Henna adorns Indian women's hands, rose oil is massaged into the skin of Moroccan ladies, and we American chicks swear by dousing our hair in vinegar to keep it shiny. As an American living in Paris for the past five years, I had grown acutely aware of my attachment to my own homespun beauty rituals, but I didn't realize just how profoundly they influenced my worldview until recently, while watching a film.
The movie in question was Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel-turned-film (in American theaters Dec. 25) about her lost Iranian childhood. What entranced me was the way beauty customs seemed to signify the divide between the heroine's Iranian heritage and her European upbringing. The ultimate symbol of her lost memories of Iran: an image of her grandmother removing the bra she keeps filled with jasmine flowers, the petals floating gracefully to the ground.
All the way home, I mused about how our vision of womanhood is inextricably linked to our culture: After an ill-fated four-year romance with a Parisian man, I was only starting to pierce the intricacies of what it meant to be French. But my time here had revealed an alternative version of sensuality.
When I arrived in the City of Lights as a starry-eyed student, I fell hard for Monsieur X, leading me to relocate to France permanently, piss off my mom, and sign off on Yankee guys forever. I was the American girl and he, the slightly louche Frenchman with more than Godard on his mind.
We cuddled, danced, talked, traveled, and two years later, moved into a little apartment near the Bastille. But well before the arguable bliss of domesticity came the First Valentine's Day. Remember the scene in Annie Hall when Annie opens a package from Alvy containing a black lace teddy? After observing that it's more of a present for him than for her, she tosses it aside. Imagine receiving the same present, only in red…and with garter elastics dangling ominously from it. Not only was I embarrassed by the contraption, I found the whole idea silly and cliche.
When I confided in my French friend Emilie—sputtering as though he had proffered a copy of Juggs, not some expensive Eres lingerie—