When French Beauty Means White Beauty

by Vanessa Willoughby

When we talk about French beauty, we’re often discussing a few select traits that reflect a monolithic and colourless idealization. The usual idols are brought up as universal representations of the epitome: Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, and Françoise Hardy to recent celebrities including Marion Cotillard and Audrey Tatou. These women represent an effortless, carefree femininity that involves perfectly rumpled bed-head, big eyes magnified by the steady flick of black eyeliner, and the allure of unbothered glamour captured by a simple yet timeless wardrobe. They are beautiful but their beauty is exclusive, meant to be replicated but impossible to genuinely duplicate. The aesthetics that define French beauty are unattainable for the average woman not born with the seemingly innate ability to roll out of bed and look like a sleepy-lidded sex kitten. The term French beauty acts as coded classification, referring to a type of aspirational and not inspirational beauty that rejects women who do not fit the mould, even women who are by all means French, but do not have pale, porcelain skin. French beauty is inherently associated with whiteness in the same way that “All-American” is connected to blue eyes and Farrah-Fawcett-blonde hair. For many people, the whiteness of French beauty is a prime example of why representation matters.

Recent cultural fads, such as the lifestyle guides French Women Don’t Get Fat and French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, speak to the romanticization of French beauty and French culture at large. In an interview with The Cut, French editorial makeup artist Violette claimed that French women don’t contour. She said,

The French girl is kind of lazy…We think that American beauty is very inspiring and very glamorous. We admire it, we just can’t seem to apply the same philosophy to ourselves for some reason…Even among the young girls, I saw that being natural is really something we have in our DNA.

Clemence Poesy

Clemence Poesy

As Americans, we subscribe to the belief that French culture is somehow a far-removed fountain of youth, a sophisticated slice of European je ne sais quoi that cannot compare to rough-hewn edges of its American counterpart. When Nathalie Dolivo, a writer for French ELLE, wrote a blog post about black fashion, she observed that the renewed interest in fashion among the black community was a cultural enlightenment triggered by Michelle Obama, an indication that the “black-geoisie” had adopted “white codes of fashion”. She noted that the black community had only known streetwear, thus implying that through the adoption of “dressing white,” black fashionistas had expanded their couture horizons. Dolivo seemed to deduce that fashion was overwhelmingly determined by race and that black French citizens needed the aid of their white peers to teach them how to be chic. Readers denounced Dolivo’s assessment; one wrote:

How, in 2012, in a France where there are at least three million blacks and mixed people, can you write such nonsense? You are too kind when you write that in 2012 we have incorporated the white codes…what do you think, in 2011, we dressed in hay and burlap bags?

A group of black French celebrities were rightly incensed and wrote an open letter calling out Dolivo’s tone-deaf post. The group, which included supermodel Noemie Lenir, argued:

It is also time for them [ELLE editors] to realize that there are many black women in France. Black people do not all live in the United States, and they are not all pop singers, film actors, and sport stars.

When we speak of French beauty, not only are we admiring a laissez-faire attitude, but we are upholding a Eurocentric standard that places whiteness at the centre. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that Europe is free of racism and/or colourism, or that such institutions do not shape cultural standards. In a recent French study, it was revealed that “racism is on the rise in France, with half of the French population admitting that they have a racial prejudice”. The superficial world of beauty may seem unrelated to the macro problems of cultural racism and discrimination, but these beauty ideals are unmistakably connected to larger cultural practices. People want to see an accurate reflection of themselves in the media that they knowingly consume. This certainly can apply to fashion, as evident by the vocalization of needing diversity on catwalks and in the overall modelling industry. This isn’t to say that the beauty and fashion industries in France are completely shuttered to non-white beauty. The Cut, frequent indulgers of the French school of beauty, spoke to Lili Barbery-Coulon, who is in charge of beauty at M magazine and is also a blogger. She reiterated the effortless glamour of French women and said:

In France, I think a lot of people don’t know about Kim Kardashian. But the people who do know her are not obsessed because they think she is beautiful but more because they think she is ridiculous…But in France, there’s a strong group of people who love Beyoncé and her style and everything. This is why we’ve been selling so many curling irons; I think she brought that kind of culture.

In January of 2014, African-French model Cindy Bruna appeared in a Prada campaign, making her the third black woman ever to do so. But the fact that Bruna is one of the few to join such ranks attests to the necessity of diversifying French beauty.

The beauty and fashion industries may be built upon the notion that exclusivity equals a heightened consumer desire, but that does not mean both should champion the unquestioned worship of one rigid definition at the expense of the unrepresented and underrepresented. When we move away from such schools of thought, we speak to the multidimensional and multi-ethnic resonance of fashion and style. In her seminal book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf suggests that we should

look directly at one another, and find alternative images of beauty in a female subculture…the heroines that in each generation are submerged from view; fill in the terrible, ‘beautiful’ blanks.

The current model of French beauty requires that women who do not conform to this look must seek out other forms, other expressions of physicality that have otherwise been ignored or devalued. The root of the problem is not so much the adoration or appreciation of French beauty, but the rules that dictate who can own such beauty.

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Vanessa Willoughby is a freelance writer and full-time editor. Her work has appeared on The Toast, The Hairpin, Literally, Darling, Bitch Media, and The Huffington Post. She is the Creative Director for the literary journal Winter Tangerine. Find her on twitter @book_nerd212

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