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Debra Ollivier Headshot

How French Women Age: The REAL Secret

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I don't know about you, but I'm tired of two things: Articles about aging women that shout about being "Fantastic at 40!, "Fabulous at 50!," Sensational at 60!" And articles about aging French women along similar lines. Several pieces have made recent headlines in the latter category, with familiar fare about how the older French woman ages gracefully thanks to her life-long beauty regime, her au-naturelle make-up routine, and her Royal Don't-Get-Fatness. Invariably, they all miss the point, which is more about how we Americans and the French view the aging process.

While older French women do, indeed, generally enjoy lives of accrued sensuality, we American women are often busy whipping ourselves into shape with a vengeance (or feeling guilty for not doing so). And that's because a wicked feel-good paradox sears its way through our culture. Take a look at any American magazine for women forty-plus. Celebrations of age usually come with a clarion call for emulating youth in all its age-defying Fantastic-at-Forty-Plus firmness. As we age-defy (which, let's face it, is just shorthand for age-deny), we can finally "Be Ourselves," because after all those decades we've earned it, right? We've finally figured out who we are. We can finally not give a damn, as long as we still look Absolutely Fabulous!

Never mind that it's tough to simultaneously "age-defy" and "be yourself." Huffing and puffing on the treadmill of eternal personal transformation is no picnic, and French women know it. The French are generally suspicious of our culture of constant self-transformation, which draws you into its undertow with the promise of a Totally New Improved Much Better You while its evil twin suggests that There Is Something Very Wrong With You. French women sense strains of joyless utilitarianism here that conspire not only against their in-bred bon vivantism, but that smacks of a certain Puritan self-denial gone awry. They're wary of all our aging fabulousness. They also know that cougars belong in the zoo.

No surprise, then, that French women aren't preoccupied with "fixing" themselves, which is not to say that they don't take care of themselves. Au contraire. We Americans are frequently in awe of how older French women cultivate themselves as sensual feminine creatures while they age. But these women understand that aging happily does not revolve around attaining a state of ageless perfection in gravity-defying leaps of cosmetic or personal reinvention; nor is it about withdrawing to a manless tundra where desire--even the pain of its diminished signal bleeping out in the dark of night--is denied. They're realistic about age and view it for what it is: an inescapable part of nature's grand plan; a personal destiny to which we're all tethered. Maybe that's because their beloved intellectuals (not to mention their mothers) have pounded a melange of fatalism and realism into their heads. (To read Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex," for starters, is to experience realism in excruciating candor.) This goes a long way in explaining why you'll never see a French woman wearing a t-shirt that says "Life begins at 70." Because it doesn't.

To me, this is the true secret behind the state of grace that so many older French women seem to enjoy. Of course it helps that France is a grown-up culture, not a youth culture, where 40 and 50 year olds are "players," too. Witness French cinema, where the love affairs of older women are a staple. Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche are gracefully aging older French actresses we love to cite in this regard. (A few notable exceptions: Catherine Deneuve was raked over French coals for her radical face lift. Ditto for Isabelle Adjani.) Many lesser known (in the U.S.) well-seasoned older French actresses abound, among them the stellar Natalie Baye. What a big contrast to the junior varsity squad that dominates American cinema!

All this reminds me of what Edith Wharton once wrote: "The French woman is in nearly all respects, as different as possible from the average American woman. The French woman is more grown-up. Compared with the women of France the average American woman is still in kindergarten." Ouch. That's quite a jab. But let's be honest: Wharton was onto something, wasn't she? Don't French grown-ups seem like... grown-ups?

When I had my two kids in France, including a daughter, I discovered one other little "secret" about aging French women: If there's an enduring bias in France that women are beautiful when they've accrued a certain knowingness and authenticity, this bias is bred into them when they're girls. Here again our cultures drift apart like continental shelves. We American girls often grow up with a mandate to be liked and to BE like others. Being "popular" bears down hard on us, insinuating itself in the young heart and soul with a vengeance. Insecurities go from being little buds of girlhood confusion to tyrannical fruits that hang on the vine as we age.

In France, however, the cultural norms wired into the young French brain are exactly the opposite. If you're liked and LIKE everyone, something is not "right" about you. Sameness is suspect. There's not even a word or notion for "popularity" in France. This little seed of personal defiance, if you will, blooms as they age. No wonder French women often don't seem like they give a damn what we think of them. (News flash: they don't.)

The bottom line is that aging gracefully in France has little to do with hair, make-up, weight or Botox. If you don't have the time to read Wharton, here's a reflection from an older French woman quoted in a book by French social critic Elisabeth Weissman titled "Un âge nommé désir" (An Age Called Desire): "I want to live everything with the most density possible," she says. "My relationship to time is totally different. I am so conscious that life might escape me at any moment, that everything has become keener and more distilled... I tell myself: all this happiness still, but for how long? So I devour life."

To devour life. I'm reminded of yet another quote, this familiar one from our own Abraham Lincoln: "It's not the years in your life that count but the life in your years." Too bad we have to wait to be grown-ups to figure that one out.

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