In the New York Times on Thursday, May 25 an article by Elaine Sciolino about a new vogue in French beauty--the "no make-up look", appeared. It begins: "CHIC French women don't wear makeup. At least they pretend not to." French Elle described the trend as "Le bare face," defined as "nude skin, shimmering slightly." The adjacent photo is of a radiant Juliette Binoche, who is made up not to look made up. I am not sure this is such a new trend in France, but it is a paradox that I had noticed. French women tend to be very diligent about skin care--facials, serums, spa treatments and often invest a great deal in scientific-sounding products whose phyto-chemical laden molecules "penetrate" and "nourish" the skin. But they are less interested in looking "painted" or in sporting lots of colors on their faces that are not found on human faces in the natural world. This focus on the health of the skin rather than on the surface treatments used to cover it up makes good sense.
The article goes on to quote French make-up mogul Laura Mercier, who says "It really astonishes me the way American women wear so much makeup. In America, even teenage girls are overly made-up. And when you are overly made-up, you send out the message that you are overly sexual, that you want to be visible to attract men." By contrast, Ms. Mercier said: "French women are not flashy. They must be subtle. The message must not be, 'I'm spending hours on my face to look beautiful.' "
Again, these statements ring true to my ear. From what I have seen, Parisiennes tend to not to rely on fussy make-up and hairstyles in order to be attractive. Rather they often seem to invest their efforts in their skin, their accessories, the cut of their clothes, and their bulge-free silhouette. The bad news is that in order to look attractive with French understatement and subtlety, they do things that require more effort and are often more expensive than just slapping on some color. Where does that leave nous autres, les Americaines? Do we have to spend even more hours to send the message that we are not desperately spending hours on our faces to look beautiful?
I don't entirely agree that so many of us prefer the vulgar, painted-doll look. A lot of the young women I work with appear to eschew makeup entirely. This would be hard for me, as without at least some definition around my eyes when out in public, I would feel naked. Those of us who do wear makeup generally know that if you have relatively more eye make-up on, you might want to put less emphasis on the mouth, and vice-versa. Nicole Richie and Britney Spears are cited in the article as examples of that "overdone" look. No argument there, but thankfully, we rarely see see women who imitate them in real life.
The companies that produce makeup also have skin care lines, and those treatment lines usually consist of many products and many steps. Make-up removers, cleansers, day creams, night creams, eye treatments, firming serums for he face, firming serums for the eye area, different moisturizers for the face, the neck, the decolletee, pore minimizing creams, exfoliating scrubs, antioxidant serums, and the list is endless. I was reading the label of a product by Clarins that is supposed to revitalize maturing skin at about $100 for a small bottle. One of the two main active ingredients was an extract of the pueraria lobata, aka kudzu. Yes, kudzu, that nuisance vine that is draped over nearly every tree in North America. If I look outside my window, I can see that kudzu is indeed a prolific and hardy plant, but it's difficult to see how a product containing the extract of the ubiquitous kudzu vine could be so dear. When confronted with all these products, one wonders how it would be possible to ever do enough for one's skin and is tempted to give up and just buy a new eyeliner pencil or some dental floss and go home.
But a new form of consultation is available for French women. Sciolino continues "Indeed, at the first "beauty cafe" in Paris, the talk is about respect, not transformation. For two hours on four recent evenings, the Columbus Café — a rival of Starbucks — transformed the second floor of its outlet near the Bastille into a place where women came for free lessons about skin care." "Today beauty is not something only on the surface," Sandra Renzi, a cosmetologist with the Darphin skin care line, lectured to women over coffee and Perrier one evening. "It also comes from inside. Essential oils that contain tiny molecules that penetrate your skin must come first."
Maybe the "inside" source of beauty actually springs from a place that even those tiny molecules can't penetrate. Here is yet another take on the question of being a "painted lady" vs. creating at least the illusion of restraint. "The most beautiful makeup for a woman is passion" is the famous quotation of the designer Yves Saint Laurent. "But cosmetics are easier to buy."