When I first arrived in Paris, I imagined everyone would look like something you might see in ‘National Lampoon’s European Vacation’ (to be fair, those are my earliest images of Europe that I can remember). I imagined the women with over coiffed hair, red lipstick and heavy mascara, little red suits with black stockings and chunky gold jewellery and trailing clouds of perfume behind them. I packed accordingly, with lipstick and polka dots bursting forth from my overweight luggage, and hoped for the best.
Nothing could have been further from the truth…….
With that in mind, my first year in Paris was spent surrounded by glamorous Americans and colorful English girls, at an international campus in the south of the city. We loved to go out to nightclubs and spent hours primping in each other’s rooms, straightening hair and applying swathes of bright lipstick, trading cosmetic tips and forever 21 dresses. The thing is, people always KNEW that we were American, before we even opened our mouths to let out clipped phrases of poorly pronounced French. I wondered what set us apart from the elegant French girls we saw, and why I sometimes felt like a circus clown when we were out on the town.
So I observed… later, I became friends with French girls and slowly but surely, started picking up on their beauty habits. Today, when I go home to the US, people think I’m European. I can only imagine this has something to do with my appearance, as I’ve managed to avoid Madonna style English inflections in my speech. I’m not sure that I should be, but I’m always deeply flattered when this happens !
Here are a few lessons that I’ve learned about myself and my beauty regime during my 5 years on the continent:
One of the number one ways I can spot an American from a mile away is her haircare. I’m sure that there are women in Paris who do get their weekly blow outs, but I would imagine these are women of a certain age and social class. Americans, with their hair religiously washed, blow dried and straightened daily are usually assumed to be exchange students or tourists. While I’m not saying that you should stop washing your hair (I’m looking at you, Lorraine Massey), here, women embrace their natural hair texture and color far more, and the effect is effortlessly chic.
I spent years torturing my reddish brown, curly hair into a witch-like, pin straight and black disaster. Between the single process color and my trusted Sapphire straightening iron, I managed to decimate what was once a gorgeous head of shiny hair into a sad, split end stylist’s nightmare.
So I stopped. I still shampoo, and condition, of course, but have let my curly freak flag fly, and have never gotten so many compliments on my hair. I wash my hair twice a week, sometimes a bit more (I can get away with once a week in the country, but unfortunately, Paris has a great deal of pollution which irritates my scalp and requires more frequent washing). I slap a bit of dry hair cream on, put my hair into a loose bun, and a few hours later, am left with soft, if imperfect, waves.
I know that natural hair texture is something a bit alien in the states – there was recent controversy over a bravo TV star and her curly hair prejudice – but some of the most beautiful women here in Paris are the ones who completely assume their hair and let it look like it was meant to look. I have a wonderful Parisian friend with Indian ancestry, who has long, curly black hair that frizzes slightly. Instead of being insecure, not having the same straight, shiny hair as the rest of her family, has made her hair into her signature. On the flip side, a friend from Los Angeles with bleach blonde hair was mocked by hair stylists here, who pleaded with her to stop torturing her locks, arguing that her look was anything but sophisticated. Let your natural hair BREATHE. My hair, after 4 years of ‘no styling’ and only the rare encounter with a blow dryer, has never looked better. Split Ends are a thing of the past and I only need to trim when absolutely necessary.
I used to pile on makeup. I mean, really pile it on. Makeup removal was a matter of wetting a rough towel and rubbing until all visible traces of makeup were gone (my skin is crying out just at the memory !). My skin looked, in a word, rough, and I started having problems like acne and large pores. When I re-applied makeup, my skin never really looked clean like I wanted it to, so I bought more and more cheap foundation hoping to get a glowy, perfect look to my face. I spent money on ‘fun’ things like lipgloss and eyeshadow, but really cheaped out on skincare and even foundation. I envied my French girlfriends their skin that looked airbrushed without any makeup on and hated the sickly, pale and pimply face that kept me from going out in public without a trace of makeup. So I asked, and they told: skincare is EVERYTHING.
When you read the magazines here, there are always several pages devoted to potions and creams (bust lifting cream, anyone ?) and though I think the whole thing is a bit overkill, they have a point. If you don’t take care of your skin inside and out, it will never look good, no matter what expensive powders and highlighters you slap on it. So now, I use a simple and relatively inexpensive but effective routine, drink water, and I feel pretty damn comfortable going to the grocery store with a completely bare face. While I love some of the more expensive brands of skincare like Clarins, I’ve also discovered the wonderful ‘parapharmaceutical’ brands you can find in supermarkets and pharmacies here. Vichy, La Roche Posay, Caudalie, Phyto and Klorane (for hair) have made me completely rethink my regimen. They’re less expensive than brands like Dior or La Mer, and work, in my opinion, a great deal better, as they are developed in dermatological laboratories. These brands, once only found in France, are now pretty widely distributed – Caudalie is now stocked at Sephora US stores, and my mom’s local Rite Aid in northern Virginia has a huge stock of La Roche Posay products (which is now the pharmaceutical division of L’oreal !). Of course it’s nice to see Luxury skin products on your bathroom counter, but why waste money ? I’ve also discovered, through tips from my friends, at home, DIY skincare recipes that work wonderfully when my budget is tight – that I’d love to share with you !
