Paris – My mother’s first trip to Paris was punctuated by our nightly encampment at the Café Varenne. Tucked neatly on the corner of the rue du Bac and the rue de Varenne, it offered a front row seat to people watching, plus much needed glasses of crisp white wine to cut the heat.
One evening, through a mouthful of tarte citron meringuée, she inquisitively pointed her finger at the pharmacy across the street, asking me what the ad in the window was promoting.
“Oh,” I looked up. “Cream. Weight-loss cream.” It was a Vichy crème amincissante, to be exact.
She immediately burst into laughter and asked how on earth French women would ever believe that cream could make you lose weight. Perplexed, and only about one year into my French life, I laughed with her.
“I guess I’ll just have to come up and market my own. I could even call it LE FAT BLASTER. It would be a crazy combination of, you know, guarana and caffeine, all that good stuff. Buy LE FAT BLASTER now while it’s still hot!”
You see, the French are just enamored with their creams. Walk into any pharmacy in Paris, and not only will you find a cream for just about anything and any body part– wrinkles, cellulite, fat, plumping, softening, with SPF, without SPF, morning cream, evening cream, after shower cream, lip cream, hand cream, face cream, thigh cream – but you will inevitably find a plethora of brands with sexy, sexy names. La Roche Posay. Avène. BioTherm. Vichy. Ducray. A-Derma. Caudalie. The list goes on. And that, my friends, is just the pharmacy list. Don’t even get me started on high-end department stores, with their likes of La Prairie and beyond.
If you’ve ever wondered how the French pull off the flawless skin deal while continuing to smoke a pack a day, you can thank their high-powered cosmetics laboratories.
But it begs the question: Why are the French so obsessed with their creams?
My time in France has allowed me to unravel that very question. Admittedly, I was, for quite a long while, extremely resistant to the cream. I absolutely refused to become what I thought a fussy Parisian who needed to slather herself in laboratory-manufactured chemicals for what I perceived as purely aesthetic reasons.
The other factor bolstering my resistance? My first two years in Paris, as a student, I worked as a high-class nanny for an extremely wealthy family in the 7th arrondissement, and part of my Devil-Wears-Prada-Goes-Nanny duties included covering two little girls, aged 5 and 8 at the time, with moisturizing cream. After. Every. Bath. Face and body. Before the pyjamas.
The words ridiculous and they are so little their skin is already freakishly soft why do they need this never failed to cross my mind.
Yet, one day, out of curiosity, (and because of their father, whom they visited on weekends, always forgot to stock the Avène cream their mother kept religiously at her house), I caved and bought some to put in my travel bag.
Then, I tried it.
When winter came, my skin remained freakishly soft, in spite of the drying effects of France’s calcium-heavy water.
Au fur et à mesure, I adopted the same toiletry habits as my two little parisiennes. Micellar water in the morning, followed by Avène Hydrance day cream with SPF. After bathing, full body creaming with Avène crème émolliente.
And slowly, I grew to like the cream. Slowly, I began to mock it less. I liked the way my skin was always glowing and fresh, and I liked that I felt so soft and…touchable. I loved that my face was less dried out and hence less oily, that the little remaining flares of adult acne I had disappeared.
Above all, I learned that while the whole cream deal is a lot about aesthetics, it’s also about taking care of the largest organ of one’s entire body, that stunning thing known as your skin. It brought a whole new meaning to the phrase être bien dans sa peau.
While I don’t think I’ll ever try a weight-loss cream, I do have a finely developed sense of appreciation for taking care of myself now. ‘Creaming’ one’s skin is just one part of it, but it goes to show how much French women have mastered the art of self-care. It is this self-care that ultimately keeps them so elegant and gorgeous as they age with an almost effortless grace.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned since I’ve embraced the cream, it’s this: the rituals that allow you to take care of yourself on the outside do just as much good for your inside.
En tout cas, je suis très, très bien dans ma peau.