I’m a Biracial Mother and Here’s Why I Think Idolizing French Women Is a Problem For Teens
By Helen Racanelli
Photo © encrier/Getty Images
Feb 17, 2020
When I was a teen back in the 1990s, French women were considered the ne plus ultra of effortless beauty and desirability.
I’m thinking of a lithe, blond, utterly French Julie Delpy in the Generation-X cult-hit movie Before Sunrise. Two generations before that, boomer adolescents admired Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman with her teased blond bouffant, kitten flick eyeliner and slim, bikini-clad body.
Rewind history to 1775 to see that French teen queen Marie Antoinette was a style icon who still inspires cosplay the world over.
This black mother describes how she feels when, despite the many options, her daughter always chooses the white doll. Read about it here.
And yet I had hoped that today, in the midst of “woke” culture we would recognize and lift up more women from other cultures (or our own!) who are just as worthy of respect, admiration and adulation. But what I've noticed is that many are still clinging to this tired, old, harmful trope that thin, blond French women look better than we do, and we should strive to be more like them and less like us.
For teenagers, I see this pervasive and recurring strain of Francophilia delivering a problematic message.
The message is that our looks can be perceived as a problem. And I don't think actual French women themselves are free from this decades-old expectation!
In recent memory, bestselling books like Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don’t Get Fat underscore this ideal — namely, that being skinny is good and being fat is bad. I know that book came out over a decade ago, but if you think no one is exalting this stereotype of French women anymore, you’re wrong. A more recent example comes from the Toronto Star, with an article titled “How To Get French Girl Hair in Six Easy Steps.” This September 2019 article, though well-researched, snapped me back to my own youth when it was even more common to find articles about fair, Caucasian hair that didn’t reflect what I saw in the mirror.
“We want to mimic the hair we had when we were little, because our colour tends to become ashier as we get older, whereas it’s more golden when we’re younger,” says one of the hair stylists in this article. Excuse me? Who is this “we”? My nearly black hair has never been golden a day in my life. The assumption that we start life off as blonds is blind to reality. This isn't an anecdote I will reinforce with my teens. Because it’s a poor one. If you were a blond baby, it implies you represent a majority in Canada (you don’t, it’s widely accepted that only around 2 per cent of the world’s population is naturally blond), and if you have dark hair, you are automatically excluded from this narrative.
Even if we ignore the hair colour advice and move on to texture, if you’re a teen with kinky-coily hair, then sorry, your experience isn't being reflected in media like this.
"As a biracial teenager with a stubbornly apple-shaped body and poofy off-black hair, I could not resemble the French woman touted to me as the ideal if I tried."
The message that this idealized French woman was superior affected me acutely in my late teens because I struggled with my weight. At a size 10, I wanted to be skinnier. The 1990s were already a decade that already exalted rail-thinness. Think the skinny Friends cast, or a grunge-era waif Kate Moss. Pop culture’s elevation of the elegant, slim-limbed French woman made me feel even more fat and ungainly.
At age 17, I had read somewhere that the French regarded the perfect breast size as being able to fit in an old-fashioned champagne cup. Then as now, I had large breasts for my frame. They wouldn’t fit into an oversize wine glass, let alone those dainty champagne coupes that look like they hold about a half-cup of bubbly. So not only did I have to endure catcalls and harassment every T-shirt-clad summer walk in my life, my own bedroom was no refuge either because there I felt too wide with shameful, sloppy breasts.
After years of French class I could speak French quite well, but body wise, I was definitely not good enough to be the French woman that was being presented to me.
And here we hit upon the tenet that still bothers me the most about our culture’s weird fixation with French women. There is the suggestion that we feel ashamed of ourselves, if we don't measure up. We should better ourselves — be more French. We should aspire to be someone we are not. This is bad for women (yes, French women too!) and it’s even worse for teens.
In fact, I feel they should be less French and more themselves. And why is this message levelled at women? Are men being pressured to be more Russian? Or Italian? It’s not only stupid, it’s sexist.
TikTok aside, today’s teenagers are not so different than when I was a kid. They’re still impressionable and susceptible to damaging ideas. And I can only speak from experience when I say that if you promote a thin ideal, there is a subsection of teens who will interpret that as a reason to diet. I dieted, and even though I got 10 pounds thinner I still was not as thin as the model-thin French woman I wanted to be.
This (luckily) did not veer into eating disorder territory for me, but I worry that for other teens, chasing this idealized French body will lead down a dark path. But we don’t see this, and that’s what makes it dangerous.
On YouTube, where all the teenagers are actually hanging out, it’s no better. The thirtysomething English designer Alexa Chung’s video “Alexa Chung Learns How To Dress The French Way” has 1.7 million views and counting — it was released in 2019. Here, the exquisitely pretty, half-Chinese brunette Chung, who as a fashion designer and former Chanel model is herself a style expert, submits to a schooling from fashion journalist Camille Charriere.
The quest is to look more French. Your face doesn’t have to be too perfect, we learn (a small comfort), but Charriere presents a troubling emphasis on conformity and not wearing anything too loud. It is also worth noting that, like the French women idols of the past, Charriere is very skinny and very blond. So if the patchwork sweater Alexa is wearing in the video isn’t French enough because it’s too outré, then where does, for example, the flashy gold lamé favoured by the singer Lizzo fit in this schism? It doesn’t, of course.
Evolutions of Style
The other ridiculously idealized and idolized woman in North American pop culture is the California girl, but even she has evolved. She was supermodel Christie Brinkley in the 1980s, then Pamela Anderson’s Baywatch blond in the '90s. Today, when you say “California girl,” a teenager would more readily pick one of the curvy half-Armenian, black-eyebrowed Kardashian sisters as emblematic of this icon.
Whereas the “French woman” is basically still Brigitte Bardot circa 1956.
As a biracial teenager with a stubbornly apple-shaped body and poofy off-black hair, I could not resemble the French woman touted to me as the ideal if I tried.
This mother believes white kids need to be exposed to the black experience on screen. Read about that here.
Even if my body and my hair could be flagellated into the right Parisian contours, my face would have betrayed me anyway. Luckily, I had a strong pride in my Eurasian identity and I can’t say it ever crushed my spirits, but it did make me roll my eyes. That hasn’t changed. I’m glad now that we are moving into a world with better representation for the myriad skin tones, body shapes and clothes choices that exist, but this sad, old French-women-do-it-better throwback is still around.
But whatever the trend it is that's telling us to look a certain and often unachievable way, I believe it’s time for us to stomp it out. These tropes serve no one and it especially does not help impressionable teens who deserve better. Our culture has evolved, globalization is here and France does not own the style monopoly of the world.
In other words, I'm teaching my teens to appreciate less conformity, more variety and more Lizzo.
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