good can feel accusatory to those who don’t want to do it. Certainly we all have our friends with whom we share our latest efforts – those friends are usually on a similar beauty/fitness path as us. But when my non-exercising relatives ask me about my yoga or sometimes-organic diet, we end up in an odd metaconversation that ends with their justification of their current practices.
That could just be my family, but I’m beginning to think there’s more to this. There’s a bi-polar aspect to beauty work – on one hand, advertising tells us we could all be effortlessly gorgeous if we just try this one diet or that cream. On the other, it most often takes real work to look good. There’s a certain amount of defensiveness people feel when confronted with a woman who admits to the work involved in keeping beautiful – maybe they’re not trying hard enough?
Great beauty is unfair: it starts with genes and luck – and for models and actresses, grows startlingly from work and knowledge – both from the beauties themselves and the teams around them. But when those secrets are too numerous to relate, too complex to parse, sometimes it’s just easier to say, “the Fates have been kind.” With an accent, of course.
Photo: Isabelle Adjani on the cover of Elle, 1976. From a collection at ACiDPoP!