You don’t have to be born French
By most accounts, I look okay. My style, such as it is, mainly impresses the world with a mild, she’s nice. Yet I had been in Paris mere weeks when Madame de Glasse, the French neighbor with whom I am friendly, announced some startling news. As we chatted in the launderette we both use on the rue de Passy, Madame eyed a washer’s soggy wad of pajamas, long johns, turtlenecks and sweats I had plopped into a rolling basket. Then she said with some alarm, “Mademoiselle,” she said. “Like many Americans, you are a prude, non?”
Moi? I stared at her, shocked.
True, Madame’s wash was a jambalaya of plunging necklines, peek-a-boo intimates and colors the heart-racing hues of passion. There were lace bits and sheer slips and things that looked short and clingy. But who would have thought that what passes for hot where I come from – a whole sack of comfy stuff snapped up for a song at an outlet – would be seen by Madame de Glasse (if not all of France) as symptomatic of a horrible American malady: dowdiness. And I had it!
Was my frumpiness so far gone that nothing could be done? I squeaked, meekly. Suddenly, I was insecure in my one-size-hides-all hoodie. Madame swept a sorrowful look over the laundry I loaded into the dryer – a hefty cotton jogbra and the shame of some unraveling granny panties stood out – and rendered her opinion. I held my breath.
“It is grave, very grave,” said Madame de Glasse, gravely.
I had no idea. Yet my wardrobe of saggy-ass sweats and what’s-become-of-me tops certainly contrasted with the outfits fresh from the dryer that Madame de Glasse was folding. Among them: a tiny lime-green thong, a demi-brassiere of transparent lace, and a sweet, sexy skirt no bigger than a wisp. Was it true I had no clue? That the art of feminine fabulousness French women take for granted had shut me out? There I was, roving around Paris in my take on cute – relaxed-fit jeans and U.S. Army tee, while other women, frump-free women, were gracing sidewalk cafés in revealing décolleté, clicking down streets in chic kitten heels, or flaunting their flirty figures in tight-fitting everything. Meanwhile, whatever womanly allure I might possess, Madame de Glasse pointed out, was obscured by my prude-wear. My vavavoom was repressed by my unisex dress; my pizzazz, she said, was hidden far, far beneath the sorry fact I did not, it seems, act French.
“What makes French girls as serenely self-satisfied as purring cats…and catnip to the men who admire them? asked Debra Ollivier, author of Entre Nous – A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. I wondered! “The stereotypical French girl,” she said, “is often insolently thin, casually chic, and fashionable despite a simple wardrobe. With or without makeup she is always put together and utterly self-confident, imbued with natural elegance and an elusive distance that is particularly, maddeningly French.” I guessed such a woman would not be caught in a jogbra. Especially dead.
“Chérie? Chérie?” It was Madame de Glasse, interrupting my reverie in a chirpy tone altogether more cheerful than that she used over my giant, white panties. “To change the subject,” she said, “have you been to that new gym at Beaubourg?” She meant Espace Vit’Halles at the Pompidou Center. “It is trés flash,” she said. “Make a visit and tell me of your adventure.”
“Yes, yes, I will; au revoir Madame de Glasse.” I scuttled my uptight self out of the launderette as fast as my heavy duffle of now shameful frump’s-clothes allowed. The French girl understands that sexy is a state of mind, maintained Ollivier. Sexy is a state of mind…sexy is a state of mind…. Back at my apartment, I pondered this pearl and dressed for bed in the tee-shirt, tights and full-body nightie the frigid night demanded. Surely Madame de Glasse, in my place, would not don her tiny lime-green thong and a babydoll peignoir! Then again, maybe she would. After all, such a get-up would guarantee she’d have a Frenchman keeping her far warmer than floor-length flannel ever could. If this wasn’t reason enough to find my inner French girl, I didn’t know what was.
“One is not born a woman,” said author/philosopher Simone de Beauvoir; “rather, one becomes a woman.” Now, there’s a girl who sounds in touch with hers. Simone had a leg up, of course: she was, already, French. But still: her words gave me hope. If I were not born a woman who is catnip, perhaps I could become a sort of cat’s meow – a woman so Frenchly serene and purring with self-approval that my laundry would tell of a total transformation. Hide my thighs? Disguise my derriere? Tent my tummy? Ha! No longer. My new dare-to-bare wardrobe of trim, tiny things would be as peek-a-boo as what have you. They would declare to Madame de Glasse, for one, that American shame has no place in my life now that my inner French girl is driving. No doubt she’ll be dressed in something more form-fitting and flirty than my usual at-home outfit: the frump-o-wonderful caftan that Madame de Glasse surely would find more” burka” than “babe”.
