American women glamorize French women to the point of idolatry. There’s a persistent stereotype on this side of the Atlantic that French women don’t get fat despite unlimited access to croissants, possess flawless style, and never age. And crucially, that this perfection is all completely effortless. After all, in France, it’s considered faux pas to reveal any effort to stay young and thin—and that’s where the real trouble starts. “Our sublimated bodies sell everything,” says Anna Solé, a photographer and videographer in Paris. “And they never seem to get fat, nor grow older, nor have any gray hair. Personally, I am out of step with what society expects of me and how I want to live.” While the negative effects these impossible standards have on French women are obvious, they’re to the detriment of American women, too. At best, the “quintessential French woman” makes us believe that there’s a secret to looking eternally 25; at worst, she makes us feel like we’ll never be privy to it (no matter how much serum we buy).
For MarieClaire.com’s Women Bylines series (a partnership with Gucci’s CHIME FOR CHANGE campaign that strengthens the voices of women around the world), we documented the pervasive social pressure French women face to stay young and beautiful. Through interviews with French women, Wrinkles in Paradise challenges the myth that they are apathetic about aging, and instead reveals that France’s inflexible beauty norms have resulted in a cultural stigma against women over the age of 40.
“You’ve got to conform to this image. You’ve got to be nice, slim, and forever young. [The pressure] makes you feel like having a facelift every three weeks,” says Eva, an actress. If you think she’s exaggerating, stop at a French pharmacy, where you’ll find a section labeled “Minceur” (skinniness), featuring all manner of pills and powders to rev metabolism or dull appetite. It’s a far cry from the Diet and Nutrition aisle of your local drugstore, and underscores the societal priority that French females keep their weight in check.
The “sexy waif” mandate is just one facet of France’s damaging, youthful female ideal. When you’re a French woman, to age is to fail. “I decided to stop dyeing my gray hair, and had a meeting with a client who I hadn’t seen in a year. He welcomed me with, ‘Oh la la la la, we’re neglecting ourselves a bit, aren’t we?’ I was shocked,” says Anna Solé. “In France, you almost start to be discriminated against when you’re a woman over 45 years old. You lose your value. You feel invisible.”
In a country that’s famous for its fashion and beautiful women, it’s not surprising that aging has become synonymous with inferiority. “As soon as you have two wrinkles, you’ll be asked if you’re considering plastic surgery,” says Malika, a CEO. “Nowadays at 40 you’re already ruined, but if you don’t take care of your face, the insults can become truly upsetting.” Adds, Aurelia, a student, “If you want to fit in, you have to be beautiful. If you’re not, you’re not worth anything.”
One silver lining? France’s 64-year-old First Lady, who allegedly receives 200 letters a day thanking her for proving that older women can still attract young men. Says, Eva: “Now we have a First Lady who has been through menopause. Isn’t that great? She’s 25 years older than her husband. We love her.”