The difference was blatant. The February issue of French Elle screamed from the newsstands: SPECIAL RAJEUNIR (Grow Young Again). Inès de la Fressange, 55, was on the cover.
One month later, the March issue teased us with an intriguing entreaty, in slightly smaller typeface: CES FEMMES QUI DONNENT ENVIE DE VIEILLIR (These Women Who Make Us Want to Be Older). Lauren Hutton, who will be 70 this year, was on the cover.
So which is it? The bottom line is that we probably desire both. Perhaps the real translation then should be: “Women want to look the best they can for their age and, if through good genes or good habits they look younger than they are, chances are they will not lose any beauty sleep over it.”
What a difference a month made. One issue was telling us how to look younger with scores of tricks and products, while the other was suggesting that we celebrate our age and never mind about artifice.
Having worked at magazines, I’m not naive about cause and effect. Women of ‘a certain age’ are a huge demographic and many have considerable disposable incomes to spend on the promises on labels of creams and potions.
Maybe marketing is behind the intent, but pictures send subliminal messages. The more we see and the more our brains absorb the idea that beauty has infinite possibilities—from age to quirky traits that are a little ‘off’ from what we’ve been told is ‘classic beauty’—then I think we’re on the right path.
It seems to me the French have always celebrated the differences that make us unique, special. And if you want more proof, look no further than Hedi Slimane’s new project for Saint Laurent, featuring such jolie-laide rockers as Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, 59, and Courtney Love, who turns 50 next year.
I suspect the premise of “wouldn’t it be fun to look like all these women who are older than us?” is not one that is comfortably embraced by what the French call the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ press.
I have lived in France for more than 25 years and, in that time, have become a woman of a certain age. Despite all the high-velocity Vitamin C serum I apply under my serious hyaluronic acid cream, it seems that as far as age is concerned, my most intelligent anti-aging trick was to move here.
I think the French look at age differently than we do. It’s much like the way they think of beauty. Frenchwomen and men do not seem to be locked into classic definitions of either.
Of course, France has produced a few classic beauties; think Catherine Deneuve, for example. But Inès doesn’t fit the mold. She is far more interesting. She makes definitions irrelevant. She is vibrant, charming and gives the impression she is the very definition of la joie de vivre.
Case in point: at a recent lunch the conversation turned to age and our host remarked that at a dinner party he always prefers to be seated next to an older woman “whose eyes sparkle, who is intelligent, and who is charming” rather than a “pretty, vapid” 20-something who has nothing to say.
“Charm is the most fascinating aspect of a woman and age has absolutely nothing to do with charm. I want to be charmed,” he said.
Inès de la Fressange oozes charm, as does 46-year-old model Cecilia Chancellor, who was featured inside the magazine.
Although the pages of the Rajeunir issue contained 30 pages of head-to-toe beauty advice, including serious stuff with sharp shiny objects in the hands of professionals with medical degrees, the 14 pages devoted to Inès had not one word of product advice. She said: “Je ris, donc je déride!” (“I laugh therefore I un-wrinkle”—that’s my approximation of déride).
She also said that making love was a better beauty treatment than cucumber slices on tired eyes. Don’t you just love the French?
For the new book that I’m writing, Forever Chic, I interviewed Jean-Louis Sebagh, one of the world’s leading cosmetic surgeons, who practices in London and Paris. He said that smiles were “elevators” and frowns were “depressors”. He highly recommended “exercising” smiles as often as possible because they lift the face.
A recent study by the respected Insee, Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies) discovered that in their 20s the French are “suitably” or “adequately” happy. But contentment levels plummet at around 40 because, the study postulates, the pressures of work, children, extended family and the “end of illusions” are responsible for the dip in happiness.
The good news is that at about 55, there is a “spectacular” reversal in attitude and happiness is restored.
Now, doesn’t that make you smile?
Photos of Kim Gordon and Courtney Love by Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent Music Project from Dazed Digital
This article was first published in March 2013