Parisian lifestyle books reinforce feminine stereotypes

The popular genre has produced multiple manuals with the same life advice.

When people reveal their guilty pleasures, their items of interest rarely seem that outrageous. Whether it’s the Spice Girls, Kit Kats or autonomous sensory meridian response videos, that tense moment of anticipation for the listener usually ends with a deflated, “Wait, really? That’s it?” So when I tell you that my guilty pleasure is the Parisian lifestyle book genre, I expect the same response. My obsession with these books began this past summer, but my infatuation with French culture, in general, grew alongside the media’s increased coverage of it.

The French have always been at the forefront of fashion and understandably so. In recent years, however, publications have been excessively exploiting the concept of ‘Parisian chic’ for articles and YouTube videos. “Who What Wear” is arguably the biggest perpetrator, posting a piece on this topic every couple of days. British and American “Vogue” each have a handful of short videos on how to be the quintessential French girl, and, apparently, it’s not as simple as “be French” or “be a girl.” It seems everyone wants to know about all the components that make up this feminine ideal, and my guilty pleasure gets at each one.

The guilt factor of my fixation doesn’t come from the books themselves, but rather the number I have read on this subject. So far, I have counted six in the span of two months. Some of them are “The French Beauty Solution” by Mathilde Thomas, “Parisian Chic: A Style Guide” by Inès de la Fressange and Sophie Gachet, and the holy bible of this genre: “How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits” by Caroline de Maigret, Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan and Sophie Más.

The more books I read, the more apparent it became that all of these authors are just capitalizing on the stereotypical French girl everyone has come to love. You know the type: beautiful yet low maintenance, aloof but personable, simultaneously quirky and confident. She is essentially a paradoxical sex symbol. In the 1930s it was Coco Chanel, and in the 1960s it was Brigitte Bardot. Today, it’s models and social media influencers like Jeanne Damas and Camille Rowe. No matter the decade, society always finds a way to attribute this persona to a starlet or two of the current generation.

Aside from the woman herself, Parisian lifestyle books harp on other French stereotypes. For one, they all have the same style tips: camel trench coats are essential, choose flats over heels any day, and looking rich (see logos and gaudy jewelry) is the ultimate fashion sin. Also, did you know black and navy are a great color combination? Yves Saint Laurent said so. The same uniformity goes for beauty advice. If you do a smokey eye, keep the rest of the face neutral. In contrast, if you skip the eyeshadow, go for a red lip. All suggestions come down to one staple rule: always look nonchalant.

Additionally, if you thought baguettes and red wine were just an overplayed trope, you’re wrong. According to these books, French women consume inordinate amounts of each every day, along with croissants, pasta and coffee. They never get fat because they walk everywhere. I’ve never been to the so-called city of love, but something tells me these guides are just confirming everyone’s expectations of how chic and laid-back life in Paris is because it generates profits.

Adding to the appeal are common phrases randomly interspersed throughout the pages, such as “c’est la vie” and "oh là là,” as well as quotes from historical icons, like Simone de Beauvoir and Marie Antoinette. Not only is this stereotypical reinforcement annoying, but it’s also inaccurate and places a diverse population of women into a box. In order to fit the category of “French woman,” one must be trendy and attractive at all times without overtly trying to be either of those things. Upon closer examination, the sentiment is actually pretty sexist.

Another thing that irks me is the books’ underlying condescension toward American women, who, ironically, are the main target audience. In “The French Beauty Solution,” Thomas boasts about how French women never get plastic surgery before age 40, whereas plenty of American girls start getting botox and operations in their teens or early twenties. Thomas and Garance Doré, author of “Love Style Life,” also make note of the fact that American women always have manicured nails, flawlessly sleek hairstyles and perfectly toned bodies from working out regularly. Whereas French women smoke, don’t exercise and eat whatever they want, Americans stick to strict diet and workout regimens and generally care a lot about how they look. The authors mask these comparisons as admiration for American women’s discipline and self-control, but really, they’re just implying that French women are cooler and more self-assured for not caring, not to mention equally attractive despite their low efforts.

Weirdly, I have never felt particularly proud or defensive over my status as an American until reading these books. Yes, lots of American girls put effort into their appearances, but that doesn’t make them any less complex, thoughtful or interesting than girls who don’t. We have a lot going for us, and the ability to place importance on self-care only adds to that. Furthermore, these books hold a somewhat arrogant, self-righteous tone, but that doesn’t coincide with the French girls I have personally met, who were all kind and humble. My biggest takeaway from this literary indulgence is that we should just stop categorizing women in general, even if doing so attracts lots of readers. Appreciating a certain country’s fashion, beauty and culture is one thing, but it doesn’t take an obsession with a certain book genre to realize that looking down on someone for deviating from those standards is not très magnifique.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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