Then again, what would it take to achieve such body confidence? Such feminine self-acceptance? If only I could feel, as the French say, “bien dans sa peau” – good in one’s skin. When American novelist Edith Wharton traveled to France in 1919, she observed that the French were “puzzled by our queer fear of our own bodies.” So, I reasoned, my queer fear might be the cultural baggage of generations. But really, in these enlightened days? It was silly. Time to let it go. In the meantime, might as well try the new gym.
* * * *
Day 1. The instant I entered Espace Vit’Halles, a friendly monsieur at the front desk bid me a big, grinning welcome. Yoga, dance aerobics, weights – I was encouraged to profit from them all. “The ladies’ changing room is on the second floor, Madame,” he said, and shooed me in the approximate direction. I found the door, clearly marked “Femmes,” and entered a sanctuary of sensual splendor. Lovely lavender décor; chaise longues lined up for lounging; flowers blooming on the mirrored vanities: the room was a swoon of comfort and beauty. Showcased under spotlights, a hot tub as vast and artfully conceived as ancient Roman baths bid welcome. Such luxury. Such pampering! The gym-women who showered or soaked or otherwise performed their toilettes in various stages of undress flaunted their inner French girls exactly as Ollivier claimed. Women sinewy and women plump, women with goddesses’ bodies and women with pocks and spots and skin that looked anything but good to be in: All got in and out of underwear that wasn’t underwear at all, but rather, lingerie. There it all was, France’s finest: lacy, racy and for sure, sensational. These confections, no doubt expensive, were also, let’s face it: frightening. How would I ever undress in the presence of women so adept in the provocative art of underwear? Some of the self-satisfied purring cats of the changing room paraded…no, swaggered around naked. And down to their brazenly exposed French toes they seemed shame-free. If I were to strip to my big dowdy whities before their eyes, what then? So queer! I feared they’d exclaim. An American prude. Doesn’t like to be nude.
I was in luck. There was a toilet stall that could serve as a personal changing cabine. My strictly utilitarian bra sans lace, plunge, pads, push-up, or the least suggestion of seduction could be kept secret. I scuttled in, did my business and emerged dressed in workout-wear. Ta dum! Embarrassment deflected. I headed for the exit and dance aerobic class, but stopped dead when I heard a bit of catnip call.
“Oh, Madame! Madame!” I turned to see a raven-haired, hipless thing holding aloft my favorite faded cut-offs – the shorts that for a good 30 years now, I have found charming on me. “You dropped your…your….” She did not have words for what they were. But her sweet, sad smile and pitying tone told me all that Inès de la Fressange already had:
“No Parisienne would dress mutton as lamb.”
The ex-runway model and French fashion guru put this rule in her Parisian Chic: A Style Guide to let me know in advance of coming to France that shorts, like miniskirts, have no business on any woman older than…young.
“Merci beaucoup, Madame,” I said, sheepish. I waited until she pranced off, pert ponytail swinging, and tossed my past into the trash. Mutton?!
Day 2. “Bonjour, Madame,” said the grinning monsieur when I returned to try the gym’s yoga. “The ladies’ changing room is on the first floor. Enjoy your class.” That’s odd, I thought. Wasn’t the ladies’ changing room just yesterday on Floor 2? Yet on the first floor, as promised, there it was, the door marked “Femmes.” I entered and saw at once all was odd. Where was the lavender? Where was the lovely? Loaded with lockers, lacking a hot tub, the room was dim, dank, and functional. Testosterone chose the décor so sweat stains didn’t show, and from the télé turned to sports to the vanities equipped with manly-looking man-things used by grooming men, this changing room clearly was meant for well, men.
And yet, there they were: Women. The Parsiennes flaunted their inner French girls like they had the day before; they paraded around queer-fear-free in brassieres like pasties and thongs if not sheer then small. Awfully.
