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That Je Ne Sais Quoi - a Lesson in Beauty from the French

When I think of French women, I think of beauty. The French have long been associated with beauty, style, and grace. There is something about French women that has become classic - both effortless and timeless - in relation to beauty. But what makes them beautiful? Good question! They have that sort of "thing" that has inspired the phrase je ne sais quoi (translated to "I don't know what") to describe it. But alas, that "thing" remains a mystery. I am always intrigued by articles that claim to divulge the beauty secrets of the French and thus cannot deny that I am guilty of being obsessed with having skin like (and the style of!) a French woman. 
That je ne sais quoi to which I aspire! (photo credit:
I am embarrassed when I think of the amount of money I have spent on trying to look French (my husband would find it not only embarrassing but infuriating as we probably could have used that money in a far more practical way!) But being beautiful has a cost, right? Of course - no pain, no gain! Sadly, that cost is beyond monetary pain. That cost is our self-worth. 
My eleven-year-old daughter wept in my arms the other night because she feels she is not pretty enough and not smart enough. Never mind the fact that she is hardworking and terribly intelligent, has gorgeous long blonde hair, stunning blue eyes, a lean build, and the skin of a porcelain doll. She fixated on the fact that she does not have 100 percents in her classes (she got a 97% and cried), and that she is too pale (she lets her hair hang over her lovely face so people won't see her veins), too skinny, and just generally not pretty enough. As a mom, I held her and my heart broke.
American culture has become so fixated on outer beauty that how we look has become the true measure of a person, and we neglect our inner selves, our essence or soul, if you will. One only need to look at a magazine with the photoshopped Barbie-like models who have been so altered that they are no longer their true selves physically. This gives the rest of us "schlepps" an unrealistic, unattainable goal to which we aspire, which in turn makes us feel inadequate. 
Young pageant girl - living thing or doll? I do not know who this little girl is...but don't worry, neither does she.
Need another example? How about those dog and pony shows called beauty pageants? I'm not a fan of such competition at any level, but I find it almost criminal to subject young girls to such a thing (see above photo). Shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and (ugh) Honey Boo-Boo portray obnoxious, petty, SELFISH mothers trying to vicariously live out their sad, failed childhoods through their little girls. And what do these little girls learn? They learn to view their fellow females as competitors to be defeated at any cost, to work AGAINST each other instead of cooperate, to value how they look on the OUTSIDE regardless of how rotten to the core they may be. Yes, I am speaking harshly, but someone needs to speak the truth.
There is nothing "real" left. The message? Who you are is not good enough. (photo credit:
Often, we see little girls with sexually provocative clothing, make up and poses who have no understanding of what they're doing or its implications. I hear mothers and others telling these little girls they're "sexy" and it makes my skin crawl! THERE IS NOTHING SEXY ABOUT A LITTLE GIRL! These darling little girls are robbed of their innocence and America sits back and says, "Isn't that cute?" No wonder my little girl is so confused about her beauty.
The hyper-sexualization of our girls. Message: You're a commodity to be objectified. (photo credit:
Then, I wondered - do French moms go through this with their girls? I nosed around online and found a few interesting facts. 
Beauty pageants are not really a big tradition in France. Even so, in 2011, Chantal Jouanno (Sarkozy's former Sports Minister) published a report entitled, Against Hyper-sexualization: A New Fight for Equality. Ms. Jouanno stated, "We are talking about children who are being judged on their appearance, and that is totally contrary to the development of a child. The question of hyper-sexualization is deeper in the United States than in France, but the levees are starting to fall. Before we are hit by the wave, the point is to say very clearly, 'Not here.'" Amen, sister! 
Chantal Jouanno 
This prompted a French bill to be passed in 2013 that banned beauty pageants for children under the age of 16. Violators (parents, pageant hosts, etc.) could face two-years jail time and a 30,000 Euro fine! (to read more details go here
In researching French attitudes about beauty, I found an inspiring article: 13 Ways French Women Treat Themselves Right. I would strongly recommend reading the entire article, but if you're looking for something a bit more concise, here is the list in its most basic form:
  1. Make the most of your assets
  2. Practice pleasure rituals
  3. Don't punish your body
  4. Accept your physical appearance
  5. Enjoy great food
  6. Respect your body
  7. Feel good AND look good
  8. Be yourself!!
  9. Work with what you have, not what you want
  10. Keep it natural
  11. Don't let age stop you from living well
  12. Be grateful for small things
  13. Enjoy life
In reading this, I had an epiphany. In my own quest for French beauty, I have fallen victim to the pressures of America's societal norms of beauty. I was looking for my beauty in creams and lotions, clothing and shoes. What makes French women so lovely, so beautiful, is that they are comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps the reason this je ne sais quoi found in French women is so mysterious to Americans is because it comes from within; therefore, it goes against our cultural indoctrination - our proverbial brainwashing - that is intended to lock us in a state of perpetual self-loathing to buy those creams, make-up, hair products and designer duds, to diet and medicate and punish our bodies mercilessly - even to the point of plastic surgery. 
Mireille Giuliano - author of French Women Don't Get Fat and French Women Don't Get Facelifts. At 79, she is beautiful in every way and shares the lifestyle and attitude of French women about beauty. 
And the worst part is that someone is profiting from our pain. The beauty industry is a multi-million dollar one and I am as guilty as the next person for feeding the corporate monster. 
French author Tatiana de Rosnay - talented, graceful, gorgeous, natural
I have long preached to my daughters that beauty is on the inside. It lives in how we treat others - in our compassion, kindness, and understanding. It is in our ability to embrace and love others for who they are - flaws and all. It is in acknowledging and respecting the Light within ourselves and others and treating each individual we encounter as a precious gift and never, ever judging. 
My beautiful daughters and me in Paris
As most parents do, I wonder whether or not my kids hear my message. Clearly, my eleven-year-old needs to hear it more and more as she navigates the tempestuous waters of puberty. But had my nineteen-year-old, now a college freshman and relatively out of earshot, heard? Yesterday, she was assigned to write a "slam poem" about beauty for her Women's Studies class (how is that for impeccable timing?!) She told me it took her about ten minutes to write - it just poured out of her. I shared it with my husband and eleven-year-old daughter and it brought tears to all of our eyes...especially to mine because I got my answer: message received. Here is her poem of which I am so very proud and impressed. (feel free to share, but please give credit where credit is due!)

