French women are better than us. And we seemingly can’t get enough of being told as much in an unending series of books written by chic French authors keen to explain where we’ve gone so tragically wrong in British life. They tell us how to be thinner in French Women Don’t Get Fat (and then prettier, in its inspired, if factually shaky, sequel, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts), both by Mireille Guiliano. They are more beautiful and younger-looking, according to The French Beauty Solution by Mathilde Thomas. Even French women’s children are better than yours – we know, because we bought in our tens of thousands such modern classics as French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billon, and French Children Don’t Throw Food, by Pamela Druckerman (gratifyingly, neither do my British ones, because they are neither tantruming toddlers nor wild chimps). Now, in the most recent bit of continental trolling for rent, we have Why French Women Feel Young At 50… And How You Can Too, by 59-year-old influencer and Parisian former ad executive Mylène Desclaux.
Having suffered an identity crisis at her own cocktail party when a man she fancied arrived with a 37-year-old on his arm, Desclaux, then in her early-fifties, reassessed her entire approach to ageing. Her findings, which form the manifesto for her bestselling self-help book, include never disclosing your age (but somehow not lying about it either), never, ever discussing the menopause (because this happens to old women), considering changing your name to something less easy to date back to the 1960s (when old women were born), forgoing the reading glasses you need in a public space (in case you look like an old woman), banning culottes for the over-fifties (to stop them looking like frumpy old women) and cancelling your 50th birthday party or at least pretending it’s to celebrate something else, like a non-existent new house or rainchecked Bat Mitzvah (you won’t get any birthday cards but at least people might not realise you’re an old woman). British women are inelegant, she says. We get it wrong, don’t take enough care of ourselves, do Botox incorrectly. Women all over the world turn 50 and allow themselves to go to seed, get fat, give up. Not Mylène. She has three dermatologists.
These (by anyone’s measure) faintly insane rules are all necessary because, the author concedes, life is unfair. People obsess over age, they judge fiftysomething women too harshly. And so, in her great wisdom, Desclaux (who believes in psychics) suggests the best response to the ageing process is simply to pretend it isn't happening, in the hope of hoodwinking men without a grasp on the basic concept of mortality.
As long as he never catches a glimpse of your passport, you may never burden him with the realisation that women even exist after their forties. Don’t be yourself in an attempt to affect change in the world around you, just take c’est la vie for an answer, shrink to fit its extremely narrow perimeters and don’t make a vulgar fuss. It’s the French way, she condescends.
There’s no appreciation either for the huge gains made as we grow older – the perceptiveness, better sense of judgement, the self-awareness and more charitable self-acceptance
Is it? I consulted a small panel of French women on the author – they either hadn’t heard of her or pulled an expression akin to the one British women reserve for the name Katie Hopkins, and each of them was embarrassed by this way of using the unrecognisable French woman stereotype to make women elsewhere feel inferior (which, in fairness, is by no means Mylène Desclaux’s invention, but a well-established and highly successful publishing trope). Desclaux and her fellow writers’ portrayal of French women as joyless, vain, ashamed, enigmatic and monochromatic, romantically ambitious to the point of self-censorship and self-sacrifice, is as insensitive to her fellow countrywomen as it is to the rest of womankind. In reality, what she means when she says “French women” is a tiny constituency of rich, hip, central Parisian women working in and around the fashion or media industry – there’s an equivalent or identical group in every major city in the world. The desires, incomes and lifestyles of this niche, exacting and privileged demographic have about as much to do with the average French woman as they do with a 50-year-old bank manager in Bootle. Desclaux and her publishers are engaging in reductive stereotyping no more accurate or helpful than declaring Japanese women silent and subservient or Latin women fiery and maternal. In branding her own misogyny as some charming and chic cultural quirk, she sells us all down the Seine.
Maybe she seeks comfort in the misconception that her bleak outlook is shared by a nation. Her denied but nonetheless apparent belief that the ultimate goal and measure of success for any woman should be to find a man willing to love her, at whatever cost to her identity and authenticity, seems like a far bigger problem to fix than any brought by one’s advancing years – and one way more worthy of her attention. There’s no irony in her implicit belief that the “dream man”, if such a thing even exists, wouldn’t want his partner to wear the glasses she needed in order to see him, or would want his partner not to celebrate being alive now, but to hanker after a life that has passed. Her entire self-esteem appears to be wrapped up in her objective desirability to shallow, chauvinistic men, and not in career success, friendships, intellect and positive impact on others. This almost teenage insecurity suggests that turning 50 was, in fact, the least of her worries and merely the moment her skewed and depressing version of womanhood ceased to be so easily attainable.
Most saddening of all is Desclaux and her ilk’s refusal to celebrate having reached 50 when all too many of us know from heartbreaking experience what a remarkable achievement, and how much better than the alternative, that is. There’s no appreciation either for the huge gains made as we grow older – the perceptiveness, better sense of judgement, the self-awareness and more charitable self-acceptance, the diminishing need to please those who don’t care about us and the sheer endurance required to remain intact. Just one brief acknowledgement that age might be worth celebrating, or at least an advantageous swap for the regular periods and higher bum cheeks, would have been a kindness to the bafflingly huge readership, but Desclaux is not for turning. She at no point concedes that something, for her and many women, has gone very awry and there may be better, kinder coping mechanisms than to erase who we’ve naturally become.
She and her fans believe that her brand of feminine philosophy proved valuable, and that Desclaux herself is entirely vindicated, because for her trouble, she got the man, and his 37-year-old ex, ultimately, did not. She got a boyfriend who may be wonderful, but who looks well into his fifties at least, who is bald, ordinary-looking, and is almost certainly not changing his name, settling for visual impairment, nor seeing three different skin doctors at once. The book on how to be a fiftysomething French man and still be desirable and loved seems a more tempting and easier read. Oh, wait – it doesn’t exist? Quelle fucking surprise.