No Pain, No Gain? No Thanks, Says French Beauty Expert

In the fourth season of the late, great AMC show Mad Men, one episode sees the New York ad agency at the center of the story hard at work on a campaign for Pond’s cold cream. For the men on the team, it’s a no-brainer — fear is the obvious angle. Making women feel bad about their faces always sells beauty products.

The only woman on the team has another idea, though: what if the cream were part of a pleasurable beauty ritual, something women do for themselves each morning? It is the idea of pleasure in skincare that Mathilde Thomas promotes in her book The French Beauty Solution, and it’s one she says is sadly absent from the American approach to beauty.

Thomas is the co-founder of the popular French beauty brand Caudalie, and some of the book is dedicated to extolling the benefits of grape-based beauty ingredients, some of which are patented by her company. But the larger message of the book is a plea for American women, to whom the book is specifically addressed, to stop hating their skin and start enjoying caring for it. It’s a refreshing read for anyone whose day has been ruined by a wrinkle or who punished her ‘bad’ complexion with a painful peel.

Despite its basic we-do-it-better bent, The French Beauty Solution is remarkably self-deprecating. In the section of the book called “What the French envy about the Americans,” Number 7 is our “boundless energy.” Aware of our pride in our packed schedules, she gently pokes fun at her own French ways all while making them sound terribly appealing. French women’s beauty routines are simple, she says, because they want their lives to be pleasurable — and their products are great because French women demand it.

“We expect [skin products] to be deliciously scented with a texture that feels wonderful on the kin and with ingredients that are as pure and natural as possible. […] The French have a reputation for being snobbish. But what some may consider arrogance is really an extension of our conviction that we deserve the best. Because we do — and so do you.”

French beauty secrets, according to Thomas, start with a basic respect for what nature gave you whether you’re planning a meal or looking in the mirror. Don’t cover your flaws (“Perfection is boring.”), and stick to the no-make-up look, choosing either a great lipstick or a mascara each day and healthy skin rather than foundation. “You’ll look French in no time at all. And you can finally throw away all those unused tubes and containers you know you’ll never use again.”

How to get that healthy, glowing skin? The book is full of advice that stretches from diet and cleansing to relaxation and professional intervention. As an American (and on a budget), some of it seems simply out-of-reach. Dermatologists in France are covered by their universal health-care system, so French teenagers don’t hesitate to see one as soon as a pimple appears. Facials, Thomas writes, are as inexpensive in France as mani-pedis are in New York. And then there’s the 5 weeks government-mandated paid vacation.

Other ideas like less make-up, more water, and a better overall approach to meals are totally accessible on any budget — and might even end up saving you money. Thomas even provides a dozen or so recipes for at-home scrubs and masks that are fun and easy (I had almost all of the ingredients in my kitchen already). I personally had to be reminded to try and do nothing while wearing the honey-lemon mask. Cucumbers on the eyes don’t only refresh them — they make it impossible to surf the internet when you’re supposed to be relaxing.

In France, Thomas says, tricks and tips for how to care for oneself are passed down from mother to daughter. One lovely section of the book describes the author’s childhood at her grandparents’ vineyard, exploring the scented landscape, picking herbs and experimenting with natural beauty concoctions with her grandmother. Hopefully, the book will inspire American women to find a little of that joy each time they remove their make-up, as well as some well-deserved appreciation for their own beautiful faces.

As for the Mad Men Ponds campaign, it ends up taking the tried-and-true fear rout, but not before the company does a survey among its secretaries to see whether any of them has a beauty routine she enjoys. None of them do, but one character describes her mother’s soothing ritual of splashing her lovely skin with warm and then cold water, before gently patting it dry. Is it merely a coincidence that she is French?