Saturday 22 October 2016

S ometimes I feel a certain pressure as an Irishwoman abroad. It's a feeling that I'm not fulfilling the cultural stereotype.

S ometimes I feel a certain pressure as an Irishwoman abroad. It's a feeling that I'm not fulfilling the cultural stereotype.

I see shock when I open my mouth and I don't sound like Darby O'Gill. I see confusion when I roll up my sleeves to reveal that my pale complexion has been tempered by countless sunbeds.

Ultimately, I see disappointment when I tell people that I don't drink alcohol and that the only as Gaeilge ditty I have in my repertoire is the first line of Beidh Aonach Amarach (i gContae an Chlair).

It must be worse for the French - French women in particular. If your fellow countrywomen are venerated internationally as paragons of elegance and sophistication, do you feel like you are neglecting your ambassadorial obligations when you venture abroad without a well-cut trench and the perfect red lipstick?

It's one thing being expected to know how to pour a Guinness, quite another to be expected to showcase a keen sense of je ne sais quoi at all times.

Fashion magazines tell us that French women are the world's best dressed. Does it cut deeper when they have a wardrobe malfunction? Cultural folklore tells us that French men are the world's best lovers. Does it hurt harder when they suffer from premature ejaculation?

Or perhaps they don't buy into their own hype. Maybe they just raise a well tweezed eyebrow when they hear about books like French Women Don't Get Fat, French Women Don't Get Facelifts and French Women Don't Get Why Everyone Else Is So Uncultured and Uncouth (one of these book titles is made up).

Either way, I'm about to board a plane to Paris and I'm feeling the pressure. It's not because I don't fulfil the Irish stereotype; it's because I feel inferior to the French stereotype.

I suddenly become very conscious of the cut of my jacket, the scuffs on my ankle boots and the fact that my Chanel sunglasses are six seasons old when I touch down in the fashion capital.

I wish my clothes were by Vanessa Bruno and Isabel Marant and not from Zara and H&M, and I worry that they have some sort of device at customs that can detect the polyester content of your garments.

They recently banned the burqa in France - I imagine there's a lobby group somewhere in Paris trying to do the same thing with the Ugg boot...

This Gallic inferiority complex of mine is compounded by the fact that my breasts feel enormous when I'm in Paris.

This is partly because a woman in a Parisian lingerie shop once gave a quelle horreur gasp when I asked if they stocked E cups, and partly because my breasts look like they belong to a cheerleader in a straight-to-DVD slasher flick when compared to the imperturbably perty décolletage of French actresses.

Worse, my underwear rarely matches, which, I believe, can incur a penalty in some parts of Paris.

In fact, my foundation barely matches my neck. This is another cardinal sin in France and it's not because they are better able to find their perfect shade but because they know that, after a certain age, make-up just makes you look older.

Yes, a trip to a Paris can easily make a woman feel like a lesser human being, but the trick is to change your attitude before you change your outfit.

The reason French women are held up as exalted beings is not because they have an enviable capsule wardrobe. It is, in fact, because they have more self-respect in their little fingers than they have silk scarves in their closets.

It's simple - French women like themselves, and in a world where women are more inclined to share their insecurities than their ambitions, that's a very rare thing indeed.

The reason French women don't get fat is not because they carry a gene that makes them metabolic powerhouses or because they eat a leafy green salad before every meal. Actually, it's because when you have self-respect, you don't do self-deprivation. If they have a croissant for breakfast, they'll be mindful to eat a little bit less at lunch.

They wouldn't lower themselves to count out six Brazil nuts as a mid-morning snack when they could just exercise common sense and eat a few bites of the tarte tatin instead of the whole thing when they go to dinner that evening.

Neither would they describe food as "guilt-free". There was a famous study in which different nationalities were shown a picture of a chocolate cake and asked what words they associated with it. The American respondents answered "guilt". The French said "celebration".

And should they eat too much of that chocolate cake, they can at least look forward to being described as "embonpoint", which sounds so much better than "curvy".

French women are known for being bien dans sa peau - comfortable in their own skin. This doesn't mean that they are less interested in beautifying. Au contraire! Visit a French pharmacy and you'd be forgiven for thinking that they only sell anti-cellulite creams. Cellulite, I hasten to add, is a French invention.

The difference is that they deal with the matter swiftly and discretely. At the first sign of cellulite, they visit the aforementioned pharmacy or book in for a course of lymphatic drainage.

The beautician is recommended by their mother, who also bought them their first anti-ageing cream on their 16th birthday.


As for their other flaws, they don't dwell on them. In fact, they don't even see them as flaws. Why put a brace on a sexy tooth gap? Why put a brush through your artfully dishevelled hair? In the words of former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld: "I think that something needs to be weird in order to have real beauty."

The latest French cultural bible tells us that French women don't get facelifts. Granted, they might get a fringe before they get Botox, but this isn't entirely true. The difference in this case is that they are more comfortable with their ageing bodies and they don't equate age with sexual vitality.

It helps that it's a vive la difference country where men still open doors for women. And where there is chivalry, there is mystique. A French woman would never ask her husband to apply fake tan to her back...

I'll be in Paris in three hours' time and while my clothes might not cut a dash, my attitude should at least make up for it. If all else fails, I'll just buy a silk scarf.

'They wouldn't lower them selves to count out six Brazil nuts as a mid-morning snack'

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