“Entrez, Madame,” said one, as I lingered at the door. The French girl had just contorted herself into a contraption of an electric-blue bustier, a towel on her head. “Oui, oui, Madame, come in. You’ve found the right place.” I wasn’t so sure. No toilet stall announced itself after my first look around, so I would have to strip and change into yoga clothes in full view of a man-cave full of catnip. My priggish panties! My not-hot bra! Never mind. This wasn’t anything some serious French lingerie acquisition couldn’t fix. Plus, it was no lace off their merry widows if, in front of the Frenchwomen, I got naked like the place had caught fire and I had better move fast or die. Which is how I did. But in the process? It was astonishing. There I was, whipping off my clothes and slipping into Spandex, and nary a glance went to my uncomely undies. I was a blur, sure. But snug in their absolute disinterest, smug in their elusive distance, the Frenchwomen paid my flash of breast and briefly bared behind no mind. Whatsoever. Wow, self-satisfaction must be catching. In the presence of such total nonchalance, I felt for one wild, nude moment…well, nude! It was awesome. I wanted more of it.
Day 3. I arrived at Espace Vit’Halles, today to try the weight room. “Bonjour,” bid the big-grinned monsieur, as expected. He then directed me to the ladies’ changing room…on the second floor. The second floor? Seriously? Yes. The door marked “Femmes” had moved from the man-cave back upstairs; it opened again on the lovely lavender space filled with Frenchwomen changing.
Encouraged by my undressing success of the previous day, I was shy but excited to unveil my treasures. I had gone shopping. At the lingerie shop on boulevard Haussmann, I could find nothing frumpy whatsoever in a French granny panty; neither was there a single serviceable bra that would just do the job – as if such things in Paris existed. So standing before the display of wares both naughty and nice, a woman I didn’t know spoke up.
“I’ll take the panties in slinky pink with their matching bra of ruffles and bows – yes, those,” she told the shop’s assistant. I was stunned to discover it was I, myself, not just speaking but also pointing to items so cute that even Mademoiselle had to approve – endowed as she was with come-hither hips and considerable cleavage. This choice was so surprising that it meant only one thing. There was a French girl in me – in me! – and she had been roused by ruffles.
Back at the gym I beheld this bold foreigner with cool suspicion and moved to the farthest corner of the changing room. There, I could undress apart from the purring cats and expose my newly-purchased pizzazz in relative privacy. I claimed a locker and settled-in on a bench. My queer American fears still lingered, but my new French bra of unabashed vavavoom? It almost busted out of my blouse to shout Here I am! And how my slinky pink French panties were pleased to sashay free of my jeans with a little wiggle of joy. Just then, the door. A man announced himself.
“Bonjour, Mesdames,” he announced. “Pardonnez-moi.” He begged everyone’s pardon for the disturbance, but he was the plumber, he said, come to the ladies’ changing room to solve the problem of the leaky sink. Beside him laden with tools and balancing a ladder stood his apprentice son; he looked about 21. The changing ladies in the buff, or in some version thereof…well, did they shriek or run or faint or cover-up? No. “Bonjour Messieurs,” they said, entirely nonplussed. The plumber and his son then passed through the friendly throng, clattering wrenches and whatnot. As they passed they muttered their manners, pardon, Madame…pardon, Madame, pardon. And the Frenchwomen stepped out of panties and shucked brassieres; they shimmied into shape-wear and stripped out of slips. Plumbers? Any one of them might have said. So?
Clad only in my new slinky pinks, I heard a “Pardon, Madame” so close it had to be directed to me. I froze.
Moi? I turned to stare at the hovering plumber, in shock.
Yes, he meant me. I was blocking the way to the sink, which, he indicated with his whatnot, stood directly ahead in my corner. Leaking. The plumber’s son scooched by with his ladder and tipped his hat, “Bonjour, Madame.” Then the two, clattering, set-up shop on the bench closest to mine. The most miserable of moments arrived. I wondered: Did Edith Wharton ever have a queer fear of her naked self? If so, what protocol did she suggest for the presence of French plumbers when one has stripped down to intimates – silk bits that are the next thing to go?
“First of all,” she once said, “the Frenchwoman is, in nearly all respects, as different as possible from the average American woman…The Frenchwoman is grown-up. Compared with the women of France, the American woman is still in the kindergarten.”
What Wharton would say: Oh grow-up. If I didn’t remove my slinky pink things without an ounce of shame, I would never make it to first grade. Really, what were the plumber and his son to me, except perhaps plumbers? In that flash of nudity between underwear off and workout-wear on, what harm could they cause in the midst of the changing room’s entire colony of nonplussed nudes? On the count of…three: There I went. I squeezed my eyes closed and off with the ruffles, out of all bows. But I didn’t even have to peek to know. My raw glory garnered less interest than a drip. The men, both bent over the sink and fiddling with a wrench, looked up at me and back at the leak like, her? Her who?
