It seems Frenchwomen can do no wrong. Everywhere we turn, they’re writing books on how to be stylish, how to raise obedient children, how to stay slim without exercise and so on.
But why are white, privileged Frenchwomen revered to such an unhealthy extent by other cultures? I’m calling bullshit on this fetish, which lacks diversity and benefits businesses first and foremost.
I moved to Paris from London nine years ago—twenty-three years old with no French female friends. I quickly spotted some differences related to female friendships, despite the short distance between home and my adopted city. I was unprepared for the standoffishness of Parisian women, which made my first year as an expat somewhat bumpy.
So here’s a toolkit for understanding les Parisiennes that I’d have found handy 9 years ago.
Integrate Don’t Assimilate
This may sound obvious but it’s easy to lose sight of when you’re in a foreign environment. By moving abroad you’re way out of your comfort zone and it can be appealing to fall in with your new surroundings, especially when they’re as hyped as Paris. A quick Google search reveals that France continues to struggle when integrating other cultures into their society—so don’t look at the country with rose-tinted glasses.
Frenchwomen are not forthcoming so don’t fall into the trap of doing everything you can to fit in, i.e. becoming a carbon copy of them. Bottom line: Explore cultural diversity in the new place, but keep all the bits you love from home. You get the best of both worlds and bring something new to the locals. It’s one of the best ways in which living abroad enriches your life!
It Takes Time
If I could do one thing differently, I’d make less effort with the women in my boyfriend’s group. My British friends and I have experienced some hostility from women in a partner’s crew because the Parisienne approach is extremely hands-off. I have since understood that le couple is very important to Frenchwomen and often takes priority over female friendships. That explains why the majority of socializing in Paris involves other couples—heaven forbid you’re single—and why it’s less common for Parisiennes to go out with a group of girlfriends. So don’t take it personally.
What I would have appreciated was for these women to show some goddamn empathy. Or at the very least, some curiosity. Nine years later, I’m armed with knowledge that is helpful for me in terms of how I approach Parisiennes, but there’s no guarantee they will be friendly and open. The Peach/Coconut theory is a useful analogy to bear in mind. Basically, the Brits and Americans are like peaches, fuzzy on the outside and easy to access but the pitted stone means that it’s not easy to build profound relationships with us. The French are like coconuts—SO HARD on the outside but once you crack ‘em you’re guaranteed a genuine friendship.
Make The System Work For You
There are certain French attitudes I’m happy to subscribe to, like motherhood. It’s totally acceptable to have an epidural in France; there’s less judgment around [not] breastfeeding and there’s no shame in taking the minimum maternity leave (four months). The state provides physiotherapy sessions to repair important muscles post-birth; it’s a welcome reminder that a fulfilling sex life doesn’t have to be forgotten once you’ve given birth. With so much pressure already placed on our (perfectly capable) shoulders, I appreciate the French government putting systems in place to help us.
I’m also happy to adopt the French way when it comes to my femininity. Whenever I go back to London I LOVE seeing diverse style on the street. It’d be nice to see more of that in Paris. However—and without wanting to feed into stereotypes—I feel more pressure is put on American and British women to look good for others (high heels, full face of make-up, etc). Frenchwomen want to feel AND look good for themselves and for their partner. That’s it. Ultimately, it’s about choice. Sometimes I wear bright lipstick with high heels (sacré bleu) and don’t give a crap about “fitting in.”
Find Your French Feminists
It’s been announced that Holocaust survivor and female rights icon Simone Veil—who died last year at the age of 89—will be the fifth woman to be buried in the Panthéon. We love Simone because in 1974 she played an important role in pushing through a law to legalize abortion in France.
Want to know some French intersectional feminists? Find them in this Bust article. For a more detailed analysis—and an understanding of France’s current feminist position—of the recent Catherine Deneuve #MeToo backlash, try Pauline Bock’s article in the New Statesman. There’s more French female role models listed at the end because French women are definitely doing feminism. The men… that’s another article for another time.
Celebrate The Small Victories
If you’re new to Paris and feeling lonely, I have one final piece of advice for you: Savor the small wins. The reality of moving to a foreign country is that it’s going to take time and you will sometimes feel lonely.
Moving abroad is a BIG DEAL so go easy on yourself! You’re not alone—even writer Lauren Collins experienced setbacks—and you’re not only adapting to a new environment, you’re forging an identity in a different language. Take inspiration from Sheryl Sandberg who started a journal during a very difficult time. Or try persistence, as demonstrated by Elaine Sciolino in her excellent book, The Only Street in Paris.
After all my years in Paris, I now have some Parisienne girlfriends. Sometimes they can’t explain why they behave a certain way—they say it’s inbuilt—but I know part of why we’re friends today is because of my cultural differences. They’re happy to meet me halfway, which I would never have imagined possible when I first arrived!
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