French Women: Do They Know Something That We Don’t?

“Kiss at the Hotel de Ville” by Robert Doisneau

I have recently read several books about French culture and the French women’s attitudes about relationships, parenting, sex, personal style, food, marriage, and the way they live their day-to-day lives. I read What French Women Know About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind, by Debra Ollivier, and I was so intrigued that I read another book by Ollivier called, Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide To Finding Her Inner French Girl. I’m currently reading Lunch in Paris: A Love Story With Recipes, which is a memoir by Elizabeth Bard. It’s quite entertaining and the recipes look delicious. The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is on my nightstand waiting to be read next. It’s pretty obvious that I’m slightly obsessed with the French at the moment.

The French women seem different from American women. I’m not saying their way is better by any means, but they come across as free-spirited, yet sophisticated, self-possessed, and refined. The French women don’t like rules, do’s and don’ts, how to articles, relationship experts, gyms, or tools and techniques to finding love or looking like so-and-so. The French don’t seem to give a damn about what people think (unless you are talking about food, wine, chocolate, sex, politics, books, or pleasure). They simply live their lives as they please.

A typical (or maybe stereotypical) French woman doesn’t want to look, dress, buy, and behave like other women, actors, or models. They want to be independent minded, intelligent, sexy, and cultivate their own unique style and inner world. Apparently, that is the social “norm” in France. I think Americans want the same things, but sometimes we seem to have a harder time being honest about who we really are or want to be because we care too much about being liked or about being like everyone else. French women are not brought up to care about that sort of thing.  

I was telling one of my friends, Kaia, about the book What French Women Know, and I blurted out, “You know all this time I thought maybe I was a freak, but now I think—I must be French!” We both laughed. Yeah—ha, ha, real funny. But, there is a little truth to that statement in some areas of my life. It’s not that I’ve thought of myself as a freak (whatever that means…what’s “normal” anyway? It’s all relative—the way we choose to live our lives.), but there are definitely times when I feel as though I swim against the mainstream. I like it that way; I really truly enjoy it actually.

I don’t want to conform or follow someone else’s ideology, style, or rules—I would feel extremely claustrophobic, uncreative, and stifled. I think it’s good to be authentic and follow your own unique path wherever it may lead while still being kind and consciously present.

Clearly, the French are brought up to think different from us at a very young age. French women are matter-of-fact about their bodies. They are brought up to embrace their unique figures and their sexuality, and to play up their quirks and imperfections. They seem to be more at ease in their own skin and they have no pressure to be popular or look like anyone else. Because the French are comfortable in their skin, they are not pining away to be or look forever young. They seem to grow old gracefully and don’t believe in packaged or fake “beauty”. How nice.

In What French Women Know, a French woman says, “In the U.S. you have to fit a certain norm. In France, it’s just the opposite. For French women, if you don’t fit a standard mold—you are compelling. If you don’t look like everyone else—if you express something different or somehow unique—you’re interesting, your special, and that makes you attractive and sexy.”

Ollivier goes on to say, “Their allure lies not in their surface glam, but in their capacity to nurture an inner life.” Sounds refreshing compared to our American culture of in your face, look at me, watch me strut my over-the-top sexy self, and the importance of the “shock factor” in order to gain attention or accolades.

And then there is love…

French women are taught not to think of love as absolute, but “in nuances, degrees of passion, possibilities, and shades of gray”. They don’t see love as black and white. They don’t believe their husband should be all things at all times. (I’m not referring to French lovers, mistresses, or affairs here—that’s a discussion for another time that might take all day and night! :) ). I don’t think we should depend on our spouses to fill every single one of our needs either. I think the responsibility falls on each individual to find his or her inner happiness and truth. Our spouses can’t do it all for us, although a good relationship certainly helps!

French women’s parenting style seems to be different from ours as well. They seem much more lassies-faire, yet their children are well-behaved with gracious manners (or so the book says). It would be completely normal in France to send your three-year old preschooler out-of-town for the weekend for a class trip. Could you do that? I cringe at the thought, especially because my youngest has a severe food allergy, and I would worry the whole time she was away. For the French, it’s a mini vacation and free time.

Ollivier says, “In America kids are King. Not so in France. French women expect their children to adapt to the grown-up-world—not the other way around.” She goes on to say that French see Americans “as either self-sacrificing über moms or hot mama’s”. Geez–How do they really feel? Well according to Ollivier, French women think we act like “sluts”. Well I never!?! I guess our pop culture is giving the French the wrong impression… Ahem.

The French also see us as being more concerned with goals than living and experiencing life. I might feel a little more relaxed if I were ensured a 35-hour workweek, 5 weeks of vacation each year, numerous national holidays that always seem to fall on Monday or Friday, free amazing preschools, and subsidized day care like the French. Lunch breaks last for hours there too. I would not describe France as a workaholic nation, and there is no pressure to be such.

That leads to something else different–French women don’t have a house full of clothes and things to choose from; they buy less and look like they have more. They spend time searching for one-of-a-kind items that not everyone in the world has access to via the Internet shopping experience. Imagine that—they don’t want to run out and buy a Burberry jacket just because Prince Williams soon-to-be bride, Kate Middleton, was photographed in one. Did you know that within hours of Kate’s appearance in the Burberry, the trench coat had sold out across the country. Why? I’d like to think we buy things because we like them, not because someone else does.

