A typical store window.
Silk underwear from the 30's in Nice's antique market.
I turn right and left, glaring at my reflection in the mirror, working hard to hide my bra straps behind my dress. “The straps are showing,” I complain to my husband.
“Et quoi?” And what, my husband asks. “You’re in France.”
He’s right, of course.
In France, bra straps are never a problem. In fact, breasts can be seen everywhere. Forget that the beaches in the south of France filled with semi-exposed bodies because women detest any form of tan line. Even television commentators bare their arms (way before Michelle Obama did) and ignore the American penchant for suits. French presenters aren’t afraid of low cut blouses or dresses. And then there was the woman I recently noticed. With three young children following her, she nursed her newest baby, who was draped in a sling, from her totally exposed breast. In America the brave mother uses the latest “hooter hider” when nursing in public.
Something is very different in France. After all the symbol of their republic is the half-naked Marianne raising the flag over a battle, while ours is an eagle.
“That’s why we like her,” my husband jokes.
I realized how different the women were my first time in Paris, way back in the 70’s. There was something so unusual, I marveled, about the way they walked, how they hung a necklace around their necks, tied a scarf along with that necklace. What was it?
My second investigation came during a week in Aix en Provence ten years ago when I walked the narrow streets with my grown-up daughter by my side. Even she agreed—the women were so beautiful. Narrow-hipped, silk dresses kissing their knees, their high heels clicking on the cobblestones, baskets balanced on their arms. And they were only shopping for the day’s groceries!
For ten years, then, I’ve been trying to understand.
One thing I’ve learned is that French women love their lingerie and will find any excuse to show it. Thongs show through skirts and tight pants. I even saw a woman in her 40’s wearing a black thong under white pants.
“Is that really necessary?” I asked my husband.
“She’s not shy,” he admitted, laughing.
It was true that the woman had a tight bum and walked in tantalizing high heels. But black underwear, of any size, under white?
A definite faux pas in America.
In France, bras peek through fabric, above dress lines and no one seems to care.
Straps are publicly displayed with pride, crystals march along some straps, bows are added with abandon. A pair of underpants there can cost 60 euros—or $80, a bra over 120 euros—or $160. The women find a way to pay for these luxuries because the underwear does more than the obvious— it seduces, it proclaims womanhood. It makes the wearer feel good.
The women here are proud of their femininity in ways that would make Americans shocked or envious. They wear dresses all summer. I’ve never seen a French woman walking in town in shorts and flip-flops—never. Here, even the older women show their décolleté, wrinkled or spotted and old. Even the older women, heavy or thin, wear their fancy lingerie, the lace visible through light summer fabrics.
On my first trip to the south of France all those years ago, I went to Cassis, and saw the women marching along the beach, clad only in bikini bottoms. There, I tried my faltering French on a friendly older man in a café by the beach. He was happy to tolerate my bad French and my naïve questions.
“Why do the girls walk around here half naked?” I asked. My daughter sat beside me whispering, “I don’t think I could ever do that.”
“Ah,” he replied, “they are so beautiful at that age, non? And so confident with their gifts.”
“And the older women,” I asked, carefully motioning toward a woman easily in her 60’s who crossed the beach, her flattened breasts exposed for all to see.
The man laughed. “Because it still feels good—the sun and wind on her skin.”
“Even if she’s not young?”
“For her, she is still beautiful.”
I’ve always thought that that conversation spoke of the difference between us. There have been so many books published lately about the mysteries of French women who age so beautifully, guarding their silhouettes and skin, their sublime femininity.
But I have finally discovered the truth. “Elles sont bien dans leur peau.” Translation: “They are good in their skin.”
No matter what the books proclaim, it’s not what they eat, or that they still smoke, or that they walk everywhere. It’s pretty simple, and for most of us, pretty complex.
French women simply like themselves.
Straps that are meant to be seen.
Next time: My experiences with “socialized” medicine in France.