|The New York Times|
In the end, however, she never quite answers the question and ends up by saying something fairly anemic and dime-store romantic about the fact that she loves and is loved by her family. That’s all fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t get us any closer to unraveling the mystery.
First of all, the author makes the mistake of asking French women directly to share their secrets. That’s like asking a great chef for his most famous recipe. Even if he agrees to share it, he will always leave out some crucial ingredient so that no matter how many times you prepare the dish, it’s never as good. Likewise, a French woman will never divulge this sort of intimate information about herself to an outsider. She may toss you a tiny "amuse bouches" to whet your appetite, but you will never get to the meat of the matter.
French women are highly competitive with other women on every level. It’s bred into them from birth by their Mothers. So they are scrupulously discreet about what they choose to reveal even to their closest friends. It quite simply goes against the French grain to be too open about anything personal, much less intimate, unless, of course, it has to do with sex, which is freely and openly chatted and joked about with perfect strangers at every dinner party.
Second of all, the author makes the mistake of not going to the one person who has made a life-long study of the French woman and whose knowledge of her is encyclopedic -- the French man. My Father could have taught a Master Class on the subject. While he may not be the most faithful of husbands, the French man adores the French woman – the way she looks, the way she smells, the way she moves. While reminiscing about his late wife, an elderly Frenchman once told me that to this day he misses the smell of her hair on the pillow in the morning.
So, what is the French woman’s secret? Why does she appear to age more gracefully than her American sister? The author gets within a hair’s breadth of finding the answer to the mystery when she discusses the French woman’s enjoyment (and, yes, there are days when it really does feels like a chore) of the beauty rituals that keep her looking her best; however, I don’t blame the author for not quite getting it. The answer is contained in a word that has long since slipped off the American woman’s radar screen – Femininity.
By the end of the 60s, the pursuit of Femininity had been moved from the Virtue to the Vice side of the Feminist orthodoxy. It was deemed not only to be frivolous, but downright subversive. The French woman sailed through the last four decades relatively unscathed by American-style Feminism. As a result, she continues not only to age gracefully, but to live her whole life as gracefully as she can to the delight of the French man. Femininity underpins everything she is and does. Her individual version of Femininity may be classic or quirky, but she owns it, she works it, and she will go to the grave with it.
A healthy dash of Femininity might just be the missing ingredient the author was looking for.