*sigh*

I don’t know if everything the books say are true and there are some things about French living that are a bit much for me (that I didn’t write about here), but I would love to travel there and experience France for myself.

Although I could go on and on about this subject, I’m babbling now. You’ll have to pick up the books and decide what you think for yourself. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Oh, and one more thing: French women are discreet, which leads me to the reality that I’m not so French after all. Most likely, a French woman would not have created a website called, The Secrets of Moms Who Dare to Tell All and proceed to “tell all” because they are private.

Oh, well. I’m doing my own thing and loving it.

Please don’t get the wrong idea—I’m not saying French live their lives better than us or that Americans live their lives better than the French; I just think it’s fascinating to learn about other cultures and the way they live their lives.

And, I do think it’s GREAT for people to be who they are truly meant to be–wherever they are from.

By The Notebook Doodles

“Be faithful to that which exists in nowhere but yourself—and thus make yourself indispensable.” ~ Andre Gide (French writer and 1947 Nobel Prize for Literature)

What do you think?

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13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Becky
    Apr 16, 2011 @ 02:50:34

    Great post! You seem to say that you have never been to France?! Well you certainly should :) Otherwise you’ll just be basing your opinions on stereotypes. I lived there for quite a while and much of what you say in your post from the books seems accurate. But you can never be too sure… And what is it with the deluge of books on this subject?? I wrote about Mireille Guilliano on my blog: http://beckyblab.com/nostalgie-francaise/1145/ would love to hear your thoughts.

    Reply

    • Liz
      Apr 17, 2011 @ 16:45:45

      Hi Becky, Thank you for your comment! I’m an avid reader and I’ve been reading so many “French books” that I wanted to share them all with you. Plus, I felt like I needed to site the references! ;)
      I’ll check out your post.

      Reply

  2. Noel
    Apr 16, 2011 @ 12:25:14

    I love this post and I couldn’t agree more–I think this trait is actually shared by women in many European countries. (Maybe it’s the same in other countries outside the U.S. too, but I’ve haven’t had a chance to visit those places–yet!) I went to Greece when I graduated college, and I specifically remember my roommates and I were in awe of the Greek women. They all inhabited their bodies with such ease, confidence and sensuality, and they were all GORGEOUS. But none of them looked the same, and none of them reflected the stereotypical American beauty norms. We all sort of turned to each other on the beach one day and said, “Umm … I think we’re missing something here …”

    Reply

    • Liz
      Apr 17, 2011 @ 16:49:36

      Hi Noel,
      I felt the same way after reading the books about France–”We are missing something here”. It was liberating to read about French’s culture. I’d be curious if your travels changed your relationship with your body or self-esteem for the better.
      Thank you for your comment!

      Reply

  3. Michael Cress
    Apr 17, 2011 @ 10:39:07

    Liz, that was an excellent piece! Have we noticed that when Hollywood needs to portray an elegant, stylish and charismatic actress- they tend to not play an American? Even Angelina Jolie in “The Tourist” played an English woman living in Paris. Her sophistication, refinement and ultra-stylish look and persona would not have been believable as an American. Unfortunately in a number of ways we have lowered the bar in our lifestyle choices (you couldn’t say it- but I will) and unknowingly are paying the price for it. Is it little surprise that we are one of the most “unhappy” countries in the world in spite of being the wealthiest? Much can and should be learned from other cultures; thank you for so eloquently (and carefully to avoid hate-mail :-) pointing out this wonderful contrast. I’ll have to read “French Woman”… going to buy it now!

    Reply

  4. Liz
    Apr 17, 2011 @ 16:56:25

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for your kind words and for saying what I couldn’t say. ;) I am honored. I hope you like the book…

    If you ever need someone to take pictures of West Coast street fashion, just let me know. I’d be happy to do so. I love The New York Sartorialist, and now I can’t wait to watch The Tourist!

    Reply

  5. Mona
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 07:50:29

    Wonderful post I happened to stumble upon. Thank you very much for the book reviews. I would typically be skeptical reading such books, but now I have reserved two of Ollivier’s book at our library.

    Perhaps I too am French and I’d love to raise my own daughter feeling as though it’s okay not to fit the ‘norm’, whatever that may be :)

    Thanks again!

    Reply

  6. z ...
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 09:01:09

    ***

    Thank you for the review, Liz
    I shall certainly read
    What French Women Know

    *

    Reply

  7. jswesner
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 10:35:24

    Wonderful post. I think there are many things we can learn from other cultures and I believe we can always improve upon ourselves.

    Reply

  8. The Water is Deep
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 12:48:32

    I love this Post! Makes a Girl want to be French. :)

    More importantly, as a Culture, I think they grasp the inner fundamentals of ‘finding ones true self’. American’s just need to ‘get their panties out of a wad’ and figure out that we don’t have to go overboard to ‘prove’ who and what we are.

    Do it with Class People. That’s what the French get that we have somehow never been able to completely grasp.

    Reply

  9. Forbidden Fruit
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 17:50:09

    Really liked your blog. Just subscribed :) looking forward to reading much more! And congratulations on being FP!

    Reply

  10. Button
    May 21, 2011 @ 07:09:28

    I wonder if I am part French. Great post. Do you think you’ll go into more detail on one specific aspect of a French Woman?

    Reply

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