Sometimes the French embrace odd American things, like Lionel Richie, Jerry Lewis and chubby, 23 year old American girls who arrive at their office in late summer with a typical American girl’s body and self image issues. How do I know this? Nine years ago this week, on a fast-track corporate program, I somehow found myself in Paris.
With my work preoccupation, black “fat” wardrobe, and obvious intimidation at my sophisticated and stylish Parisian coworkers, my French colleagues could tell, this American was not going out to frolic through Paris in that distinctly American way. She wouldn’t be dissecting their style, their cuisine, their bodies as if a spy trying to steal the French state secret of “Je ne sais quoi” for the Americans.She would not be writing books that tried to package their lifestyle, whether by formulas and processes or through chic lit, for sale, of course, to an American audience.
This American girl had no touch or variation of the Sabrina fantasy that brought so many of them across the Atlantic. This poor mademoiselle, they could probably tell from the moment they met her, was going to be staying at the office long after everyone. She would trudge into work on Saturdays like Americans often did, only to be turned away by the guards stationed to ensure people could not work on Saturdays (this actually happened). Perhaps it was the French love of existentialism that made my colleagues embrace me and the complete lack of purpose and meaningfulness that I granted to my existence in Paris.
I did not tell my French co-workers that I was terrified of losing my job, of being insufficient at work and in general, or that my previous manager had questioned and tried to eliminate my place in a coveted corporate program. But somehow, they seemed to know.
Sympathizing with my plight, they tried to teach me their secrets in that subtle French way. “You are here too many hours. Go out. Enjoy Paris!” my boss ordered. After sad and dismayed looks at peanut butter and jelly on rice cakes, that appeared to be lunch, eaten at a desk no less!, I was taken out for 3 course lunches with wine, of course. I worked up the courage to quietly ask a coworker the smell of her perfume, after it had intrigued me for months. She rewarded my rare display of confidence by leaning in confidentially and sharing her secret with me. “It is Michael, by Michael Kors,” she looked around to ensure no one could hear once again before whispering “He is American! Do not tell anyone.”
The end of my time in Paris was marked with gifts from my French colleagues: a glowing review, a beautifully soft and painfully expensive brown leather bag, and sincere well wishes. While happy for my time in Paris, I did not depart thinner or more optimistic about the life that was waiting for me at my next position in the states. The greatest lessons from the French would not be realized until much later when my own journey to making a happy life created my own brand of joie de vivre.
I wasn’t raised with a right to health care, parents with generous parental leave policies (even while I went through chemotherapy), or a healthy sense of vacation time. Nor was I raised amidst beautiful buildings and public spaces. My formative years were during the Reagan era and my early adult years were marked by the “greed is good” mentality that continues to pervade all politics. Beauty and luxury were for the wealthiest. Whether it was proposing ketchup as a vegetable to save on school lunch programs, experimenting on the U.S. food supply and its citizens, or wasting increasing amounts of money on government contracts to wealthy corporations, the message behind the soundbites was clear: as individuals and citizens, we weren’t worth much.
The French chicness and thinness is a byproduct of something deeper, a sense of worthiness. Many books have tried to provide a formula or tips, punctuated with icons and silhouettes of umbrellas, cafe scenes, scarves, bateau shirts and berets. But they can’t gift you the psychology of growing up in an environment that French women do: with healthcare, humane working hours, and all portions of society understanding that they have basic rights and that government infrastructure shouldn’t cater to the top .01%.
It took me years of discovering my passions, being around people that inspired me, deconstructing societal expectations and essentially finding my own individual path to understand my own worthiness to lead a fulfilling life. The 30 pound weight loss was a bonus. After all, I was thrilled in the beginning just to think about something besides my food neurosis. It’s an experience all women deserve. But you can’t bottle it. It starts with deconstructing societal and personal packaging that say “my real life begins after I lose weight.”
While you don’t have to leave America to develop this worthiness (although at first, you will work harder than the French. But this is nothing new!), you do have to leave the “quick-fix” mentality behind. Plus, slow is sexy. Stop measuring calories. Measure the correlation between a personal brand of life that evokes worthiness and a shrinking preoccupation with food and weight that trickles down (unlike economic theory) to your body.
And when people see your radiance, they’ll have all sorts of questions about dieting and exercise. Often the best answer is “Je ne sais quo.” I think the French would agree.