3. Makeup !
I still LOVE to play with texture and color. I painted my entire life, and feel like makeup is an extension of that. There are few things I enjoy more than getting to play with a really funky blue eyeshadow or a bold fuschia lipstick. The thing is, before, I didn’t realize that there was a time and place for playful makeup. ‘Day Makeup’ was simply NOT in my vocabulary. Of course, don’t get me wrong – I was never unhappy with the way I looked, I thought I was fabulous, but at 19, I think experimentation is expected. I had a few French people, when I first arrived here, make some mean remarks about my face, but I didn’t really care, because I was making myself happy – which is, at the end of the day, the MOST important thing. With age, however, my look evolved, and I wanted something a bit more refined, and also to avoid having my then boyfriend plead with me to leave my Urban Decay palette (and beloved burgundy eyeshadow) in Paris when we went to visit his family.
The most beautiful girls in Paris were certainly wearing makeup, but had this ability to look perfect and perfectly unmadeup. While I’ve never felt 100 percent comfortable with the idea of no makeup whatsoever (I doubt I will ever NOT wear mascara), my makeup style has managed to evolve into something more wearable thanks to observing the gorgeous girls here, with a distinct line between work appropriate and party appropriate. The old adage about emphasizing one feature rings pretty true, and French girls stick to it faithfully. My friend Emma, with her gorgeous skin and full mouth, always chooses a bright, matte lipstick when we go out, leaving her eyes natural and her lips center stage. On the other hand, Chloé, with her gorgeous blue eyes and blonde hair, favors a Bardot-like smokey eye which fits well with her vintage and festive style. Finding out what your best feature is and emphasizing it is capital, but you can still have fun and play with your look. Cécile, with her blue green eyes, chooses mascara and eyeliner on a day-to-day basis, but puts the spotlight on her Angelina Jolie style mouth with blood-red lips for nights out. French style isn’t always boring and refined, it’s about knowing when NOT to be. I personally go for stronger eyemakeup, not only because I consider that my best feature, but because I really enjoy playing with eyeshadow – that, and because my mom thinks I look cheap with bright lipstick
4. The rest :
Why do I think French girls are considered style idols ? I’d venture to guess that it’s a matter of personal style. Each woman in Paris has her own twist on style, and while there are certain uniforms and clichés (the trench, the sailor shirt, red lipstick and long hair), each woman makes it her own. Trends here aren’t followed as religiously as they are elsewhere, even outside of Paris (the women in the Provinces have a distinct style alien to the Parisienne). Most women have a few classics in their wardrobe, and pick and choose the trends that suit their personal style, look, and body type. While I admire how adventurous women in other countries can be, I know personally that as a curvy girl, certain trends just won’t suit me. In 2006, I was a slave to trends, stuffing my body into things that made me look like a sausage and really weren’t stylish on me. I’ve observed my friends and women in the streets here closely to see that each woman has her own twist that can make a piece uniquely her own – the cuffs of a trench folded back to show a pretty lining, a pair of colored tights underneath one’s black dress. My friend Cécile, who has great style, shops the vintage stores religiously. Not only can she find pieces that are trendy at prices cheaper than H&M, she has unique things that not every girl in the shopping mall is wearing.
I also think that French women really strive to look effortlessly elegant. While I love dressing up going out in London, you will rarely see girls in Paris in miniskirts and maxi high heels like they would be in London. It’s impractical and while you save on the coat check, you might die of hypothermia while trying to flag down a taxi. All this to say that practicality can be very elegant. French women also pay attention to small details that I often overlooked in the US, like the hands. Unfortunately, as a guitar player, I don’t have beautiful hands, but I do make an effort to make them presentable – no chipped polish and clean, filed nails always make an excellent impression. Before going to a bank appointment recently, a friend urged me to hide my hand that had chipped nail polish, as I wouldn’t be taken seriously by my banker !
So with all of this (very long post!) in mind….
A very wise woman once told me that “People should notice how beautiful your FACE is, not how beautiful your makeup looks” and I’ve found that to be SO true. When I started wearing makeup to suit my face and not trends, people told me that I was pretty, not that my eyeshadow was pretty. My face and makeup techniques are still totally imperfect, but all I can show you are photos….. SO ON TO THE TRANSFORMATION !
Poor eyebrow choices...
- This is my ‘look’ in 2006…
And Today, something a bit more subtle..