Friday, June 10, 2016

#FrenchFriday - Book Review: Forever Chic by Tish Jett


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A review of the Tish Jett's book Forever Chic, Frenchwomen's Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance, by a French beauty enthusiast living in the USA.


Happy #FrenchFriday and welcome to your weekly post about all things French! This week I've decided to do something new with a book review: there is a whole genre of Francophile literature out there with countless books discussing French lifestyle and how you can be a bit more French at home - something I only discovered when I moved to the US. Today we'll start with a book called Forever Chic by Tish Jett, and if you like it I'll plan more book reviews in the future, so let me know what you think in the comments!


Tish Jett, the author, is an American fashion editor who moved to France in her 30s for what was supposed to be a couple of years, but met the love of her life and has now been living there for 25 years. She wrote for Women's Wear Daily, the Chicago Tribune, the International Herald Tribune, and was the last Paris-based editor of the American edition of Elle. Being a fashion insider and having lived in both the USA and France for long periods of time, I think she has both the background and personal experience to give insightful advice.

Forever Chic, subtitled Frenchwomen's Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance, is about les femmes d'un certain âge: "women of a certain age" as they are often referred to in French, generally women over 40-45 (the author seems to believe that the description applies to women into their 70s, but I don't think any French speaker would use the expression for that age group). The purpose of the book is to expose the secrets of French women over 40 that allow them to age with grace and style. When I picked up this book in the library I didn't realize that it was specifically addressing the issue of aging, but since I'm heading towards 40 at full speed, it was actually quite interesting for me!


A review of Tish Jett's book Forever Chic, Frenchwomen's Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance, by a French beauty enthusiast living in the USA.


Let's get something out of the way right here and now: of course this book is full of prejudice and broad generalization. Obviously all French women are individuals with their own characters, inclinations and unique ways of going through life. I don't think a book about French style and elegance can completely avoid that pitfall. As a French woman myself, however, I was never annoyed by the author's view of what French femininity means. Never did I roll my eyes while reading, and since I'm a semi-professional eye-roller, that should tell you a lot... The stereotypes this book is based on are overwhelmingly positive and I didn't find a good reason to get offended by anything.

The book is composed of 9 chapters about the main themes to consider when studying the way women over 40 cultivate their looks: there's fashion, skincare, hair, makeup, diet... Each chapter contains one or two illustrated pages with tips and tricks, and the rest of the book is also embellished with a few small drawings in the same vein as the cover. The author's style is generally light and entertaining, but something I noticed is that she uses a lot of French words that are never translated. I'm sure it's made to add an extra sense of exotic "Frenchness" and it's obviously not a problem for me, but it happens so often that I can see it making the text hard to understand at times for non French speakers. If she only used words with transparent meaning such as élégance it would be one thing, but I suspect many readers will have to check a dictionary several times per chapter.


A review of Tish Jett's book Forever Chic, Frenchwomen's Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance, by a French beauty enthusiast living in the USA.


The main issue I had with this book is that it's entirely based on the lifestyle of a very small minority of French women: the affluent Parisian. Nowhere does the author show any awareness of her strong bias, and at no time does she seem to realize that many of her observations would hardly apply to other categories of French women. All the friends and mentors she mentions seem to belong to that class of wealthy white women, and a few even belong to aristocratic families (based on their names with the nobiliary particle). How is that a relevant sample of French women over 40? The author herself insists that she lives in a village, but from her description it's in the immediate vicinity of Paris, in what we call Région Parisienne. The book would probably have been very different if Tish Jett had interviewed women from the middle class, small towns or rural areas, or if she had lived in Marseilles or Grenoble - anywhere outside the influence of Paris really.

This is something to always keep in mind when you read the book. No, not all French women have their dedicated dermatologist, own designer bags, or spend their life going to galleries and the opera while entertaining descendants of the nobility with fantastic dinner parties. Get inspired by the author's advice, but don't believe that everything she says is a truthful representation of the average French woman's lifestyle - especially when it's about things you can't afford.

To go into detail a little more, let's discuss a few of the chapters, especially the ones related to beauty.


A review of Tish Jett's book Forever Chic, Frenchwomen's Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance, by a French beauty enthusiast living in the USA.


