Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tocqueville manquée, renversée

One of the great mysteries about Western Europe, as far as I'm concerned, is the apparent obsession many women here seem to have with ridding themselves of cellulite. You can walk for miles (or kilometers; whatever) looking for a coffee, a bookstore, a band aid, a pair of socks, but all you'll find will be the notorious European pharmacies-that-aren't, places with the aseptic look of Health, but that are not so much tiny Duane Reades or Rite Aids as shops selling ridiculously expensive and gratuitous-seeming beauty products. While some of these are geared towards hair, the main concern really does seem to be cellulite. Granted, I doubt if many American women wish they had more cellulite than is currently the case, but it is possible to walk more than a block even in looks-conscious areas of Manhattan without being inundated with ads for ways to rid one's self of all upper-leg lumpiness. My sense is that vanity is more geared towards facial acne-then-wrinkles and overall shape. But I can't say I've researched this extensively.

Another major difference between the US and Old Europe: upon reaching a certain age, 35 give or take, every woman in Europe (and Israel, whatever that implies) crops her hair short and dyes it dark red. American women do not do this, whereas women here seem obligated by law to do so. Obviously the look works for some better than for others, but I do wonder how the idea came about that all women need to go this route. It's particularly startling on women who clearly (given the appearances of their children) would have long, straight blond hair if they just left it alone, needing only a touch of yellow dye to keep things as they were. Isn't that the beauty ideal in the Western world, if not beyond? What is happening?

Possible explanations for the cellulite-obsessiveness discrepancy:

1) European women are thinner than American women, and thus can 'afford' to worry about perfection. At 400 pounds, a woman is probably more concerned with reaching 300 than with the exact texture of every square inch of flesh. Then again European women are catching up and then some. So...

2) American women, coming from pioneer stock, culturally if not biologically, are less vain. This is so blatantly false I will not analyze it further.

3) American women have more children and worse child-care options than European women, and thus less time to spend looking in mirrors at parts of the body better left unexamined.

4) Europe's all free and naked, and all this nudity is less than freeing for women with thigh-related anxiety.

5) European women do not actually care a whit about cellulite; the ads are attempts by evil American corporations to get them to do so.

Possible explanations for the dark-red crop:

No clue. Really. Any takers?


Anonymous said...

I bet the models in the cellulite ads never have the short red hairstyle. So maybe there is some age where women are expected to give up and become kind of genderless and practical.
However, I have seen wealthy older women in Paris who do not get the crop, so it may be more of a German inclination. Doesn't the mannish hairstyle also go along with no makeup, except maybe for some red lipstick? I would suggest another explanation, having to do with the fall-out from WWII rationing, when the only cosmetics available to most women might have been henna or other cheap hair dyes. Lots of bang for the buck.
And isn't cellulite a French word? If it isn't, it should be.

Chen Shapira said...

Many Israeli hair stylists studied their trade in France. At least in my case, the reddish crop was strongly recommended by my stylists.

So maybe its a designer conspiracy?

Anonymous said...

I dispute that European women are more cellulite-obsessed than their American counterparts.

My anecdotal impression has been that European women are generally far more comfortable with their bodies than American women (which in part explains the widely divergent attitudes on nudity). I could be wrong about this, but it's hard for me to accept that the reality tilts in the opposite direction, rather than sitting in equipoise.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Frenchwomen do this too, for sure.


Could be! I remember seeing lots of signs in Tel Aviv hair salons that the stylists parlent francais.


I certainly wouldn't say European women are more body-conscious than American, although the myth that they are less so is, I think, just that, a myth. (I'd say: more so in Paris and Milan, less so in parts of Germany, with greater still variation within each locale.)

But more relevant here: the issue isn't that they're more body-conscious generally, but that cellulite in particular concerns those prone to being concerned about such matters, whereas American women who care care more (perhaps? again, going by the prominence of cellulite creams in the two places) about overall largeness, about numerical issues (dress size, weight), and less about exactly what the upper thighs look like. Again, as I suggest in the post, it could be that many American women are too busy with other thigh-related concerns to get around to worrying about cellulite.

As for nudity meaning body-comfort... not so sure. Discomfort with sex because of Puritan heritage and whatnot might also involve discomfort with nudity, but that's stemming from a different issue than concern re: thighs.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. As I understand it (better now), your claim is that European women are more concerned with specific regions of fatness than American women, who are generally more concerned with overall fatness.

This could be true, I suppose, although my sense (from a reasonable familiarity with fatness studies) is that American women are plenty concerned about specific regions of cellulite. Anecdotally, the cover of almost any popular magazine targeted at American women would seem to undermine the claim insofar as they are filled with advice on ways to shrink one's gut, tone one's thighs, arms, etc. No?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I don't know about fatness studies - what discipline is this? As in, medical journals? Reports on body image internationally?

I've read plenty of women's/lifestyle articles in my day, and have spent a good amount of time being a woman, around other women, mostly in the US but also in Europe, which is where whatever knowledge I have comes from. And my sense is that in America, it mostly does come down to measurements - shrinking a size or losing a certain number of pounds - whereas in Europe, it's about the details. Since cellulite, once it's there, is there to stay, it's not that European women have figured out how to perfect their figures in some miraculous way, but rather that they're less interested in the rational and practical (dress size and weight both being things one can modify) than in the subtle and aesthetic, if irrational. But really, who knows - I think at this point, the main beauty concern of women across the Western world if not beyond is to be thin, and that it's primarily American ignorance of other countries that causes Americans to believe that in Europe, women are a) uniformly thin, and b) effortlessly so.

Anonymous said...

