Aging Gracefully, Your Way, My Way, Everyone's Way

Since convulsing over the NYT article "Aging the French Way, Gracefully" I've been trying to compose a calm and thoughtful response. Mostly, only one word kept running through my mind:


Maybe 3 words - total, utter BS.

As honest as this response is, I suppose I'm capable of expressing something more intelligently, so here is a contained ramble on what is wrong with this journalist's point of view. I could tear this article apart line-by-line, but I've highlighted the most ridiculous ones. If my critique isn't gratifying enough, or if you just want to read more, check out the Jezebel response - "Our Weird National Girl-Crush on French Women Continues."

"Looking attractive, at any age, is just what Frenchwomen do, especially the urban ones." Oh, is that what Frenchwomen do? Excuse me for not receiving this global memo. I'm not quite sure why the French have ever had a monopoly over being stylish and beautiful, let alone why anyone should emulate them. Is there some French Beauty Ideal I should know about? I thought we made fun of the French for not showering or shaving their armpits? Sure, they may have a certain knack for interesting style, but you could say the same for women in many a cosmopolitan city across the globe. As commentators in the Jezebel piece pointed out, the Parisian emphasis on being thin, fashionable, and fabulous is no different from a similar emphasis in New York City. Perhaps women around the globe have style that is a little more bold and colorful than Americans', but one can hard generalize such things.

"We look at actresses like Juliette Binoche, 46, or politicians like Ségolène Royal, 56, or superstars like Catherine Deneuve, 66, and figure that they must have special insights into the “maturation” process." Do we? I don't. When it comes to aging specifically, I don't think I see any more examples of aging well among the French compared to other countries/cultures and am confused as to why women elsewhere should strive to be like them. I'm also confused as to why French celebrities serve as good examples, since celebrities everywhere can afford to do a number of things that the average woman cannot. According to this article, Frenchwomen apparently prefer more natural, subtle results from cosmetic surgery and other enhancements than American women, but I'm not sure how much that matters when they are using the same tools.

"A survey by the market research company Mintel found that 33 percent of French girls between 15 and 19 are already using anti-aging or anti-wrinkle creams. " Frenchwomen really have something on everyone else because teenagers start early by using anti-aging skincare? Sounds like clever marketing to me - I don't see any culturally-specific traditions or conventions about good skincare and aging well here.

"The No. 1 response to my informal survey of Frenchwomen about the years of magical aging is not gaining weight. Ever." Isn't that lovely? If a culture truly accepts aging and women are encouraged to do so "gracefully," than I would think a little inevitable weight gain should be alright. It has always bothered me that maintaining some arbitrary weight from say, your 20s or 30s is what defines the right way to age. What about these things called genes and childbirth?

In any case, the issue isn't what the results of this informal survey were. The author's statements are so general and silly that no one can take them seriously, and the notion that the French have a uniquely healthy approach to aging is pretty far-fetched. Certainly, there are other cultures with similar attitudes (cultures that arguably age far better than the French and most of the Western cultures combined, but that is a whole other topic for discussion). Unfortunately, I don't think any culture has been able to establish a truly healthy approach to aging. Everywhere, there is a premium on looking young that is defined by the very phrase "aging gracefully," and the value placed on it. What else does this mean but to prolong youth and age at a snail's pace? This focus on the French also reflects a strong bias for Western ideals of beauty, and I'm surprised that she didn't even attempt a more multi-cultural perspective. Perhaps we could learn from some non-Western cultures where older women age not only gracefully, but maybe even fabulously and without medicine cabinets as chock full of products as the French.

To be fair, the author makes a feeble attempt at challenging the notion that Frenchwomen age more gracefully than American women. But it is based on rising obesity rates in France, 2 famous Frenchwomen who have not aged well, and 1 Frenchwoman's praise for Meryl Streep. And while the article does point out that the French (or at least, Parisian) don't seem to exercise, it also suggests that they simply don't have to because the streets of Paris are oh-so conducive to walking. So let me defend the American woman for a moment (and the non-walking cities of America), since everyone bashes our apparently unhealthy, ignorant, and unfashionable ways. Here's to high school sports, Jane Fonda videos, gym memberships, and strip-tease workout sessions. There is always an extreme and the American obsession with being fit and fab is not without fault, but at least we value the beauty benefits of a good jog just as much as being thin - score!

With a focus on beauty in such narrow, culturally-specific terms, broad generalizations, and a lack of nuance, this article comes off as extremely irrelevant and dated, a la a 1950s issue of Vogue or Redbook. Then it abruptly ends with a warm-fuzzy statement about mind over matter and completely ignores the last few paragraphs about haircuts, diet pills, skincare, and exercise. A poorer article from the NYT I could not have imagined.


Tanveer Parmar said...

Very well written reply to the article.. & I totally agree on the point of exclusion of other cultures when it comes to ageing gracefully. I have seen that Medditerian women also have very good skin even during later years.

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