The skincare chapter really reads like it was written by someone who had very little knowledge on the subject to start with. Jett admits that before moving to France, she thought that exfoliation was meant to remove makeup! Luckily, she educated herself and interviewed dermatologists as well as beauticians for the book. In the end she gives rather sound advice and overall she gets the gist of the French approach: gentle regular care, with a strong emphasis on gentle. She recommends to pick your skincare products based on effective ingredients such as vitamin C or retinol, and she embraces French classics such as pharmacy skincare brands (think Avène, Vichy, La Roche-Posay) or micellar cleansing waters. There's a whole section about botox, fillers and other surgical enhancements: remember, she's talking about rich white Parisian middle-aged women here. Cosmetic surgery is used way less in France than where I live now in Southern California, and the vast, overwhelming majority of French women couldn't afford such things (and NO it's not covered by the public insurance system, unless you're a scammer and pretend it's done for purely medical purposes! Same things with massages, you don't get a Swedish for free, those days are over!).

As for the chapter about makeup, I think you'd be safer disregarding the whole thing. For a former editor of Elle, Jett appears surprisingly ignorant of anything makeup related. She's right when she says that the goal of makeup, especially for women of a certain age, is to appear very natural and that a less is more approach is the best way to go. However, her advice to choose a foundation shade with undertones opposite to yours to "correct" made me shiver... I can just picture warm-toned women with a pink foundation that makes them looks grayish! It's cringe-worthy but not surprising to be honest. Awful foundation choices are still seen quite commonly in France - especially among women over 60. My mom used to wear foundation at least 3 shades too dark. Women of her generation thought that foundation should give you a healthy tan, and you can still find "old school" sales associates in beauty stores who try to convince you to go for that lovely dark orange shade.

And then there was food. Ah, the enduring myth that "French women don't get fat"... Again, while Jett gives relatively good advice on how to eat healthy, she glosses over the fact that many, if not most, French women over 40 are perpetually on a diet. The reality is that being overweight in France is considered a weakness of character, and les grosses ("fat women") are despised, shamed and rejected. You think there's body shaming in America? Oh man you have no idea. With my current weight, in the normal range medically speaking, I'd be convicted as fat by the court of public opinion in France. I strongly disagree with the author about the general "healthy approach" that French women have to food: consistently being on a restrictive diet is in no way healthy. From what I have observed, with myself, my family, friends, co-workers, etc... body image issues are rampant and fad diets very popular. So is skipping meals. The typical French woman of a certain age I know is the one who will be asking for a razor thin piece of cake at her own birthday party, have nothing but coffee for breakfast, and one cup of steamed vegetables for dinner - without bread, because someone decided that bread, this staple of the traditional French diet, was the enemy. You can't imagine how ecstatic I was when I moved to Turkey at the age of 25 and saw a group of four 40-something women having tea with a family-size cake - that they simply cut in 4! There's pleasure in eating, especially with the great quality food you can find in France, but that's a pleasure many women deprive themselves of.

You want to know how French women remain slimmer than American women of the same age? It's pretty simple really. They eat at home. A dinner out is the exception, a couple times a month. They eat much less at each meal - I'm reminded of that whenever someone visits from France - and do not snack between meals. They prepare their own food most of the time, from fresh ingredients. They don't indulge. They diet hard whenever they put on half a pound. They walk to go places. That's about it.

Fashion is the subject that the author knows best, and unsurprisingly that's what she gets the most right. She captures the essence of the classic French style in a few key concepts: neutral colors, flattering cuts, quality over quantity. We're talking about what women are really wearing here, not what you see in haute-couture collections. To the question "What do you pair with orange/any bright color/prints?" the French answer is simple and direct: neutrals. Black, white, grey, beige, or possibly dark blue jeans. There is no mix and match in the classic French look: you can wear a statement piece, but one at a time, that's it. Colors are to be used sparingly, mostly in the form of accessories. There is no new black, get over it. Flattering cuts means no minis (I have yet to see any non-marathoner over 25 that a mini-skirt flatters), and suggest rather than reveal: you don't have to show a lot of skin to be sexy. Jett seems elated by the discovery that French women like to buy quality clothes and keep wearing them as long as possible, literally for several decades. This is probably a very surprising idea for American readers, but it's definitely true (my mom had a few pieces that she passed down to me when she couldn't fit in them anymore). Or at least was: I'm not too sure that the youngest generation still relates to fashion in the same way.

Finally the author gives her take on the French je ne sais quoi, that elusive quality that makes French women particularly attractive, at least according to others. For her it's all about the substance: the charm, kindness and wits that French women cultivate behind their polished, elegant façade. According to Jett it's not about being pretty but about being intriguing, interesting, and having great conversation. Sure, why not.


Overall

Don't expect great revelations from this book, especially if you have previously read others on the same subject. It is, however, an entertaining short read and the advice given by Jett is generally worth taking. Just remember that her depiction of the French woman is entirely based on the study of wealthy white Parisian women's lifestyle: pick what applies to you and forget about the custom-made bras!


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I received no compensation to write this post, which only reflects my personal opinion. This post contains affiliate links.


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