Fatness studies is IMO best conceived as a subdiscipline of disability studies which subjects discourse on fatness to critical analysis.

See, e.g.:

The "field," such as it is, is interdisciplinary and can, I think, take many forms, from cultural studies to law to public health policy to medical humanities, etc.

I think, regardless of our positions here, that your final sentence sums up the important point perfectly well, and I agree with it entirely.

Withywindle said...

I think the relevant difference is that Europe still has more of a unified culture than America; it's not the particular hair cut, per se, as that everyone has it. 1950s America was similarly unified in its fashions; 2000s America less so.

PG said...

Maybe European women have more sexual partners at an older age, so they care more about how they look naked than American women who have settled down with a single partner do. Cellulite is mostly a matter for the beach and bedroom; you can still look great while clothed with cellulite so long as you are thin.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm not totally sure I agree there. A Frenchwoman still looks different, dresses differently, from her German equivalent. Would you say American women differ more in look by region? State? Class? Age? All of these? Because the North Face - jeans or leggings - Ugg boots combo seems to about cover girls and women 12 to 42 across many of these lines.


That's certainly a possibility, but I've never heard of that being the case, except perhaps in France.

Withywindle said...

Just that not every girl under 20 feels she must commit suicide if she's not in the modern equivalent of bobby-soxs.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

And in Europe they do? What would that even be, clothing-wise? It's easy to forget in NYC, but one can feel very out-of-place in much of the country if one strays from the Uggs-North Face (or knock-offs thereof) combo. Even over age 20.

Britta said...

Hmm, I don't know about the red hair in France, but at least in Scandinavia, where my relatives live, it is looked down upon as being a German thing, or even worse, an Eastern European thing. (I remember my mother making derogatory comments about henna-ed hair as very declasse and "East German"). As such, I always grew up associating henna-ed hair with former Soviet Bloc states, though that could just be a baseless Scandinavian prejudice towards Germans and especially E. Europeans.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Huh, I didn't realize Scandinavian women were an exception to this crop, nor that Scandinavians were often prejudiced against Germans. But the look definitely extends beyond formerly Soviet lands, although agreed that Russian women in NY sport it fairly often, and that the Israeli women who do might well be of Russian origin as well.

Britta said...

Yeah, obviously, I can't speak for all Scandinavians, but at least for some of my relatives, using the term "German" in reference to looks is synonymous for "ugly," with the archetypal German woman basically looking like your typical 80s East German swimmer. I think it's a combo of typical snarkiness towards your neighbors plus war resentment.

But anyways, I don't know about the color, but I wouldn't assume that the ability to produce towheaded offspring necessarily means the mothers will also have blonde hair well into middle age, in Northern Europe most children are blonds, but a much lower proportion of adults are--I know many people with very dark hair who were blond until their early teens, and even blonde hair on young women can darken in middle age. Why people would uniformly choose red as the color to dye it is beyond me, in Scandinavia the trend seems to be more towards leaving it natural or returning it to one's more youthful blonde shade. Though again, the trend away from red may be not a dislike of the actual shade, but rather it's associations with Ukrainian cleaning ladies, etc.

Finally, with cellulite, maybe it get's back to the "natural beauty" thing? At least in my experience, in Northern Europe it's expected you should spend little or no time on actual beauty upkeep, but you should "naturally" be 5'11", 130 lbs, blonde, blue-eyed, and toned. Of course, any attempt to artificially achieve any of that is scoffed at and almost ethically suspect, for a variety of complicated reasons. It's also expected you should be completely comfortable with your body and above all insecurities--a pretty toxic combo of unrealistic beauty expectations + a refusal to acknowledge them and a denigration women's efforts to achieve them. From my experience, at least mild eating/exercise disorders are almost universal among German or Scandinavian women, but they are mainly passed off as ways of being "healthy." I wouldn't be surprised if all those women flaunting their "natural" and "care free" bodies at the beach or the health club or the sauna are secretly rubbing cellulite cream at home in the closet.

Matt said...

wouldn't assume that the ability to produce towheaded offspring necessarily means the mothers will also have blonde hair well into middle age, in Northern Europe most children are blonds, but a much lower proportion of adults are--I know many people with very dark hair who were blond until their early teens, and even blonde hair on young women can darken in middle age.

This sort of fits me. I was blond at birth (the only one in my family) and had essentially white hair until about 10, clearly blond hair until about 13, and then a slow development to a modestly dark brown since then. I even thought of myself as blond for quite a while longer than anyone else would have, as I'd been blond longer than anything else. Now I think of myself as having brown hair, since that's what I've had the longest at this point.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Agreed that it's common for blond children to become brunette adults. Plus, of blond adults, it's tough to know what's natural, what's 'enhanced' natural, what's Madonna, etc. So it could be that the red crop arises once the blondness disappears, rather than once the first gray appears? Either way, how red became the color strikes me as more mysterious than the decision, after marriage and kids, to chop it all off.

Re: natural beauty in Northern Europe, Britta, that's interesting to know. I'd always wondered what beauty standards would be like in a place where the traits considered appealing in the West are those typical of the native population. Obviously being 5'8" and blonde would not be enough to be considered hot, as it is in settings where these traits are unusual. What you're describing sounds, then, like what Kei described in terms of Japanese hair-straightening - the standards are the same as anywhere else, it's just that the penalties for failing to live up to those standards are higher. Obviously in settings where tall and blond alone means beauty, because these traits are so unusual, people who are neither still do alright, because otherwise no one would have any fun. Then again, there's also the issue of exoticism - it's been my sense that if everyone in some area fits the Western ideal, there will be at least a substantial minority of the population attracted to people who don't. Not sure if that holds for Scandinavia, though.