“There is in France a kind of collective, cultural shrug about nakedness,” Ollivier said, said. Edith Wharton agreed: “The French,” she said, “are accustomed to relating openly and unapologetically the anecdotes that Anglo-Saxons snicker over privately and with apologies.”
I’m sorry, but the plumbers’ total disinterest in my body bare left me giggly with a secret, newfound freedom. Just think! Frump or no, I could flaunt my feminine fixtures and ask for nothing in the way of drama. Then, the plumber’s son looked up, caught my eye, and winked.
Day 4. When I arrived to attend class in Pilates, the ever-friendly monsieur said the usual Bonjour, Madame and directed me to the ladies’ changing room – on the first floor.
“But Monsieur!” I cried, by now perturbed. “Why does the ladies’ changing room keep changing?” Second floor, first floor; first floor, second. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s the hot tub, Madame. The men’s changing room does not have one, so it’s only juste that the men are given the opportunity to use to use the ladies’ tub from the time to time, non?
It made perfect sense.
“Merci, Monsieur,” I said. Today the ladies would change in the man-cave, so I found the first-floor door marked “Femmes” and entered. Empty. No purring cat so far had arrived. I claimed a sweet spot on the most spacious bench, flipped open a locker and proceeded to undress. Proud, yes proud I was to strip to my second shopping score – a brand-new sheer-lace brassiere and panties frilled in fancy fringe. Both were so pretty they should have been strolling the Champs Elysees. Too bad no one’s around to appreciate them. Nevertheless, off they went so I could shimmy into the tight body stocking I wore for Pilates.
Just then, the door.
Too late to run, too late to hide; I thought for sure I was about to die. In they came, like kids let out for recess – a rambunctious bunch of buddies with gym bags over their shoulders. I stood stark naked, front and center, as the men bounded in and saw me. How could they not? Tied to the stake of shame, I burned to a shade of true prude pink and felt my inner American frump demand a good explanation.
Didn’t these men see the door marked “Femmes”?
Didn’t Monsieur at the desk think to direct them?
The herd dispersed around me, the men claiming lockers and dropping their gym bags on benches.
“Bonjour, Madame.” It was the one whose bag landed closest to mine, and whose hunky, handsome self took a seat not three feet distant.
“Bonjour, Madame.” It was the next, who scooted past to stake his spot before the télé turned to a game of soccer.
Too nude to speak, I could only nod my Bonjour Messieurs in reply. If only I had dabbed on a drop of Chanel No. 5! As the legendary Coco herself once said: “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.” Then again, it hardly mattered if I had been scented by irresistibility itself. To the stripping Frenchmen, who soon had the place bustling with their good-natured fun, I was simply the naked woman among them who didn’t get the message.
Désolé, said the front desk monsieur later, begging my pardon for his oversight. The ladies’ changing room today was on the second floor and he didn’t think to switch the door-signs until after I had arrived. Meanwhile, in the midst of men as blasé as the plumbers about the exposure indecent to me for too long, I felt a queer thing – not fear – come to life. Could it be? Ah, oui. My inner French girl.
My body as is, just is. The idea delighted me. Since not a soul in the City of Light judged it lacking, since the people of Paris paid it no mind, why did I try so hard to hide it? To deny it?
Bring on the satin contraptions, France. I’m coming out.
“Pardon? Madame?” The Frenchman sharing my bench brought my attention to the fancy-fringed panties that lay on the floor between us like an unspoken question. I had flung them into the locked but missed. Who would pick them up? Oh my God! I lunged and snapped and swooped them into my bag. I may have been wrong, but was that the smallest flicker of a wicked smile?
“Très belle,” he said. I dared to believe he meant not the panties but me.
* * * *
At the launderette on the rue de Passy, Madame de Glasse stood with me at the folding table and eyed my neat stacks of items surely even Chanel had in mind. “A girl should be two things,” she said: “classy and fabulous.” Then Madame said with some surprise, “Mademoiselle,” she said, “like many Americans who come to Paris, you have gotten over your problem, non?”
Yes. Now I’ve got my oh-la-la. And, oh, how even the plumbers of Paris would be proud.