If you've ever dabbled in body image problems and been to Paris, then you likely know that something about the city can bring every insecurity you've been harboring to the forefront. But if you've ever found yourself dabbling into self love, chances are it was on the same exact trip.
It all started when I was sitting in a cobble-stoned nook in Paris, bundled up to my nose in layers as I sipped on a tiny cup of espresso. Even though there was frost on the cafe windows and the sky was milky with coldness, the French couldn't be deterred from sitting outside with their porcelain cups, smoking away and people watching. And I was determined to join in with them.
Which is why I found myself squeezed into the aforementioned corner nook, trying to arrange my goose down-covered, marshmallow body into something the French girls wouldn't wince at. I tried crossing my legs, but nearly knocked over the tiny table with my knee. Coffee sloshed over and a gorgeous man with gray hair turned around to give me a bored look. I tried taking off my pom pom hat, but then was met with hat hair that managed to look more I-need-a-shower than Annie-Hall-disheveled. I tried rearranging my scarf so I looked less like a third grader getting off a bus and more like a chic Parisian woman. But all I managed to do was knot it in the same way, just with more fuss.
Deciding I needed a break from the existential crisis, I averted my attention back to my chocolate croissant and, with a delicate bite, scattered an alarming amount of crumbs into my scarf and hair.
I was the clunky American wedged into the corner, looking every inch the outsider in her old plaid scarf and puffer coat, my lipstick half on my lips and half on my coffee cup, calling the waiter in terrible French. I might have been a hot mess, but the women here were amazing.
Every "How To Be A Parisian" article I've ever read has been true in my experiences: These Champs-Élysées women walk past in sleek leather boots, somehow warm from the chill coming off the Seine River with nothing more than a gray peacoat, with their hair messy, their lips naked, their eyes smudged with last night's mascara, and looking like they were in a Chanel perfume ad. It's a parade of impossible characters: Brigitte Bardot just passed in ballet flats with a baguette underneath her arm. Coco Chanel just walked into a cafe with a paperback book and a cigarette at her fingers. Amélie ran across the street to her charming apartment in a thin dress.
Meanwhile, you had me: Midwesterner, French-language-killer, Chicago-vintage-wearer, with scuffed rain boots and the better half of a croissant littered down the front of her coat.
So, in short, someone about as different from these women as you could possibly get. It'd be enough to make me want to shove my suitcase underneath my bed, pretend it was stolen, and start my whole wardrobe over, filled with paper-thin peacoats, wide brim hats, and leather booties as soft as butter. And most times, it would have been enough.
But this time, for whatever reason, it wasn't. As I sat there drinking my cold coffee, wondering why I didn't care that I had pastries in my hair and that my mom jeans looked more farm-girl-from-Ohio than American Apparel, it sort of dawned on me. I am channeling my Parisian best because French women aren't aiming to be perfect. They're aiming to be free.
The whole unkempt, I-just-fell-out-of-bed mystique common of French style implies that a gal has better things to do than get her winged eyeliner just right: Like linger over breakfast, or steal half an hour to read, or meet up with a friend to chat about books over a lunch of brie-and-ham crepes. Maybe French women would rather be loved for their personalities than their salon blowouts.
If the whole point of Parisian charm is to show up mussed up for dinner, wind blown and simple, then surely I shouldn't spend too much time thinking about how I have the wrong coat on or how my shoes give me away. Because if the Parisian woman wants to feel beautiful but prefers to be complimented on her company over coffee rather than her wardrobe, then I think we both are on the same page.
As I brushed at the crumbs on my coat with one hand and wiped the last of my lipstick off with a napkin, I called for the check. And watching another top-knots walk past in black jeans, I reveled in the feeling. I didn't feel frumpy; I just felt different. I knew who I was, and a chicer peacoat or a wide brim hat wouldn't change it. Scuffed rain boots with embarrassing socks wouldn't take it away.
I might never be "that" girl, but I am me. And really, that's all I've ever wanted to be.
Images: Marlen Komar