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Aging Gracefully, the French Way

I OFTEN see an elderly woman in my Paris neighborhood waltzing down the street to her own imagined music, flashing a slightly demented smile at everyone she passes. Anywhere else, I would cross the street to avoid her. But she always wears a matching, if slightly kooky, outfit — like the red print skirt, loose cardigan and scarlet cloche hat she wore one day this spring — has great posture and is beautifully made up.

She clearly loves being herself. And she makes me think that in France, women might forget everything else as they age — but never their sense of style.

If there is a secret to aging well, Frenchwomen must know it. At least that’s what Americans think. We look at actresses like Juliette Binoche, 46, or politicians like Ségolène Royal, 56, or superstars like Catherine Deneuve, 66, and figure that they must have special insights into the “maturation” process.

And even the average Frenchwoman — say, shopping along the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré or enjoying a leisurely lunch on the Left Bank, or strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens — seems to defy the notion that, as one grows older, you either have to disguise that process with Botox, eye-lifts, lip plumpers and all sorts of procedures that convey a desperate “youthful” look, or else just give up altogether and let the ravages of time take their toll.

But do these women really have the answers when it comes to the aging process?

Women on both sides of the Atlantic realize that the keys to aging well are obvious, but challenging if you have bad genes, spend too much time in the sun or smoke a lot. But while American women, like me at least, approach personal care with practical efficiency, the Frenchwomen I know regard the pampering of the skin, hair and body as an enjoyable, gratifying ritual.

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