Whether peeking out from the glossy pages of a magazine, staring through the screen of a blog, or heading up the latest brand campaign, we’ve all seen her. Heck, most of us have at some point probably Pinned her "simple-chic skincare routine" or her "Parisian style rules." And why not? She’s effortlessly chic, naturally glowing, blessed with a carefree attitude, and enjoys a perfectly slim figure to match. I am, bien sûr, talking about that hottest of marketing commodities and veritable unicorn in our midst: the French girl.
Analyzed by legions of writers with the verve befitting a 19th century anthropologist who has discovered a lost tribe, an entire oeuvre of books has been dedicated to her every move. From what she puts in her mouth, to what she wears on her back. The latest, Une Femme Française, The Seductive Style of the French Women, by the French-born designer Catherine Malandrino, comes just in time for the holidays to tell American audiences “the real reason French women don’t get fat.”
With her exotic allure and irresistible Euro perfection, no singular female figure in recent memory, it seems, has reigned so supreme over an industrial complex so large — if only because she can sell everything from yogurt to moisturizer. Madewell and J. Crew’s recent fashion raison d’être seems to currently run on "French girl cool" as they perennially offer up a range of whimsical French slogan tees, imported striped shirts and run-of-the-mill garments described as French. And J. Crew is not even among the growing lineup of French-sounding ,US-born brands cashing in on our fascination for all things Gallic. Take L’Agence Fashion, which is not French. French Girl Organics, not French. Cinq à Sept, not French. Pour la Victoire, yep, you guessed it. Shop the direct-to-consumer marketplace and you’ll walk into a veritable faux French label minefield littered with errant accented à, è, ï, ö and û-s.
But that’s not to say that French je ne sais quoi is an entirely top-down, business-led proposition. It is social media gold as well. Posting an #OOTD on Instagram this summer? You were nobody if you didn’t look like you were headed off to a Provençal village farmer’s market in a floaty floral tea dress, stacked espadrilles and a rustic woven basket. Bonus likes if you had a fresh bouquet of flowers, balloons or even a bicycle. All jokes aside, what could be so wrong with a fun social media cliché? After all, to deconstruct the French meaning of the word cliché itself, it’s just a snapshot, a little moment in time.
There is however something much more lasting and pernicious about the ubiquity of this French girl narrative, starting with the aspirational way she operates like a Barbie doll for adults. And when even Barbie herself now represents more body shapes and skin tones than the packaged image of the French girl, you know this criticism isn’t about America first, freedom fries reverse snobbery. Just look at the escapist French girl storyline and you’ll notice a dominant narrative thread that prioritizes white homogeneity and puts a singular thin, white, wealthy and European aesthetic on a pedestal — Breton striped shirt and red lipstick included. As a totem, she’s fetishized for her no-makeup makeup that suggests beauty must be inherent and that you, dear non-French lady, are falling short. She’s objectified for her thrown-together style that tells you that stylish perfection is just a $500 pair of classic flats away. She’s revered for the fact she does not get fat, and all while is patronizingly referred to as a girl.
Not only does this brand of Gitane-smoking pouty insouciance offer up a dangerously narrow perspective, it belies the really interesting and important cultural story coming out of France. That, just like her sisters across the Atlantic, French women’s fight for inclusivity is real and it is now. Time to broaden your horizons, stow away all those style guides and meet five badass French women you need to be following right now. No French dictionary required.
1. Lalaa Misaki, Rewriting the Fashion Influencer Rules
In a country known for its "grossophobie" (that’s fatphobia to you and me), Lalaa Misaki stands out from the Instagram crowd with her body-positive attitude, inclusive style tips and motivational fitness posts. What’s more, her hipster take on downtown boldness dispels the myth that all French women are Breton shirt-wearing automatons.
2. Alice Pfeiffer, Challenging Fashion Commentary Norms
As Antidote Magazine’s Editor at Large, Alice offers up super smart analysis on the intersections of French fashion and culture. Want to know what all the cool kids are really listening to and where they’re going in Paris? Follow Alice. After all, Paris’ cultural scene isn’t about Edith Piaf accordion music and sitting on a picturesque café terrace with a baguette tucked under the arm. As a contributor to French newspaper Le Monde and the country’s answer to Rolling Stone magazine, her bilingual posts make it easy to dive into an often-ignored cultural air du temps.
3. Adeline Rapon, Making the Case for Natural Beauty
Yes, you’ll see jewelry designer Adeline Rapon in a beret. But with her retro-inflected glamour and afro curls, she makes the case for stepping outside the French beauty diktats that once had her chemically relaxing her hair.
4. Lauren Bastide, Giving Voice to French Feminism
Journalist, feminist and podcaster Bastide’s posts offer up a porthole into feminist French life today, complete with short and sweet takes on current talking points and hashtags in English. Cases in point? #balancetonporc, France’s version of #metoo hashtag and the political debate raging around tired French language rules that are dominated by the masculine word form.
5. Diglee, Drawing Outside the Box
And because saccharine illustration and swirly French wording is a prominent part of the stereotypical French girl aesthetic, let’s not forget illustrator Maureen Winglove-Diglee. Blogging since 2007, Maureen’s illustrations take on social media censorship to depict women outside the strict lines of French chic conformity.
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Brit abroad, full-time Francophile and flapper wannabe Rachel Huber is a writer, translator and content strategist now based in California. Her favorite food is the Proustian Madeleine. You can follow her on Instagram @rachuber.