In my last article, I explored some general answers to the eternal question: Why do French women d’un certain age tend to look better than the rest of us? For specifics, I turned to some of the friends and acquaintances I’ve known for 25 years.

One close friend, a painter, slips into her paint splattered jeans, equally decorated ballerina flats, a big shirt of her husband’s—and always, always eyeliner, mascara, and lip gloss. “I can’t be serious unless my eyes are done,” she once explained to me.

No French woman ever thinks, “I’ll just run out in this sloppy old jogging number, flip-flops and no makeup to buy a baguette, no one will notice.” She knows she is not invisible and she doesn’t care if she “doesn’t see anyone.” She has too much self-respect and self-esteem to be careless about her appearance. I know a woman who actually said she wouldn’t answer the door to the water-meter man if she hadn’t finished her makeup. “He’ll come back,” she said.

While we’re on the subject of fabricating a seemingly flawless façade, no French woman in her right mind would ask her husband or companion if he thought she had a large derriere or if he noticed she had gained weight. As one of my friends said, “Why would you point out anything negative, particularly if no one has noticed? It’s insane, non?”

Confidence is constructed over time and women of a certain age long ago built the foundation; they polish their image daily.

They firmly defined their style decades ago, what works for their figures and lifestyles. Therefore they have the solid fallback pieces ever at the ready. Of course they’ve handed over their minis to their daughters, granddaughters or nieces who are only too delighted with quality “vintage.” Their wardrobes, while reflecting their owners’ personalities, evolve with age. Skirts may (or may not) be slightly longer and not as figure hugging as they were, but the lengths still play around the knee and the pencil skirt remains the go-to favorite.

So what if the details become more important as we age? Does that make getting dressed and getting out there any less fun? Not for a French woman, it doesn’t. They do not see drudgery in dressing; it’s a pleasure. They love to primp and pamper their exteriors while always educating and expanding their intellects, their insatiable curiosity for life.

How many times have I heard women say they have no time for themselves? French women are as busy as we are. They carve out the time necessary to keep themselves looking and feeling en forme. Their wardrobes are well constructed and multi-functional. The pieces fall into place without hysteria. Their beauty regimes are simple, but efficacious. They spend serious money on their hair, which they consider an essential investment—thus no bad hair days, one less concern. No accessory or item of clothing goes back into the closet with a stain, a button missing, wrinkles. Details, details, details. Discipline, discipline, discipline.

Don’t think for an instant discipline is a dirty word. Discipline is liberating. Discipline means time is never wasted. My best friend, Anne-Françoise, mother of six, interior decorator, hostess extraordinaire, mistress of two large homes, told me she is lazy, which is why she is organized. “I could never accomplish anything if I lived in chaos,” she said.

Sometimes I open her linen closets and kitchen cabinets for inspiration. Everything is arranged not only logically, but also beautifully: pretty papers on shelves, lavender sachets snuggled among her crisp, ironed, ancient linen sheets.

We are all well aware of  a French woman’s restraint on the food front. When she indulges, she either prepares in advance for a fête or repairs after the party. Either way, she keeps her weight within the range that makes her happiest.

But perhaps another area in her life where she shows remarkable restraint, while at the same time adding to her mystique, is in an assemblage of traits I’ve discovered and admire. She knows her strengths, hides her weaknesses and almost never—except with her closest friend—talks about her fears, failures or flaws.

As an American, I know we often tell everyone everything too quickly in a relationship, perhaps in an attempt to be liked. And sometimes we come to regret our indiscretions, our lack of discipline. French women are not overly concerned with being liked, and they know a soupçon of mystery is magic.

You can see I’m a fan of the species, and I have a few extraordinary friends who have taught me a great deal over the years.

I think if one were to ask me, “What is the single most important ‘lesson’ you have learned from your friendships and observations?” I would say: The smallest effort has major rewards, everything from setting a dining table with care—every day—to getting up, getting dressed, and getting out there to see what adventures the new day holds.

Simple pleasures make life rich. Age is irrelevant.

