Don't believe la hype: what French women are bragging about now


Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

View more articles from Alecia Simmonds

French-born author Mireille Guiliano of 'French women don't get facelifts'.

French-born author Mireille Guiliano of 'French women don't get facelifts'. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain

The French have many reasons to think that they're better than everyone else. Firstly, butter. Secondly, bread. To these two most obvious sources of national pride you could add a public transport system that works, state welfare and I suppose the Enlightenment was not too bad either. 

But there is one area where I refuse to accept any show-offy Frenchy behaviour and that's on issues pertaining to women. If I see one more book about how French women don't get fat, don't have bratty children, don't need sex or don't sweat I will gouge out my eyes with a baguette.

The latest offender is a book by the execrable Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, called French Women Don't Get Facelifts in which, without a smidge of empirical data, she claims that "France, a country devoted to female beauty and where women of a certain age are models of desire, elegance and seductiveness, is not a land of facelifts." Unlike their brash, youth-obsessed, frozen-faced, duck-lipped Anglo-Saxon counterparts, French women age gracefully through moisturising, feeling positive, wearing cardigans and leaving half their food on the plate.

French women don't get facelifts by Mireille Guiliano.

French women don't get facelifts by Mireille Guiliano.

Make no mistake: these books are just self-help trash but with a country dispensing the wisdom rather than someone with a PhD affixed to their surname. We could hate them for this reason alone. But more crucially they suggest that the only things of importance to women are whether they're physically attractive to men, how they breed and how they decorate their home. They are nothing more than a bleating 1950s housewife offering to incarcerate women in a prison of self-denial, self-invigilation and self-criticism. I mean, what on earth is the point of living in a country with boulangeries on every street corner if you can only eat half an eclair? Why bother having a social welfare system if you see parenting as the exclusive burden of women?


The reason why these books focus on such a limiting and limited range of subjects is because women in France are not a picture of liberation. If it was any lass from a Nordic country lecturing us on gender then I think I’d probably listen. But France rates terribly on issue of gender equity. The 2011 Global Pay Gap survey ranks France 46th, behind comparable economies like Britain, which is 15th and behind less comparable ones like Kazakhstan. Historically, French women did not get the right to vote until 1944 and soliciting sex work was illegal until December this year. Yes, France is the home of great feminist thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Helene Cixous but de Beauvoir’s diaries show how reviled she was during her lifetime and Cixous is barely known in France. America made her famous.

As someone who has lived for a few years in France these books make me livid mostly because they're not true. Why can French women eat what they want and not get fat? Simple. They can't. Like everyone else they either diet or exercise. And from my experience with French women, dieting means eating one meal per day during the week and then eating what they like on weekends. Paris is filled with centres d'amincissements (or "skinny clinics") where you can undergo a range of weird therapies to get you down to a size eight – from receiving microwave rays to taking pills. As for portion control: how is this anything other than hellish self-denial and a hateful approach to food?

French women don't get fat by Mireille Guiliano.

French women don't get fat by Mireille Guiliano.

Why are French children so well-behaved? Well, from my experience it's because they seem to have all spirit, self-confidence and individuality crushed out of them at their Soviet-era schools and by their smacky hitty parents. It's pretty common over there to see a child walloped in the street; their good behaviour could also be called cowering submission. An American friend in Paris described her horror when she entered her child's classroom to find the walls filled with paintings of houses and landscapes which "all looked exactly the same: they'd been drawn according to grid paper." Another friend's preschool age child received a report card saying that he had no talent in painting: D minus.

As for their approach to ageing, from my experience they are just as obsessed with youthful skin and infantile models of femininity as we are, only it's much worse because in France a woman's main function is to be beautiful. Women's opportunities in life are almost entirely determined by their attractiveness to men. All job applications have to be accompanied by "une belle photo" (a selfie) and the government sponsors "relooking" classes for unemployed women who are deemed to need a makeover. The feminine ideal is passive, timid, quiet, self-abasing, maternal, childish and hungry: something that should not be inflicted on French women let alone on the rest of us.

As far as social organisation goes, I have immense admiration for the fact that the French have a healthy disrespect for work, consider wealth to be vulgar and understand that a bicycle path is not just paint on a road. But for women, the only Frenchy worth imitating is the pink lady in Grease.