“When I was growing up in the suburbs of Paris in the 60s and trying to figure out who I wanted to be, the essence of what it was to be a French woman seemed both obvious and elusive. It was not something you could buy via the right pair of shoes or pants or haircut — although those things definitely helped. It had to do with sexual self-confidence, and a deep conviction that being a woman was different in every way from being a man. You recognized it immediately in some women — and not just in Paris and on the pages of Marie Claire and Elle, but even in tiny, obscure French provincial towns…. The essence of French femininity for me: brainy, erotic, self-confident and vulnerable, yet eminently in control.” ~ Catherine Texier
Now tell me that isn’t appealing. In a culture which places so much emphasis strictly on appearance, where women are seeking out plastic surgery at younger and younger ages, size 0 and 2 are the Hollywood norm, and virtually no one seems satisfied with their looks, the very notion that a woman can exude confidence coupled with an air of feminine vulnerability seems exotic and perhaps even unattainable to many of us here in America. Yet it’s that very sense of being “bien dans sa peau” – or comfortable in her skin – which sets the typical French woman apart from her American sister. Centuries of history in a country which adores its women and values their unique charms imbues the French women with an inner security and knowledge of where she fits into the scheme of things.
She doesn’t have anything to prove; she knows where her power lies. During the past few decades in which American women took on masculine attributes and even clothing styles (remember the power suits and padded shoulders of the 80s? *shudder*) in order to break through the glass ceiling and inequalities in the work place, her French counterpart instinctively knew that respect earned by being something she was not simply wasn’t worth the price. Women in both cultures still have a long way to go before we are accorded the same respect and pay that our male counterparts enjoy simply by virtue of their gender. However, taking on masculine managerial styles, values and manners in the work place only serves to reinforce the antiquated idea that those traits and methods are best. Instead, women would do better to take a page from the French woman’s book and embrace the feminine qualities which make us different. There is usually something to be gained by adding a woman’s perspective rather than simply hiring a woman who tries to approach her work like a man. Let’s face it; a woman will never be as good at being a man as a man. Likewise, despite all the talk of men “getting in touch with their feminine side”, they’ll never make a good woman.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m 100% in favor of equal rights for everyone, equal pay for equal work, and equal job opportunities. And nothing melts my heart quite like watching a father tenderly care for a young child in a way which was almost unheard of in my father’s generation but is quite common now. I’m not arguing for the strict gender roles of the past but simply the recognition that men and women are different and that to ignore that fact is foolish. Like the archetypal French woman, we would do better to remember that men and women are meant to complement one another and quit being ashamed of our femininity.
One thing I’ve discovered is that I can literally make a man’s day by allowing him to show off a bit of his manliness for me. For instance, when I go to the feed store to pick up chicken feed for my chickens, one of the male employees nearly always offers to take it out to my car for me, especially if I’m wearing a skirt. I remember one time in particular, I couldn’t find the particular feed I was looking for and asked the older gentleman working in that general area. He could have just told me where it was but he went out of his way to show me where the item was and then proceeded to heft the 50 lb. sack of feed into my cart and then quit what he had been doing so he could wait for me to make the purchase and carry it out to the car for me. And he didn’t just push the cart out to the car. No, he picked up that heavy sack of feed, put it up on his shoulder and fairly strutted out to my car. I wish you could have seen the obvious pride and pleasure this man took in being able to help out a lady. Could I have managed it myself? Sure. But I don’t have a need to prove that sort of thing. Allowing a man close to my dad’s age to experience a little pride in his strength was good for both of us. He got to feel strong and needed (you do know that men need to be needed, right?) while I avoided the risk of throwing out my back again. 😉
I don’t claim to have this all figured out yet but the more I read about the way French women interact with the men in their lives the more I realize that they have a better understanding of the male psyche. More to the point, they appreciate and accept men for who they are. Not only do they not feel the need to emulate men; they also don’t have any desire to make men more like women. As they say, “Vive la difference!”.