By Reese Bentzinger
My career goals constantly changed in college. One class could make me go from journalist to anthropologist. But who I wanted to be was never in doubt: The French Girl.
You’ve seen her, maybe followed several versions of her on Instagram. Despite lacking filters, her photos are perfect. She always manages to catch perfect lighting while drinking wine by the Seine. She’s skinny, yet wrinkles her nose at the thought of diet and exercise. Every night she manages to tangle herself in spontaneous adventures even though she’d prefer to be at home with her books.
She’s imperfect, and she knows it. That’s why she’s perfect.
The French Girl originated with the effortless cool of Jane Birkin, muse for the most exclusive handbag. Her fringe bangs and white tees demonstrated that she didn’t have to try to stand out. Instead, she stood out because she didn’t try to fit it. The French Girl is an image so timeless that it hasn’t changed since the actress’ heyday in the 70s.
Like whatever career path I was pursuing that semester, I learned her methods by studying her. Tucked in between tabs on Charlemagne and the Purdue OWL were listicles dedicated on how to be Parisian, rules as strictly as plagiarism guidelines.
Don’t Contour! So I highlighted to give myself a more youthful glow than my 19-year-old skin had.
Pursue romance, but never love! I don’t think college-age men understand subtle flirtation, but I made up for it by pretending my love life was more romantic than it was.
Whenever someone asks you a question, only offer a sly smile! I tried to do this, but it came across as antisocial rather than mysterious.
And so on. I followed these lists to get a piece of the charmed existence I saw on my feed. I bought the clothes that every French Girl supposedly had and avoided the ones they scoffed at. Whenever I caught a glimpse of a book labelled French or Parisian, I grabbed it and spent a few minutes gleaming bits of information. I never bought these books. To buy them was to show that I was trying to reach perfection. French Girls don’t need to put in effort in order to have it.
But the clothes that I bought from a store didn’t fit as well as the ones these women designed themselves. The supposedly carefree world of casual dating felt like riding alone on a carousel rather than flying kites. No matter how hard I tried, I could never be French Girl Cool.’
Then, the bangs came.
The French Girl’s signature is her fringe bangs. The ones rocked by Birkin and the style worn by her modern copycat Jeanne Damas. It was Damas, the French Girl to rule them all, that I showed to my hairdresser when I finally got the bangs.
I had wanted them for years, but bangs are a bold move. It took a few adventures of my own before I got the courage to get them. Like Birkin, they looked incredible on me. When I got the compliments on them, I knew that they made me stand out.
I appreciated these comments. Most of the time. They did sound different from the mouths of some men.
They’d say something along the lines of You’re artistic or You’re so much more intelligent than these other women. Whenever I’d ask them what made them say that, my bangs managed to sneak into their answer.
There was something about them that made my stomach churn. These weren’t compliments, these were projections.
But wasn’t that what I wanted? Didn’t I crave an alluring gaze, peeking out from under the bangs that might innocently cause men to crash ships while in pursuit? Maybe, but I couldn’t shake the male gaze as well as the French Girls seemed to.
These comments weren’t what led me to unfollow French Girl Daily on Instagram. The fear of being caught in the act was what did it—the same terror that led me to avoid purchasing French books. I had this vision of a friend discovering the page, seeing that I followed it, and calling me out for the phony that I was.
But the bang comments didn’t help. Their makers didn’t see me, they only saw a media fantasy. I can’t blame them, after all I fell for the same misconception. Their illusions were the cleaning that my rose-colored glasses needed. In the end I was as guilty of projection as they were.
The French Girl is a fantasy that openly lives on contradictions. It was only after reflection that I realized how deep those contradictions went. The pictures looked effortless, but I know from experience how long it takes to pose for them. They try to be original, yet they all follow Jane Birkin’s formula. It hit me that perhaps the French Girl effortless cool wasn’t so easy after all.
I didn’t escape the French Girl ideal right after unfollowing those pages. That required reflection and research. I realized that, like the aspiring Birkins, I wasn’t as original as I thought. After reading articles calling out Eurocentric beauty standards, I scrolled back through those old pages.
For the first time, I realized that the French Girls were mostly white, and I was ashamed that I didn’t realize it before. I dug into the stories of French women outside of Instagram and saw a reality much closer to my own. The French Girls don’t all have glamorous fashion jobs and the parties that come with it. Like me, their nights sometimes end with eating takeout at a friend’s apartment because it’s cheaper than a wine tasting.
The fantasy is that, and nothing more.
Getting rid of my fringe felt like shedding a snakeskin. Now I’m exposed to sunlight, ready to be myself rather than another Birkin clone. I can’t entirely escape The French Girl, nor do I want to. I still refuse to wear any nail polish color other than red, and the light layers of a croissant send me to Cloud Nine. But I’m too loud to have an air of mystery, and I’d rather announce myself with a megaphone than hide a personality as dry as a baguette.
Au revoir, French Girl. I’m using my bang scissors for the last time to cut you out of my life.
Reese Bentzinger is a stylist based in STL. Outside of work you can find her writing poetry, doodling, and researching history.
Photo by Adrien @adri1xplr