What French Women Know (and the rest of us want to learn!)

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pamela-turski90BY PAMELA TURSKI

Karen Karbo, author of The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, and Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know, appeared at Barnes & Noble in Encino on  September 24 to read from their work and share the secrets of French style, sex appeal and savoir faire.

Ollivier, an American who spent ten years in France, married a French man with whom she had two children, now divides her time between Los Angeles and Paris.  Her dual cultural perspective has afforded her keen insight into the pervasive mystique of the French female.

Are French women really that different from American women?  A resounding oui.

“To start with,” said Ollivier, “French women do not care if people like them.”

Nibbling on grapes and cheese, (the authors also brought wine to share but the bookstore was not licensed so it could not be served) the audience was silenced by this opening salvo.

“There is no mandate to be liked by everyone.  There’s no notion of popularity, that ambient pressure on American girls.  The ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude is pervasive,” said Ollivier.

.... Photo: Pamela Turski

(L-R) Authors Karen Karbo and Debra Ollivier at Barnes & Noble Encino share their insight into the role of women in French culture. Photo: Pamela Turski

While the audience was processing this cultural shift, the author moved on to the subject of men.  “My book takes a look at the world view of most French women, a chief component of which is loving men.  There is no whiff of disgruntlement about men; there’s a shared love and appreciation for members of the opposite sex,” said Ollivier.

She stressed there is no word in French for “date,” nor for “soul-mate,” yet there’s more complicity between men and women.  “French women and French men actually like one another.  They spar, they flirt, and they seek out one another’s company,” she said.  And furthermore, she stressed, “French women don’t expect men to understand them.”

And of sex?  “Statistics show the French tend to have fewer, more long-standing affairs.  The culture does not sensationalize sex the way we do,” said Ollivier.  “In America, we pretend infidelity is not happening.  We hail from Puritans, at the end of the day.”

“Coco Chanel wrote infidelity off like it was a bad hygiene habit, like nail-biting,” laughed Karen Karbo, who wrote a biography on the iconic French woman who revolutionized fashion and lived entirely on her own terms.

frenchcoco“Coco Chanel is the ultimate French woman, her name synonymous with every piece of clothing we consider stylish – any black dress, A-line skirt, or jersey anything.  And, of course, “the need to accessorize madly at all times,” said Karbo, fingering her jeweled  necklace.

“With French women, it’s not necessarily the surface glamour that’s appealing – it’s the mindset.  While style and looks undoubtedly play a part, it’s mostly confidence – supreme, unshakeable confidence,” said Karbo.

Ollivier agreed.  While many American women spend their lives in endless self-improvement, always in pursuit of the next diet plan, exercise regimen or relationship advice, French women do not. “They don’t do all the self-fixing that Americans do; they just move on.  It’s very powerful.”

Other differences?  Ollivier feels growing older is easier in France.  “Here in the U.S., you have to be ‘fabulous at 40,’’fit at 50,’ etc., etc., and it’s so stressful.  France is a grownup culture.  They like being grown up.”

“At 55, Coco Chanel was thought to be at the height of her beauty,” said Karbo.  “Smart is sexy in France.  Your inner life really counts.  There’s more latitude to be who you are and look the way you want to look.”

frenchwhatAnother cultural difference:  “French people are private,” said Ollivier. “It’s not a confessional culture.  There are no BFFs.  People don’t ask what you do for a living when you meet.  As someone coming from California, where we ‘share,’ that was complicated for me.”

And flirtation is alive and well in France – it’s the French drug of choice, done just for the pleasure of being able to charm another person.  “Flirtation has been said to be the saving grace of culture in France—everyone flirts, and it’s not necessarily sexual innuendo,” said Ollivier.

“There are aspects of French women that are distinct from American women,” said Ollivier, “including the fact that it’s perfectly okay not to be happy in France.  There is so much pressure to be happy in America, that it can make you unhappy.”

While the authors ably illuminate the cultural differences between American and French women — defining what they do if not exactly how they manage it — the essential mystery of the French lingers, that alluring je ne sais quoi.

Said Ollivier, “Perhaps that quality is why French women remain eternally fascinating to us — compelling, contradictory, and extraordinarily self-possessed.”

Pamela Turski is a Sherman Oaks-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Sun Community Newspapers. She may be reached at PamelaTurski@gmail.com

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.