Unlocking the Secrets of French Women
American journalist Debra Ollivier lived in France for more than 10 years, married a Frenchman and had two children. Now she divides her time between Los Angeles and Paris and spends a lot of time thinking about the differences between French and American culture -- or more precisely, the differences between French and American women. Why is it everyone finds French women so sexy? Why are French women so fascinating? Why so chic? Why so thin? Ollivier has some answers in her book "What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind," published last month by Putnam.
GUEST BLOGGER: Debra Ollivier
Even before Marie Antoinette's head ended up in a basket, we've been intrigued by French women. Witness the waves of books about them that continue to be written. But why, truly, do these creatures have such enduring cachet in the hall of fame of sexiness and allure? There are many myths and clichés about them that simply aren't true, after all. French women do get fat. They're not all femme fatales. They don't invest half their life savings in lingerie.
Then again, there is something about French women we just can't seem to define. It's called, famously and appropriately enough, that "je ne sais quoi" -- or, literally translated, that "I don't know what." After living more than a decade among the Gauls, I was more interested in the culturally-brewed realities behind that infuriating term. Here are a few byte-size samples:
--French women are self-possessed; even slightly defiant. Why? Partly because they don't grow up with the mandate to be liked and be like everyone else. There's no word or concept for "popularity" in France. Imagine growing up without that pressure. No wonder French women don't seem to give a damn what we think of them. (News flash: They don't.) When it comes to relationships, that self-possession serves them well. If a man's Just Not That Into Her, a French women generally Just Moves On.
--Where we grow up picking flowers and pondering love with "He loves me, he loves me not," the French grow up with this refrain: "He love me a little. A lot. Passionately. Madly. Not at all." How unfair. We think in terms of total love or absolute rejection. They think in degrees of passion and possibility.
--French feminist Sylviane Agacinski once said: "We want the power to seduce and be seduced. There will never be a war of the sexes in France." (Likewise, Louis XIV of France once declared: "Under a king, a country is really ruled by a woman.") And so it is. French men and women actually like each other. A lot. Flirtation is a civic duty in France, not a menace. French women generally prefer men to be in the picture, not out of it.
--French women do not believe in how-to and dos-and-don'ts, which gives them a certain freedom to live as they please. They're also not fond of rules and they're private, not public. There is no Doctor Phil in France.
--French women generally have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure. We generally have a keen sense of the brevity of pleasure and the immediacy of the future.
--The pursuit of happiness is written into our constitution and the Happy Ending is written into our culture. Not so in France. The French are suspicious of happily-ever-after and exalted standards of happiness or moral perfection. They're simultaneously romantic and realistic. If something seems too good to be true, the French tend to think that it's not.
--The French enjoy being grown-ups. They do not believe in being forever young. You will never see a French woman wearing a t-shirt that says "Life begins at seventy." (Because it doesn't.)
--The French are more interested in having a life than making a living.
--French women are matter-of-fact about the body. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not dramatize or sensationalize sex. They're also not any more adulterous than we are; they're simply more willing to concede that passion grows in unexpected places. (In fact, according to an exhaustive comparative study, the French have a fewer number of long-term affairs and Americans have a larger number of short-term affairs. "The French are marathoners, and Americans are sprinters," according to one researcher. In other words, we all push the marital envelope; we just wear different running shoes.)
--The French don't covet packaged cookie-cutter beauty, au naturel is de rigeur, and less is truly more in France.
These are, of course, the more redeeming aspects of French women. There are many reasons to love and hate the French, and countless books have been written about the latter part of that sentence. The point here is not to exalt French (though they do have a peculiar tendency to provoke extreme reactions in us), but to consider what we might learn from their cultural attributes - because as Descartes once put it, it is "good to know something of the customs of different people in order to judge more soundly of our own."
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