Beautiful by Gabrielle Reed

Don't look in the mirror to find beauty
The mirror only shows us the cold calculating reflection of what society has pinned down as wrong
And we have lapped it up like mother's milk
Defining each eyelash and each inch around our waist as another loss in the inherent battle for beauty
We buy creams, make ups, lotions
But sell our souls as we do
Searching for that beauty we don't feel
And the rest of the world tells us just how ugly we truly are
Half out of spite
Because they too don't feel beautiful
And half out the fact that we will never be what we see in commercials
Get bigger, get smaller, get tanner, get lighter
Never be happy
Never saying that you are beautiful
We look to others to validate our existence
And tell us how beautiful we are
But we aren't
We are monsters
Dieting in the newest fad diet
Poisoning ourselves with constantly changing how we act and look
Then justifying it within ourselves
By stating it is in the pursuit of beauty
Sometimes the ends DO NOT justify the means
Not when there's an eleven year old girl crying after school
Because she does not feel beautiful
Beautiful does not exist as an outward appearance anymore
It's been lost in translation
Lost in the advertisements
Lost in the diets
Lost in the you will NEVER be good enough
Yet we walk up to that mirror each day
Hoping and praying that we will see a creature of beauty
Standing before our very eyes
But that's not where beauty lives
It doesn't live in the mirror
It doesn't live on our skin
Or in our hair and clothing
It lives in our actions
And the sooner we start acting compassionate and kind
The sooner we can step away from the mirror
Because we will know that we are in fact
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Yes, you have lifted the veil. In your own words, "What makes French women so lovely, so beautiful, is that they are comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps the reason this je ne sais quoi found in French women is so mysterious to Americans is because it comes from within;"

Well done! I find this to be true of many European women. Italian woman subscribe to the same as do the Spainards and many others . American women seen to have bit into the wrong apple.
Anna said…
This is a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
Oh! The poem is wonderful! Congratulations to your daughter! French women definetly are pretty, and I value a lot this "carafree" lifestyle, you learn to be comfortable on your own skin! And that pic of you and your daughters, you all look beautiful! Tell your youngest daughter that everyone is beautiful and different and that beauty comes from the inside, and as Audrey Hepburn said "Happy girls are the prettiest girls!" I'd suggest telling her more about Audrey, because despite being considered phsycally beautiful, what really made her beautiful was her actions, she was a great humanitarian!

Forgive me for my grammar, I am not a native english speaker.

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