Growing up in Paris, there was something wrong with me: I was too corpulent, too cautious, too serious. The archetypal French girl, as we’ve all been told and most likely repeated our entire lives, is naturally thin despite her subsistence of baguette and wine. She wakes up at a quiet hour, sighs dramatically, smokes a cigarette, and on a good day, she might put on some red lipstick; yet she looks “effortlessly” stylish and artfully messy at all times. We were told that she did everything better than us and we should all try to emulate her if we want to be desirable and worthy. For better or for worse, I was—and am—definitely not her.
Real women are not archetypes (just ask Meghan Markle), but the French Girl aesthetic didn’t come out of nowhere either. In some pockets of central Paris, a living, breathing version of this woman is really power-walking in her Bensimons, on her way to chat with a friend over a single glass of red, so it’s not as if we were trying to imitate a fantasy. She exists, but she is exclusive by nature: white, skinny, well-to-do, city-dweller, hyper-educated and frankly a bit of a snob. For those of us who don’t fit her mold (and there are many more of us than her), she is mostly a source of shame as we try and fail to be like her.
As a teenager, I may not have been aware of the French Girl archetype that we are so often packaged and sold to, but I lived right in the middle of its real breeding ground: I went to a semi-private home, central white majority catholic school Paris where everyone could afford I repeat ballet flats and the Moncler jackets they desperately needed to fit in. I had the ballerinas, but it turned out there was an inscrutable quality that I just missed – a certain I don’t know what, If you want. Lindsey Tramuta, Paris-based journalist and author of The New Parisiennealso sometimes felt ashamed of the hegemonic perfection touted by the French Girl.
“For me, not being able to reach what is, essentially, intentionally unattainable made me feel painfully inadequate, lacking in class, style, grace and femininity,” she says. “I could buy all the same clothes (or much cheaper copies of them), cut my hair exactly the same, and still fall short. And I say that as a white, able-bodied Jewish woman. If, as a white, cis, straight, relatively thin, middle-class girl, it seemed so impossible to me (and, likewise, to Tramuta) to embody the ideal of femininity that I was presumably expected to embody, it It’s not hard to imagine how harmful that ideal could be to anyone outside of those demographics.
And it turns out we don’t have to imagine it. Emmanuelle Maréchal, who grew up between Cameroon and France, felt the pressure to conform to the French Girl archetype within her own family, aware of the anti-Blackness she would face in France. “My brother and I weren’t allowed to take an interest in anything or anyone black and had to speak and act in French, which in retrospect is not only ridiculous but damaging,” says -She. “I turned to the United States to find my standards of beauty, because the French media did not let black women appear on the covers of magazines. I did not know what a black Frenchwoman was, yet I was one.