Ah now I remember the other side of France – the side where I had low self-esteem.
Saint Tropez …. The place of starlets and movie stars. The playground of the rich and famous, where Brigitte Bardot sunbathed topless in the 1960s. Songs have been written about it. Fake tans have been named after it. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
Preparations began the evening before when I booked an appointment for the next morning for a ‘shampoo-coupe-brushing’. I needed my hair cut anyway and imagined a trip to the salon would get me into that higher state of mind which would definitely be required for a trip across the bay to the magical hot spot for the beautiful, St Tropez.
I had forgotten that a trip to the salon can actually deflate an empire state of mind and I’m not talking about getting a bad haircut. The hair cut was fine but the hairdresser seemed to take great pleasure in announcing all my faults to the little salon. Yes I have a greasy scalp, yes the ends are dry, okay I know a lot of hair comes out when you brush it you don’t have to show me on your hand, yes it gets frizzy too thanks for pointing it out. I was sitting there feeling apologetic for my hair, telling her I know I’m supposed to get it cut every six weeks but…
“Il y a des cheveux blancs!” She sings. (There are some grey hairs)
“Yes I know I colour it,” I say, pointing to the front of my hair.
“But there are some at the back too!”
There are many things I could have said rather than suffering through it. It wasn’t that my self-esteem was crumbling like a dry sand castle but it was a bit odd that the older ladies next to me weren’t getting the same treatment. Let’s just assume their hair was perfect.
It mustn’t have been too damaging or perhaps I’m just a masochist because the next thing I did was go bikini shopping. I was supposed to be looking for some wedge heels to wear to St Tropez as the strap had broken on my one good pair of shoes and I only had sneakers and thongs. But as I stopped to look at bikinis, the shop’s owner came over to inform me that the bathers were arranged according to sizes.
“And you will need a large size,” she says with authority.
Except what I hear for large was actually ‘fat’.
“You will need a fat size,” I thought she said.
Mumbling that I didn’t know what size I took, I turned for her to see me straight on to appraise what fat size I would be. And it’s not that she was wrong – I would have gone for the same size myself - but I could have found my own way without her booming declaration. And I would have stayed for longer and looked a little more seriously.
I left the store with my head swirling with thoughts and emotions. What was happening? In my early and mid twenties it would have left me running for a 6-pack of yaourt. But now I feel strong enough to see that something was happening and I was curious to find out what it was. What was the message? Are middle-aged French ladies just bitches or do I not love myself enough?
And I don’t want to give you the impression that ‘this is what it’s like in France.’ Customer service here is excellent and a shop assistant is happy and able to talk in depth on their products and advise on what look or colour or perfume would suit you best. It’s like having a personal shopper. They aren’t just teenagers putting stuff back on the rack doing their Saturday job. At the market you can even tell the seller what day you want to eat a particular fruit (is it for today? Tomorrow? Wednesday?) and they will select which exact fruit would meet these requirements. So I have had tons of positive experiences here and I don’t think it’s about that.
What I did wonder about are these ideals of youth and beauty. Why did the hairdresser only announce my faults and not the other older ladies? Was she trying to cut me down to a stump of more manageable size? Was it because I was younger or is it just because my hair really is really shit?
France has a reputation for holding up the older woman in a way that other cultures don’t. Even Brigitte, who is quoted as saying, “It is sad to grow old but nice to ripen.” An animal activist, she likens her younger self to “easy prey” and has said, “I gave my beauty and youth to men. I am going to give my wisdom and experience to animals.”
Beauty and youth.
Wisdom and experience.
Is it only a choice of one or the other?
Lately there has been a video circulating on Facebook of Dustin Hoffman talking about his role playing a woman in Tootsie. The first time he had on all the make-up and costume, he was pleased that he actually looked like a woman and not a man in drag.
“But now I want to look like a beautiful woman,” he told the make-up artists.
“But that’s it, that’s as beautiful as you can be,” was the response
At this point his throat constricts with emotion and he struggles to explain about the realisation that this was how it was.
Many different women have posted this and so I know it means something. They must have thought, “Finally a man understands what it’s like to be a woman – and he’s crying publically.” Correct me if I’m wrong.
As women, we think about our looks a lot – don’t we? The ideal image is everywhere and the focus on beauty is intense. We need a critical eye to see through the invisible tape and smoke machines. We have to select what we read, listen to and watch or who we talk to. We have to fight for our right to feel good about ourselves and it’s something that we hopefully grow into more and more as we get older. I know I have.
In France there is the expression to ‘feel good in your skin’, meaning it doesn’t matter what size or shape you are as long as you feel comfortable and happy. This would be the ideal really. This is exactly the most beautiful and most interesting thing – when someone is not conforming and just being themselves, loving themselves as much as they love another and not even thinking about it.
So after much faffing I went to St Tropez – in sneakers and shorts and a pale blue t-shirt and hat that covers half my face and half my blow-dried hair (not because I wanted to cover my face, just because I liked the hat). I didn’t look like Brigitte Bardot but I felt good anyway. I would go there and observe the rich and beautiful and be that girl instead. I would be interesting (at least to myself).
Why do we even care about beauty? Is it really important at all?
Inspiration comes from everywhere and recently I read this quote in an article written by Lea (about Paleo pecan cookies) and posted on the blog Against All Grain, from Goethe,
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.
Lea writes, “Just as we need food, water and oxygen to live, so also do we need beauty in our lives to survive and thrive. Exposing ourselves to beauty on a daily basis helps maintain good mental, emotional and spiritual health and well-being. Beauty brings consolation in sorrow, affirmation in joy and the sense that life is worth living.”
Quite naturally I was attracted to the beauty of the St Tropez – because beauty is available on every street corner, not just in our faces. But through appreciating beauty we become more beautiful – don’t you think?
I found beauty in the smooth cobbled streets and peeling pastel buildings, in the flowers & rocky coast-line, in the quiet courtyard behind the restaurants where the waiters were taking a smoke break, in the lost pug barking by the dark pink bougainvillea, in the street music and teacher dancing with abandon while her adolescent students looked on, in the cool boutiques and the cemetery by the sea, in the vibrant piles of ice-cream, the big yachts where the crowds gathered and the crispy cold rosé. Appreciating my surroundings brought me back to a feeling of beauty on a cellular and soul level – which is the most beautiful and interesting of all.