What Up With Our French Obsession?

What's Up With Our French Obsession? [www.whatkumquat.com]

I recently spent the majority of a weekend morning nursing a level-6 hangover and scrolling through the Instagram feeds of the likes of Camille Rowe, Jeanne Damas, and Camille Charriere. I debated naming my future child Camille. I then spent a solid hour and half watching Caroline de Maigret, the OG of making you wish you could trade in all your belongings for a day of living as une femme Parisienne, explain to me via various digital shorts that the best way to achieve that sought-after je ne sais quoi is by not actively trying to achieve it. Which makes little to zero sense to me, but whatever.

I’m not proud of how I spent my time. I should probably have been doing laundry.

But I’m also hardly alone in this obsession we have with all things French. We are a culture obsessed with turning into an army of mini Clemence Poésy-s. I know it, you know it, and the hairdressers of America who are constantly instructed to mimic the “I just rolled out of bed but every stray hair is extremely intentional and not the least bit tangled” vibe know it too.

Why is this? Who knows. I blame Brigitte Bardot and the buttery flakiness of croissants.

I get it, and to an extent there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be French! The whole idea is a romanticized snapshot of something that seems other-worldly, maybe even stuck in a past era of glamour that doesn’t exist anymore. So long as we remember that the “French” in question is not indicative of the majority of modern France at all, but rather an idealized uber-feminine trope perpetuated through things like hazy-filtered “retro” Instagrams of breton shirt-wearing women eating pastries and books like How To Be Parisian (spoiler: be born in Paris, full stop).

Having lived in France for a grand total of four months —which because I am a milennial, makes me entitled to give my unsolicited opinion on the country— I confronted this stereotype of the perfect, flawless-without-trying woman head on. And it is bullshit, mes amis. A complete and utter crock of merde.

I lived with a host family in one of the more well-to-do areas of Lyon. They were classy people who were perpetually armed with a baguette in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The middle-aged mother had better skin than I do and an impressive collection of crisp button downs. My room in the apartment was a whitewashed Parisian-esque dream that even had a window seat perfect for pensively staring out at the river whilst pondering Voltaire and my hypothetically long list of ex-lovers.

But the rest of Lyon was decidedly less romantic. Of my French peers at school, approximately 5% were tousle-haired walking Vogue adverts. An alarmingly higher percentage seemed to have pledged allegiance to brands like Quicksilver and Abercrombie. On my way home from class I was as likely to pass a shifty-looking gentleman trying to sell me weed as I was an immaculately-dressed family of well-behaved children.

This isn’t me trying to shit on French culture —on the contrary, I miss living there every day— but more so me trying to point out that for all the unattainable ideals of French perfection, the real France is a lot more normal. Yeah, it comes with an incredibly rich history and several endearing customs, but in many ways it’s no different from any other major city in the world.

Not to mention the problematic conflation of the general idea of “French perfection” with “white, skinny, affluent woman”. The real France is a lot more diverse. But that’s a whole other can of pâté.  

13 Comments

  1. Oh my gosh, I love your style of writing so much! You hit the nail on the head with this one. I’ve been to Paris twice, and I completely agree that about 5% look like Vogue models, while the other 95% well…don’t.

  2. I love this post! I studied French in school for a couple of years (we even had a French exchange student) and I truly thought that everyone in France was like the people you see in the magazines! It kind of makes me feel better knowing that most French people are just regular ol’ Joes like us.

    Hannah | the swirl | http://theswirlblog.com/

  3. Love this! France is so fun, but I actually prefer Germany, Spain & Italy (I KNOW SO WEIRD). But I haven’t ever been able to pull of the french effort-less vibe which is probably why my obsession was short lived!

  4. I loved reading this so much! I’ve never been to France but I do want to go one day. We had a huge group of French foreign exchange students at my college every year and they really are just like us.

  5. This was so fun to read!! I’m dying to go to France – I’m in Europe (Italy) yearly and I’m not sure why I haven’t gotten there yet!

  6. I loved reading this post. It’s so cool that you got to live there for a few months! I’ve been wanting to do that so I could improve my French. Also, I agree. The croissants are probably to blame!

    -Sabine | http://www.rinnyandbean.com

  7. I really appreciate this little exposé. I do think we are obsessed with this romanticized false idea of what it means to be french. Really we should just have a book called “How to be Brigitte Bardot and other chic french super models” hehe.

  8. I am so jealous that you lived in France for a bit! I took french in high school and have been OBSESSED with going to Paris ever since.

  9. I’d love to visit France to form my own opinions on their culture! I studied French in high school and college but never felt that draw to it that some people do. I think we over simplify what French culture really is! It’s more than baguettes and striped shirts.

  10. I really want to go to France! The history there is amazing. I met some French foreign exchange students in college. One of them looked like a model and the others pretty normal.

    xx, Melissa
    https://elephantontheroad.com

  11. I honestly just think it’s a mix of Old Hollywood + stereotypes + an expectation of perfection that is giving us this craze! For the record though, I’ve never considered wanting to be French…what’s wrong with who you are now? lol

  12. Love this! and it’s so true, France is much more normal than old world Hollywood stereotypes would have us believe (but it’s fun to romanticize it!)

  13. Great insight! I have never been to France or experienced the culture.

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