As Coco Chanel said: “I don’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little—if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that’s the day she has a date with destiny. And it’s best to be as pretty as possible for destiny.”


  • Acoperis piscina January 17, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Good tips. It worked for me just fine.

  • M-C June 27, 2012 at 3:37 am

    Too true Dr Pat :-). Australian women look like amazons from over here, free and happy ones. I recall a book by a poor girl who moved to Paris, to take up with a stuffy lawyer, and her travails at adaptation. The matching family silverware, the proper flowers!.. Oy.
    On the other hand, only a few very mildly poisonous snakes over here, and no earthquakes over 4.0. There are tradeoffs everywhere.

  • Carole June 26, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    Inspirational article! Find myself, at 67, making tough decisions to lengthen my skirts down to my knee, shorten my shoulder length hair a bit and trying to be less vein about making sure my eye make-up is good enough to go to the post office. Always reading the latest fashions (as well as my scientific journals), making sure I am as up-to-date as possible on a budget. NOW-after reading your awesome article, I am feeling GOOD about all of it-and I’m NOT EVEN FRENCH! Just an American gal with children in NYC and Miami-that helps!!! Thanks!

  • Dr. Pat June 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    There is always the option of moving to Australia! Women there love to eat and drink and seem to have little interest in make up or being fashionable. They seem to like having a great time..

    Our posts from France are meant to provide some observations about the differences in behavior between American and French women. No one thinks that either group makes perfect choices for all women. For example the Napoleonic code, alone would prevent me from becoming a French citizen! However, I do love the elegance, wit and sense of style that many French women have.

    As always here at we strive to disagree with civility and understanding that women are not all alike, nor do they want to be.

    Thank you for your very interesting and enlightening post. We hope to hear from you again.

    Dr. Pat

  • M-C June 1, 2012 at 6:47 am

    Ah, the joys of the outside point of view.. So sweet to act like women keep themselves as beautiful as possible, just for themselves. It sounds like.. an ad for plastic surgery.

    No doubt if French women admitted to themselves how much they do all this for men there’d be mass suicides. Kind of you not to mention the divorce rates, as you have every chance of getting replaced for a newer model starting in your 40s. In the US it’s women by and large who ask for a divorce, in France it’s almost always the man. You almost always get stuck with the kids, often don’t remarry, and rarely get a decent pension. In fact alimony as such is rare, the money is almost always tied to the children, and there are hardly any mechanism of collection if there’s a problem.

    Since getting a decent job as a woman is difficult at best, and getting one over 50 basically impossible, poverty due to divorce or separation is very common. Every homeless woman in my neighborhood got that way from divorce, and everyone thinks it’s normal, tragic perhaps but normal. Worse, we’re talking about divorce here from legitimate marriage, but as you probably know from the much-commented emergence of the Valerie Rottweilers, marriage is distinctly unfashionable. And so many if not most women are in even more precarious situations, something that’s only getting worse as post-68 women reached middle-age and beyond.

    UN statistics show that French women rank 56th in the world on economic equality. That’s way behind Rumania, Azerbaijan and such well-known capitals of female emancipation. If your livelihood depended on the size of your butt, wouldn’t you too give up gladly such details as delicious pains au chocolat? Wouldn’t you too wear makeup to do your housework?

  • Lin, Pain d'Epices & Chocolat May 28, 2012 at 7:54 am

    I love, love the way you understand and describe the attitude we (French women) have. It is so accurate. I know you are a sociologist of French women, but for me, you have revealed that some women can be different… I didn’t know, I thought all women would never go out without make up, would get dressed just to go and buy bread. I could not even imagine it being different!!! This is normality to me…

  • isabio January 30, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Good article and interesting. As a French woman and a beauty coach, I must admit that French women seem to have more willpower. It is probably because of the traditions: natural remedies + good food + natural makeup + work + exercices = beauty, even around 60. Who xant to become a French woman ? 😀

  • b. elliott December 6, 2011 at 11:46 am

    C’est vrai! Loved this!


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