If you try to Google the elusive “French Beauty,” you’ll find hundreds of articles revealing secrets like mineral-infused thermal water and not being afraid of a little bed head. But when scrolling through the Instagram accounts of French beauty icons like Jeanne Damas and Sabina Socol, it’s easy to wonder if there is something more to their effortless, natural beauty.
In a way, beautiful French women like these can feel like enigmas. They are stereotyped as long-legged, smooth-tressed models. And yet, they indulge in pain au chocolat for breakfast, finish off dinner with a wedge of brie, and enjoy a few spoonfuls of chocolate soufflé for dessert. And most of them, we imagine, do this all while fitting into the same jeans they’ve been wearing since their early twenties.
Before I moved to France, I could never wrap my head around how this perfect French woman could exist in a world filled with half-empty packs of cigarettes, practically deserted gyms, and arms full of fresh-baked baguettes. So when I first came to France as an au pair, I started wondering what was really behind the doors of this secret French beauty club.
Unsurprisingly, I began my search for French beauty in the aisles of the famed French pharmacies. Armed with cult favorites like Embryolisse Lait Crème Concentré and Caudalie Eau de Beauté, I was basically ready to transform into a French girl overnight. And sure, the creams and serums worked like they were supposed to, but it’s probably no surprise that after everything, I still felt far off from a real French girl (whatever that was).
Fast forward past my four-month stint as an au pair, two years as an English teacher in a French high school, and many coffee shop chats with French women themselves, I think I have finally discovered what makes the French so beautifully unattainable. So if you’re ready to learn how living in France shifted my perception of beauty as well as five ways that French beauty standards differ from American beauty standards, I’ll reveal just how les bâtards have their cake and eat it too.
Being Naturally Yourself vs. Trying to be Something You’re Not
Okay, before you come at me for the cliché, hear me out. “Be Yourself” might be one of the world’s most worn-out pieces of advice for young women struggling with insecurities. As somewhat of a European-mutt, there are a lot of things I struggled to love about myself. My dad’s Greek heritage came with a bump in my nose and two prominent facial moles. On my mom’s side, I was gifted with rather pale skin and mousy brown hair from her German-Slovak heritage.
I didn’t exactly feel like “being myself” would fix the fact that I wasn’t naturally gifted with a tiny waist, blonde hair, and a button nose. But, what surprised me when I started teaching high schoolers was that almost none of my students had blonde highlights or fake tans or contoured their faces.
And no hate to our American celebrities, but most of our beauty icons are seen wearing loads of makeup and even touting the occasional filter. I eventually learned the French are beautiful not because they’re chasing someone else’s beauty but because they own their own beauty. For the most part, they’re not drastically changing the color of their hair or the shape of their nose. They are just working with what they have. Sure, they still go to their esthéticienne and even the plastic surgeon, but they want to leave looking like they almost did nothing at all.
Mélodie Bance is a Parisian beauty influencer and founder of Vintage Bisous, an online boutique that specializes in Parisian vintage fashion. She shared, “Strong makeup looks like contouring and fake eyelashes or surgical enhancements are not very popular–even taboo. Instead, we tend to value what looks like natural beauty that is subtly enhanced by makeup.” The French would rather be a first-rate version of themselves than try to become a second-rate version of someone else.
French Beauty is a Lifestyle, Not a Routine
The French might be known for their cigarette smoking and lack of daily SPF, but they are also known for their unprocessed, fresh foods, walkable cities, and dinners with friends that trail late into the evenings. And this isn’t for nothing. On average, the French are living almost 4 years longer than Americans are.
So, while staying active and eating whole foods are two things that most Americans wouldn’t consider part of their beauty routine, it is part of the French beauty lifestyle. It’s also no secret that things like stress, sugar, and processed foods aren’t good for our health or our skin. So, the French try to experience them in moderation. In the U.S., we’re more interested in quick solutions. We would rather buy a serum that will make our face glow like we just got ten hours of sleep instead of actually sleeping through the night.
We’re Both Trying to Look Good, But One of us is a Little Louder About it
Another thing about the French is that they don’t really want to look like they tried. They want to head to work as if they just got out of bed when it’s likely they spent 20 minutes making their hair look perfectly tousled and adding a little rouge to their cheeks.
“Obviously, this is a little hypocritical,” Bance shared. “Because women have to look naturally beautiful, but to do so they can only use almost imperceptible ways to enhance their natural beauty. A bit like the trend ‘I woke up like this’ when in fact, it takes a lot of effort to achieve such a natural look!”
In the United States, we’re happy to show we tried. Makeup is seen as a form of expression and even an art. Whether it’s with a fresh manicure before a night out or showing our most recent eyeshadow look on our Instagram story, trying to look good isn’t just accepted but praised.
Being Flawless vs. Being Perfectly Flawed
That being said, because of our culture around looking as good as we can, the most beautiful women in the U.S. are usually the ones who have the least flaws. We reconstruct our faces with filler and makeup so that we can look as flawless as possible. The French instead take their flaws and use them to their advantage. Look at Camille Charrière. She’s gorgeous not because she’s flawless, but the things that others might see as flaws (like her beauty mark) just make her more alluring.
Being perfectly flawed goes hand in hand with being naturally yourself. While the media portrays this beautiful French woman as this white, thin, able-bodied, sensual creature, the real French woman is beautiful because she is confident in being herself. France is a diverse country filled with cultures from around the world, and this “French girl” beauty is visible in all French women.
Verified Frenchie, Ambre Deveaux, shared, “As a French girl, or just any girl, for me, beauty comes from inside. We are all beautiful, and there are so many ways to show it. Physically, French beauty is just about simplicity.” And it’s true. For the French, beauty doesn’t come from complicating or changing yourself, but rather accepting who you really are and being confident about it.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
Finally, the French take care of themselves as they age instead of playing catch-up later. They don’t want to look forty when they’re sixty, but they also don’t want to look sixty when they’re forty. By enjoying a healthier, more relaxed lifestyle and utilizing nourishing skincare routines, they try to slow down aging rather than stop it completely.
Because of this, the French tend to age with grace rather than with Botox like their American counterparts. Stateside, we’re always chasing youth, whether it’s with blonde highlights or a syringe of filler. The French would rather take care of their skin as they age than try to look like someone they’re not.
During my years in France, I learned that the coveted “French girl” is less of a specific look and more of a frame of mind. The French know we can’t change who we are. So, they work to just be the most beautiful version of themselves rather than an imperfect copy of someone else. So, trying to emulate French beauty isn’t about mimicking their exact style. It’s about enjoying a healthier lifestyle, cultivating confidence, and using your uniqueness to your advantage.
Knowing this doesn’t mean my insecurities went away overnight (or that I’ll ever stop spending too much money at the pharmacy). But, learning that French beauty was more about just enhancing who I already was made me realize that we all have a little je ne sais quoi.