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That French mystique

Author Debra Ollivier examines how our European counterparts dress, think and love.

October 11, 2009|Irene Lacher

American women may drop billions to look fabulous, but someone else holds the title to the ultimate in allure: the French woman.

Is it any coincidence that the French coined the term femme fatale? You know the type, a woman who's impossibly svelte and chic, with a certain aloofness and an aura suggesting that she knows something we don't about sexuality and seduction, a woman with that elusive quality known as je ne sais quoi.

So is there truth to the stereotype? Yes and no.

The mysterious creature people find so fascinating is partly real and partly steeped in myth, forged by icons such as Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot, says Debra Ollivier, author of the new book "What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind."

"We're wrong to think they all look like that -- stunning and thin and walking around in high heels like they're on the catwalk when they're going to buy bread at the market -- although it's true you won't see French women running to the market in jogging clothes," Ollivier says. "They don't put on lipstick, but they get dressed."

But feel free to be intimidated anyway. French women still have something to teach us about l'amour and all its trappings. Envious Americans are already well acquainted with that annoying phenomenon known as the French paradox: the fact that French people have lower rates of heart disease despite a diet rich in saturated fats.

And our enigmatic Gallic allies have other, less heralded paradoxes to add to the mix, such as this one, noted by Ollivier: Fewer than half of all French women tie the marital knot, yet they're more likely to sustain long-term relationships than Americans, who cherish their notion of happily-ever-after.

"It's because there's more personal space," she says, chatting on her deck with a 180-degree view of a distant hillside. "It's that old cliche -- if you let something go, it comes back to you. If you give people space to be who they are as opposed to leaning on them to be a certain way, they're going to be more comfortable hanging around."

Ollivier, 49, is an author and Los Angeles native with a shock of curly brown hair and an intellectual earth mother aura, who spent a dozen years in Paris after marrying a French sound mixer. In 2001, she returned to take possession of a funky home she'd inherited in Beverly Glen, and now the mother of two spends the school year here and summers with her family in France.

So perhaps she's ideally suited to contrast and compare the two cultures that seem to fascinate -- and irritate -- each other, a task she first undertook with 2004's frothy how-to, "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl."

Both books are entries in a wavelet of titles that purport to lift the curtain on France's feminine mystique. (Enter "French women" in Amazon.com's search box, and you'll get an armory of books explaining why French women don't get fat or sleep alone, how they dress and how they think.)

Although some people in France have abandoned the concept of great food eaten in modest quantities, there are enough thin women left to perpetuate the stereotype. And Ollivier says she knows the reason why those women stay thin: They're tyrannized by the people around them.

"There's an enormous amount of social pressure the moment you gain half an ounce of body fat," she says. "Here people say, 'You look great.' Anglo-Saxons say little white lies to make people feel good. The French don't give a damn what you think about them, and they will not mince words."

And yet, there's a positive side to the French tendency to not give a damn, and it's at the heart of their allure.

American women "grow up as girls with the mandate to be liked and to be like everyone," she says. "And popularity is all wrapped up in that. French culture doesn't have that. When I talk to French women who live here, one said the notion of popularity was so difficult for her to understand because it simply does not exist in France.

"Now imagine growing up in a culture where you don't have to worry about that," Ollivier says, noting that it's liberating.

"No wonder we were suddenly enchanted by French women," she writes. "Not only were these women a sensual and resilient counterpart to the one-size-fits-all beauty standard advocated around us -- they weren't cookie-cutter pretty, but they had that maddening French capacity to transform quirky peculiarities, even ugliness, into compelling sexiness."

Ergo, the concept of jolie laide. Pretty-ugly. Both at the same time, an idea that simply doesn't compute here, where women are considered one or the either.

French women's I-don't-give-a-damn worldview also expresses itself in their style, which author Edith Kunz describes in her book "Fatale: How French Women Do It" as "seductive disarray" and "accidental allure." Think Bardot, with her "I just tumbled out of bed" appeal.

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