My American Style Made Guys Flash Their D*cks at Me in Paris
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When I was in college, I was that girl with the French obsession.
I took every class on French film and the French language that I could find, and pored over vintage photos of Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, praying I could one day figure out how to meld their effortless French style with my try-hard Jersey aesthetic.
And of course, when the time came, I studied abroad in Paris.
When my six-week trip began, I was expecting plenty of lessons in DGAF style. But what I wasn’t expecting were insane levels of street harassment that resulted from my own very American style.
At the time, I had long, blondish hair in a country where most women are dark-haired and almost no one has hair longer than collarbone-length. I also favored a more-is-more makeup look, as always. Nothing too crazy — this was pre-contouring, after all — but I definitely had a full face on every morning, which further set me apart from the Parisian locals.
I soon learned that my particular aesthetic made me stick out like a sore thumb — and not in a good way — in the non-touristy, slightly dodgy area where I lived with a host.
From day one, guys were hitting on me in the street — making kissy noises, whispering French nothings, following me as I walked past. Sometimes, literally every guy on the block would come onto me. And before you try to tell me this is the case everywhere, let me assure that no, it was not “the same as any other city,” it was way worse. And I was incensed every time.
Looking back on it, I probably got more offended by this than I needed to because of my 20-year-old woke af mindset. I let it ruin my trip, and I regret that. Well, aside from the times when guys would whip out their dicks and wave them in my direction (happened! twice! in broad daylight!) or cup my ass cheek for the duration of a crowded metro ride. Those times I think I was allowed to be mad, even though there was nothing I could do about it. Because when I told cops they’d just laugh or — shocker — hit on me, too.
The wanton ass-cheek-cupping was really in a league of its own. I’ve never experienced it in any other city, but it was a common occurrence in Paris. Once, as I was exiting the Metro car, two guys reached their hands up my Forever 21 flouncy skirt and each cupped a cheek in unison. Fraternité! If they were American, they would have high-fived.
Now for the weird part: at the same time, my very American looks were keeping men from hitting on me in acceptable places, like bars. Normal French guys — the kinds who don’t engage in street harassment — were completely uninterested in me.
Did I mention I also feel way more comfortable in tighter clothes than the looser fits French women favor? In France, this, combined with my hair and makeup, basically meant I was the discount version of Britney Spears or Anna Nicole Smith. Translation: men felt entitled not only to bother me and follow me around, but also to use my butt cheeks as a hand warmer on the Metro.
I don’t remember what made it click, but about midway through my trip, I realized that my appearance was the reason why everyone was perving on me. Was it fair? No. But I decided to change my look, because I was sick of being treated like a piece of meat.
I went into a French chain hair salon near Place de la République one day and pointed to a picture of a girl with a clean, chin-length bob. The stylist asked me if I was sure and I said yes. Some forced Franglish conversation with the shampoo guy and 40 minutes of chopping later, I walked out of the salon with chin-length hair, looking way more French, but way less like myself.
I never would have done this in the U.S. because my thick hair transforms into a mom cut once it gets near shoulder-length or shorter. But in Paris, mom haircuts are surprisingly common, and I was fed up with not fitting in.
And the haircut worked. Armed with my Kate Gosselin ‘do and pared down makeup, plus some hideous neutral-colored sack dresses from H&M and Zara, I finally stopped getting harassed in the street — and French guys started giving me the time of day in bars, treating me like a normal person instead of a trashy American reject.
While I was being relentlessly harassed, I was also examining the aesthetics of the French women around me. I knew that the French had simpler, more elegant style compared to everyone else in the world, and I was eager to see how this translated in the streets. But I soon realized it was just drab. Their makeup was bare except maybe a red lip. Their hair was mussed, but not always to Brigitte-like effect. The women’s clothes came in hobbit-chic, plain, shapeless neutrals. And this was the middle of summer.
Where was the glamour? I felt ripped off.
I soon learned that it’s the men in Paris who really run the style game. I had never seen such impeccable tailoring in my life. Their suits were gorgeous, pinstriped, and colorful. Their pockets squares matched their socks, which matched their briefcases, which matched their ties and their cuff links. And this was before men in the U.S. started renewing their interest in sharp suits as they have in recent years, so it was even more exciting.
French men and women were like mallards. The guys were preening, gorgeous, colorful, and attention-grabbing, while so many of the women struck me as bland, mottled, neutral-hued. Compared to the U.S., where women are expected to obsess over their looks while many guys don’t update their style past high school or college, this gender role reversal was a totally new thing for me. (Although, fun fact, looking like shit to deflect male attention is huge in the animal world.)
I immediately assumed French women preferred natural looks out of necessity, not choice. Creepy men were lurking in the streets waiting to aggressively hit on anyone who had gone a little hard on the mascara that morning, so women adjusted and adapted.
In retrospect, I realize it’s a chicken-or-egg situation. Maybe French women’s preference for a natural look came first. They’ve always looked that way, so when someone as American-looking as me walks down the street, our more glam sensibility becomes a politicized and attention-grabbing statement. Maybe the men were just responding to what they thought was an invitation.
Of course, that’s not cool at all. This mindset can lead you into seriously dangerous territory. Some might even call it rape culture.
But my makeunder worked. Before I knew it, Americans were whispering about me on the subway in English because they thought I was French. That felt good, I guess. But again, in this stripped-down state, I felt faker than I would in full contour with a circa 2006 ass-length weave. It just wasn’t me.
I thought that in Paris I’d learn how to dress like a more natural and authentic version of myself. I thought I’d get more comfortable wearing less makeup, less perfume, less stereotypically feminine clothing. I thought I’d feel free to experiment in a culture where a full face of makeup is rare.
I also thought natural style was somehow purer and more virtuous than the artifice I preferred. But then I realized that for me, in Paris, natural style wasn’t a choice. It was a defense mechanism against pervy men. I wasn’t dressing down because I wanted to. I was doing it because my style — the style that came naturally to me — was seen as slutty and easy and artless.
So basically, I learned that beauty standards are oppressive wherever you go. A 20-year-old French girl would have felt just as out of place on my college campus, with its over-the-top Juicy sweatsuit style codes, as I did in Paris. I fetishized natural French style and got what I deserved: a reality check and the knowledge that when it comes to style, we’re all basically the same, we just play by different rules based on geography.
Style is relative and it operates on a spectrum. What’s over-the-top in one city is boring and bland in another, and vice versa. You can’t win ’em all, so you might as well just be yourself.
Oh, and some French guys are dicks.