Sunday, May 18, 2008

The French Way Used To Be the American Way

Recently, I have become fascinated with women's living style in France and the way in which they keep themselves so well even past their "prime." I found out some surprising things: French women do not wear much make-up (verified by the 20 French movies I have watched in the last couple of months). And, as we all know, from Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don't Get Fat, French women are slim, many of them all through their middle-aged years. As described by Guiliano, French women insist upon feeling good in their skin, eat anything but not much of it, exercise. Restraint--less is more--is the ticket. a discipline that also insists on wearing only clothes of good quality and that fit (I have plenty of cheap shopping errors in my closet). Family, food, fashion seem to be the preoccupations of French women, along with gardens and books. Men are also a major preoccupation, since French women reportedly dress to be looked and admired by men, although here again, restraint in showing any skin is the norm. It is also interesting to note that the French do not have credit cards--it is strictly pay as you go in France--not as in the United States. Do ballooning credit card balances in the States go hand in hand with ballooning bodies, as we lose any capacity for delayed gratification?

Here are photos by Irving Penn of his wife and muse, Swedish model, Lisa Fonssagrives, who epitomized the sophistication and elegance of 1950s fashion.

In my researches of how French women think of themselves and of their bodies, it occurred to me that their discipline used to be the custom for women in America, at least in my mother's generation (1928-1998). My mother was chubby in her youth and after she went to college, never again. She "ate like a bird"--small portions. She had a routine that worked for breakfast and lunch, rarely ate between meals, walked two and a half miles every day after her children had flown the coop, and was extremely conscious of her weight, perhaps in excess. She returned from a visit to Paris when she was in her sixties to say that she was surprised that French men looked at her there. I wasn't; she was an elegant dresser and had a slim figure and beautiful smile.

Lisa Fonssagrives on the cover of Vogue in a day dress. Competent, smart, simple, and elegant. Nothing is flopping or flapping.

In the 1950s and 1960s almost all of my mother's many women friends were also slim. I recently read a blog by an American woman who had just had a baby in France and noted that her French women friends all watched her body very closely during and after pregnancy to see if she had gained any weight and were very pleased and approving to see that she had not (I apologize that I do not have the link to this post. Cannot find it). The same used to be the case with American women. I recall my mother praising a friend who had just had a baby, telling her, "Oh, you look so slim!" When the friend told my mother that she actually weighed less than her pre-pregnancy weight, my mother praised her in encouragement. Now this woman was quite slim to begin with, but I never forgot this interchange and the way in which women encouraged each other to be slender, rather than feeling envious. In those days, the idea was to gain only 20 pounds when pregnant. Today, the norm is 30 pounds, and women with their first children often gain more.

Lisa Fonssagrives on the cover of Vogue in evening dress, which emphasizes the waist and the elegant line. No cleavage, which often seems a must on the red carpet today.

The aesthetic of the 1950s is also one of restraint as compared with today, with an emphasis on elegance rather than power or sexiness. In the 1950s, as in the 1930s, and 1890s, clothes drew attention to the relationship of the upper and lower parts of the body to the waist rather than on cleavage. In my mother's world, those who flung cleavage around were considered vulgar. The 1950s style is a colder and more formal look than we have now, especially since "streetwalker clothes" took over fashion in the 1970s. But it is not hard to imagine that a woman who is so immaculately groomed and coutured as Lisa Fonssagrives, for instance, has restrained dietary habits. In comparison with her sophistication, today's couture sometimes seems as if women today are trying to be Li'l Abner's Daisy Mae. Note the accessories: hat, gloves, flower pin, earrings. A lot to have fun with.

The concluding point: The way French women are we used to be.


Paz said...

Very interesting!

Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting about the flower.


Laura said...

Just found your lovely blog...what a treat.

Kelly said...

I just found your blog via Posie Gets Cozy. Love it!

I liked Guiliano's book; I agree it's the American perspective of a bygone era. I read an American guide to poise and glamour book dating from the mid-1960s and it has a chart in there of "ideal" body proportions- the waist sizes 22",23",24", my goodness!

Jenny said...

Hi, I have been coming to the same conclusions myself lately and I only need to look at my own mother who although she is almost 80 has maintained the same dress size all her life not by vigorous dieting but by restrained eating. She eats what she wants but only a little and takes great care to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. She had lived an active but ladylike life and has always focussed on family, food and fashion. I didn't realise I had a perfect "French" example on my own doorstep.

Anonymous said...

The most important points I took from Mireille Guiliano's book is that one should not obsess about weight. Instead, obsess about food. Great food. Pacify the demands of the the stomach by satisfying the eyes, the tongue, the mind. Buy only the highest quality foods, cook with care, eat with pleasure and attention, and never, never, never snack. Never eat anything from a box or a bag. Never eat standing up. Never eat while you're watching television or sitting at a computer. When you eat, devote yourself to the experience and savor ever bite. It's a liberating attitude for an American taught to feel guilty about food.

The other tip I gleaned from her book is that, if you like weighing things, weigh your food, but not yourself. You should let your clothing and your mirror tell you whether you're in good shape.

M. Guiliano's book is entitled "French Women Don't Get Fat", but the subtitle is the important part: "The Secret of Eating for Pleasure".

Linda said...

Anonymous, I think your comments are very well taken. This also involves the revival of the family meal. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to make this thoughtful comment!