Is our outdated idea of French beauty ready to evolve?
The other day, I was scrolling through Instagram for a minute (or hour) or two… part of my job at The French Collective is to oversee social media, so consider my time on the ‘gram research, darling!
I came across a new post by the French clothing company Sézane that stopped me dead in my tracks. Here was a photo of a model donning the season’s first bikini - along with a few tummy rolls and some sagging skin. Her exposed legs and hips had a few dimples and stretch marks. Her exposed midriff looked a hell of a lot more like mine and those that I normally see when at the beach (on both men and women, mind you).
I took a screenshot of the post. I shared it on my own Instagram account. This one little picture felt monumental. And I could tell by looking at the comments that I wasn’t the only person happily surprised by what I was seeing.
Before we dive into what this post meant to me, let’s get one thing straight - people with flat stomachs are normal. People who are thin are normal. People with toned muscles and abs you could bounce a quarter off of are normal. But brands only representing their body types, and not the plethora of other silhouettes out there, is not. So l’m going to avoid referring to the aforementioned Sézane post as portraying a “normal” body because weight, color, muscle tone… there’s no set definition of what’s normal and what’s not. Instead, I want to talk about representation.
We have already spoken about representation when it comes to “French Girl Hair.” Oftentimes, the “cool, French-girl hairstyle” that is marketed towards, let’s say, women like me, is blatantly white and completely foregoes taking French women who are Black or of color into account. When I look at French fashion publications online, I can see that some small efforts, such as using more ethnically-diverse models, have been made to correct this - efforts that are perhaps performative in nature only. The issue still remains, more work needs to be done, and we will definitely return to this subject in the future.
We have also already spoken about the myth-making behind French health. For so long, many of us francophiles have thought - incorrectly - that the French can eat pastries, devour cheese, and guzzle wine with little to no physical consequences, such as weight gain. Many of us have also spent our lives equating thinness with health. So believing that the French are inherently thin (and therefore healthy), a fact that is true for some, but certainly not for the whole, is another subject where more work and discussion is needed.
Why do I feel that it’s important to lay this groundwork before diving into the subject of “French beauty?” Perhaps it’s because France is not the only country who has made (and often continues to make) the mistake of idolizing thin, white women. But pale, wafer-thin women still seem to be synonymous with the French-girl “look”... a look that brands like Sézane usually double-down on. A look that most French brands continue to double-down on even while other countries have started to take body-type representation into more serious consideration.
The Swedish brand H&M was considered revolutionary roughly ten years ago when it started featuring more curvaceous mannequins in-store, not to mention differently sized models in campaigns. Many other clothing brands caught wind and have put the same practices in place; I can hop on over to the Target website in the United States, for example, and instantly see multiple ethnicities and body types represented in their clothing campaigns. The same can be said of UK sites such as Primark and Marks & Spencer. Spain’s Zara has done an okay job of featuring ethnically-diverse models, as well as looks that are gender nonconforming, although everyone is still, dare we say it, “model thin.” But when I hop on over to the website for Monoprix - the French equivalent of Target, and, I’ll be honest, one of my happy places - looking at their women’s clothing collection feels like traveling back in time. All I see are thin white women.
Which leads me back to the Sézane post. When I shared it as an Instagram story, my phone began lighting up. French friends messaging saying they saw it, too, and found it “refreshing.” American friends laughing out loud and saying that the woman featured in the post was still thin, she just wasn’t as photoshopped or as toned as we’re used to seeing. I found myself agreeing with everyone… it wasn’t a huge, revolutionary step towards diversifying the idea of “French beauty.” The model still looks much more like the Brigitte Bardots and Audrey Tautous and other stereotypical French “beauties” that send many French women straight to the pharmacy to purchase weight loss tonics, pills, or scrubs. But it was still significant. If, for no other reason, it means that there’s been a change of tide. The beauty and fashion world has often looked toward France and “French girl style” as a kind of North Star. Brands like Sézane seem to be indicating that they’re now looking outward for inspiration.
As usual, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here. Any person who points out that French beauty usually involves less makeup, spray tans, and plastic surgery than, say, stereotypical American beauty, would be right. But for now, cheers to seeing a little bit more of all of us in fashion and beauty campaigns.
And cheers to celebrating French beauty - of every shape, color, gender - in all its forms.