For a long time, I thought France was decades behind when it comes to feminism and sexism. There’s an emphasis on femininity that feels excessive and antiquated to this American feminist. Frenchwomen don’t seem particularly interested in the Sisterhood. If they do care about feminist causes, it’s usually in the form of quiet support and not vocal protest. The stories I’ve heard from French friends about everyday workplace sexism—from a boss making a pass to a client insisting on a date—seem anachronistic to me. This isn’t Mad Men. It’s 2017! At home, Frenchwomen are still doing most of the household chores, even though one study says Frenchmen who don’t do chores are more likely to get cheated on.
I have less freedom here than I did in New York. I’ve stopped wearing miniskirts or anything revealing, unless I know I’ll be with my husband. I’m far more wary of being harassed or pickpocketed. (Never been pickpocketed in the US. Three times here.) I was automatically christened Madame Bunuel on all my official French documents, not one person asking if it was what I wanted. I have yet to change any American documents to my married name.
Still, women receive support in amazing ways in France. The maternity leave is generous while America’s is laughable. Frenchwomen are encouraged to put their wellbeing high, if not on top, of their to-do list. Everyone wonders what the secret is to Frenchwomen looking so fabulous, even when they’re moms? They’re not guilted into believing that motherhood needs to consume their entire lives. They can be women first. They’re not selfish for getting their hair done or putting on makeup or buying themselves (and not their kid) a pretty dress.
Sexism in France is a moving target. At what point is looking good—especially after giving birth—another bow down to the patriarchy? Does the prioritization of “le couple” imply that nothing is more sacrosanct in a woman’s life than her romantic relationship?
I’m not sure. Hence, Sexist or Just French?, where we try to parse what’s cultural from what’s wrong, ignorance from willful blindness.
We’re starting with breastfeeding because when are the body politics of women ever not a hot button issue?
I nursed both my kids past the year mark. It’s what educated American women of a certain socioeconomic class do because bottle-feeding is the devil. (It isn’t.) Not being in America meant I had to weather the raised eyebrows of French friends, family and even my doctors because educated French women of a certain socioeconomic class don’t breastfeed. When my daughter was six months, I went to the gynecologist and she asked, “Did you breastfeed and for how long?” When I said I was still nursing, she was surprised, “Toujours?” Later, she collected herself and “complimented” me, “It’s so nice to see a woman who’s breastfeeding yet is so slim and beautiful.” I was shocked a gynecologist believed all nursing women were fat, ugly cows. But she was a lot more diplomatic than my friend’s male doctor who, when told my friend planned to nurse past a year, dismissed her, “Only Africans do that.” (Racist or Just French?)
I’ve had Frenchwomen tell me their breasts were for their partners; that breastfeeding chained a mother to a child so against the tenets of feminism; that they wanted to get back to drinking and smoking—life—which you can’t do when you’re nursing.
I do not believe my breasts are for my husband. They’re mine and I decide what I do with them, including feeding my baby as nature intended. Thinking breastfeeding isn’t feminist is an old-fashioned idea I’m surprised still has traction. But getting your life back? I am all aboard.
Looking back on those baby years, I wish I’d given myself more permission to think about me. To not always be a slave to attachment parenting. My daughter was exclusively breastfed and only occasionally had a bottle of my pumped milk. With my son, I had to bottle feed (formula) in the beginning because he was gigantic and I wasn’t making enough milk. It was a goddamned relief. A small respite because I was usually pumping when I wasn’t nursing but a break nevertheless. If only I’d allowed myself to be more French back then. I might have been happier.
To explore the topic further, we’ve got several expat moms sounding off on their breastfeeding experiences in France. Our Frenchwoman, Alexandra Guitelmann, also sheds some light on how she and her French mom crew feel about it.
What do you think?
If you have any Sexist or Just French topics you’d like us to explore, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, join the conversation in the comments here or over on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And please sign up for our newsletter for the most provocative stories from Paris and beyond.