The Morning Stroll

How the American Perception of French-ness Does a Disservice to Everyone

April 3, 2016

Let me begin by saying that I like French culture, I really do; I might even consider myself a mild Francophile. I have a big tapestry of France that hangs on the wall in our bedroom. I love camembert and Champagne, quiche, and oysters on the half shell with mignonette. I think bérets are cute and I am convinced, in another life, I was a master at ballet. I dig Sophie la Girafe and her friends, Josephine, Margot, Lazare, and Kiwi. I make my French roast cold-brew with a French Press. I am actually even, like, 17% French; I know, so French.

Baby Sitting on French Map

But, oh my god, I am so over all of these articles about how the French do everything better. If you're looking in the right places online (Hello, MindBodyGreen?), it doesn't take long to find French secrets of staying slim but indulging in good foods, being beautiful, or parenting the best kids.

If you were French, you would be tall and slim, but you'd still have two baguettes and a bottle of Sauv Blanc every day. 

If you were French, your children would eat their vegetable crudité, your babies would sleep through the night, and there would be no screaming or miscommunication. 

If you were French, your cigarette would just burn up all of that baby weight.

Those are obviously fabrications, but I have read plenty of articles touting the way the French (specifically French women) do things better than the rest of the world. They eat well and don't deprive themselves of good food and drinks, yet people in other European countries (does Italy come to mind?) also do this. The French stay slim(mer) because their infrastructure is older, so they walk up stairs in elevator-less buildings and throughout their very walk-friendly cities. Yet many European cities are built similarly. It seems to me that a lot of things for which France gets credit are actually things for which an entire continent should get credit.

The latest post to really set me off was this gem from Fatherly. The author describes French parenting techniques as those which treat children as though they are more like adults, and I don't take any real issue with this. They succeed in getting children to eat foods adults eat, they get them to sleep through the night, and they let them know that the parents' lives and interests are important too. These points sound great.

But it's the way it is written, with a snarky, superior disposition (as is commonplace with most articles revering a "French" lifestyle, whatever the hell that really means) and no real conclusion that is bothersome. Half of the article makes me wonder if the author even has children; the other half is full of ideas that are so obvious and common sense, it hurts.

But what bothers me most about this obsession with French-ness is that these traits are not inherently French. 

Choosing to feed your children regular, "adult" foods and not dinosaur-shaped frozen chicken nuggets is no more French than it is, say, Indian. Making sure that your children know you have important things going on in your life, outside of them, is not French. There are, of course, differences in the way that countries or groups of people parent. But assuming that one country has all the answers to beauty, parenting, and romance does a great disservice to the rest of the world. 

In fact, there are some things I have read about France and the relationship with breastfeeding and the postpartum body that absolutely bother me. The French have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. (The article above from Fatherly mentions this as negative, yet ends by saying, "Breastfeeding is...hell on a couple's sex life." I have been breastfeeding for eleven months and I'm not really sure I understand what the author means by that.) 

Another frightening, actually truly French thing is the rééducation périnéale. Shortly after birth, women are given prescriptions to undergo pelvic muscular exercises in the name of preventing urinary incontinence. But these aren't just your basic kegels. They are done, invasively, with guidance and a probe. Urinary incontinence is a very real concern after giving birth for some women and I am inclined to believe that these exercises do help. But I am also inclinced to believe that incontinence is just a guise for societal manipulation of the female body. Basically, all I'm hearing is that you need to get your vagina back in good, working order for your husband. 

The reality is that many of these "French" things are inherently human.

They are not country specific. They are person-specific. They can be attributed to specific schools of thought, or messy ideas of what works today and maybe works tomorrow. Of course, the problem is not actually with France itself, but with the American obsession with what is perceived as French culture. We shouldn't be idolizing a particular portion of people, or what we perceive them to be or do. We should be celebrating great contributions to the world of parenting (and all things) from many countries. We should celebrate the parents everywhere who really have no idea what the hell they are doing but can at least say they loved fiercely and gave everything to their children, even when their hearts were falling out of their chests. That is the "country" of parents we should be revering, admiring, aspiring to be like. Exactly who we are, with a little bit of influence from everyone else.