What is it that keeps French women looking flawless? (Photo: Jon Patterson)
As American women, we tend to put French femmes on a pedestal, praising them for the extreme beauty that seems to come so easily. And while there’s no question they possess a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to their looks, the French are not born with better genes, skin or more aesthetically pleasing faces — they simply take a different approach.
Parisian women and icons like Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot, and Marion Cotillard are naturally stunning, yes, but they didn’t reach their pinnacles through hundreds of products, treatments, and miracle formulas. For them, beauty is a lifestyle rooted in pleasure, says Caudalie cofounder and native Mathilde Thomas. “American women are interested in quick fixes and instant gratification, and many of their beauty routines are overly complicated,” she says. “For the French our routine is founded on prevention and upkeep and is regarded as an essential ongoing investment.”
While American women are passing on mantras like “beauty is pain” to their daughters, the French are learning that beauty is an “art de vivre,” or art of living. “It’s about choosing the best skincare products, learning rituals from our grandparents and parents, and understanding the difference in the products we’re using,” says Thomas, who adds that they visit dermatologists and pharmacies earlier in life, building a solid foundation. “I think when we instill this belief early it teaches women to look and feel good in their own skin.”
The pleasure principle, says Thomas, whose inspiring book The French Beauty Solution is released on July 14 (Bastille Day), is the best way to infuse that attractive French attitude into one’s lifestyle. “The French believe beauty is something that gives you pleasure that will make you feel good,” she says. “Your beauty routine is not a chore, it’s something you should enjoy.” (Indeed, they believe having a lover will clear up blemishes and swear by NARS Orgasm blush!) Adds the beauty guru, “You should only choose the best for yourself.” Think divine-smelling oils and serums, luxurious organic masks, and a daily glass of red wine. While growing up in Bordeaux, Thomas’ grandmother rubbed honey from her bees on the apples of her cheeks for a natural rosy flush. She learned not to neglect her neck, since the French face extends to the décolleté. Antioxidant sunscreen and Guerlain Terracotta bronzer were her staples from the get-go, and she never dreamed of sleeping in her makeup.
The French teach us the price of a product is not what matters, but rather it’s the quality of the ingredients and how well it works for them. In her book, Thomas expounds on how to read a product label and what to look for, as well as what to avoid — for example, apricot pits and hydroquinone are bad; grape-seed oil, ceramides, and glycolic acid are great. Because they lead the charge on less-is-more, no-makeup makeup, their main focus is healthy, luminous skin. “We believe no makeup can hide a complexion that isn’t fresh and glowing,” says Thomas, who points out that less time spent applying makeup means more time looking polished. Concealer, bronzer, bold lipsticks and brow pencil are musts for Frenchwomen, who never, ever wear a strong lip and eye at the same time. The idea is not to look as if you’re trying too hard.
Then there’s the wine. According to Thomas, the French drink the most red wine of any country in the world — 100 bottles per person per year, in fact. As much as their fresh Mediterranean diet and wine’s reservatrol and antioxidant polyphenols (a favorite ingredient that should also be used topically) make them heart-healthy, it also makes them beautiful. Thomas swears by one glass of red wine every night with dinner. “The darker the wine the more polyphenols it contains, which makes red wine healthier than a rosé or white for the skin,” she says. In her book, Thomas also extols the virtues of the traditional 18th-century 3-day grape cleanse for detoxing the complexion.
As for plastic surgery, it’s less a trend because the pleasure principle deems skincare to be all about prevention and treatment. Perhaps the best French takeaway: “Chasing after every wrinkle is just too complicated,” says Thomas. “You don’t want to look too perfect anyway.”