Sample Chapter


About Catherine Deneuve

Catherine Deneuve first came to my attention when I was in college. My boyfriend wanted to see the movie The Hunger. Like some guys, he was excited about the idea of seeing some on-screen lesbian action. I later returned the favor by letting him watch me avidly stare at Steven Bauer throughout Thief of Hearts. At any rate, while I sat through The Hunger I was fascinated by Ms. Deneuve’s clothes, and how she carried herself. I’ve never been particularly jealous of other women’s gifts. I was simply amazed that a middle-aged woman could look so good, especially a White woman, because they usually don’t age very well. Even many half-White women don’t age well. (Exhibit No. 1: Jasmine Guy. What in the world happened? Why does her skin look so leathery?) Oops. Maybe I should have given the preamble that I’m going to speak candidly here. I feel the self-worth issues underlying this topic are too important for me to walk on eggshells, so be prepared to be offended (in parts).

Well, right then and there, I decided that I wanted to look like Catherine Deneuve when I was middle-aged. She looked fabulous without looking trashy, tacky, or trying to dress like a twenty-year-old. This is what I found off-putting (at times) about Tina Turner or Patti LaBelle. There was also the negative example of a middle-aged White woman on campus who liked to pick up and sleep with college boys. This woman wore the same Esprit dresses that many of the college girls were wearing at the time. It was not a good look for her, although, I guess it served her purpose. Some young men even made up a chant about her with the chorus line of, “I’m not sleepin’ alone!”

Anyway, decades have passed since college. I’m now middle-aged like Catherine Deneuve was when she starred in The Hunger. After having forgotten about her for years, Catherine Deneuve came back to mind one day recently. And I realized that I do not look together like Catherine Deneuve! Meanwhile, Catherine Deneuve has still kept herself together as a senior citizen. No wonder she has remained a cultural icon in her native France for over forty years!

What went wrong? Several interlocking things that affect far too many Black women. First, I never took the time to develop a signature look. I have clothes that look good in isolation. But, there’s no overall look that I’ve established for myself. This is not good. Second, at some point, like so many Black women, I got into the habit of settling for looking good enough. One of my college friends had an amazing spirit. Whenever somebody asked her how she felt, more often than not, she would say, “Flawless.” Unfortunately, even though I admired her spirit, I never really bought into the “flawless” state of mind. Until now. Until I decided that next spring is the deadline to get a new wardrobe and have myself together like Catherine Deneuve. So, I’m doing a lot of fashion research right now.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because it intersects with so many issues that confront most Black women: self-worth issues, cultural issues, and class issues. Too often, we call certain attitudes “modesty” when they really reflect a lack of self-worth. Let me be clear: I am not talking about using clothes (or other material things) as magic totems to acquire self-respect or status. I am talking about how many Black women’s exteriors reflect a total lack of self-worth. In the milder version of this phenomenon, most Black women’s exteriors don’t come anywhere near the level of their internal selves.

Settling for Looking Sort-of Good Enough

I was blessed to grow up with a dad who told me that I was “the prettiest, smartest, and best little girl in the world.” My father has a superiority complex. I believe that it’s justified in his case. He really does have many gifts that are superior to those of most others that I’ve observed. Looking at him as an adult, I can see that he’s an extremely smart, aggressive, and shrewd alpha male. Of course, his praise of me has always been partially a reflection of his own ego. That’s fine. Whatever works. My parents’ constant positive reinforcement spared me from having the insecurities about my looks that plague most Black women. Of course, my light skin enhances my perceived looks among most Black people.

But, above and beyond Black folks’ color issues, I always felt a base of self-confidence in the looks department because of my dad, even when his praise was tempered by my own observations as a teenager and young woman. I realized then that, no, I wasn’t the prettiest. But I was content in feeling pretty enough. I felt pretty enough to attract the attention of a reasonable number of men. I didn’t buy into feeling “flawless,” but I felt pretty enough to hold my head high. Pretty enough was my baseline.

Unfortunately, most African-American women did not have a father like mine. They didn’t grow up with a circle of adult male relatives constantly telling them that they were beautiful. From what I can tell from conversations I’ve had over the years, most Black women don’t feel pretty enough. Most of us don’t even feel pretty. The mass baseline for our self-perception in the looks department hovers somewhere between “I’m ugly, but just maybe I can get by” to “I sort of look good enough.”

Settling for looking “sort of good enough” is manifested in so many ways. You can see it in our not taking care of our bodies, allowing ourselves to become visibly overweight, or by failing to develop a polished look.

By the way, gentlemen, much of this discussion also applies to you. Don’t feel left out of the observation simply because I’m focusing on the women. Sirs, please conduct the following spot check on yourselves: Stand nude in front of a full-length mirror. This is usually a revelation for most people. I’m often reminded of how my (straight) Southern Black man colleague muttered under his breath when looking at another Black male attorney in court. The gentleman was wearing a too-tight double-breasted suit that did not flatter (or conceal) his potbelly. My coworker muttered, “Too much damn sausage.”

I’ve also been taken aback by how so many Sunni (“orthodox”) Muslim Black women choose grim and drab fabrics and colors for their hijabs. Judging from the behaviors and reactions I’ve observed at some mosques, I suspect that many Muslim Black women especially like hijab because it gives them an opportunity to hide. It gives them an opportunity to opt out of caring about their looks. Essentially, they choose to lose gracefully when compared with other women.

Ultimately, few Black women truly feel that they can hold their own in the looks department. So, it’s no surprise that few Black women feel entitled to feel “flawless.”

Cultural Issues: Americans and Others Are Slovenly Compared with the French

I noticed this when traveling in Europe a couple of years ago. You could almost always pick out the American tourists from others. Overweight. Blue jeans. Tennis shoes. It’s almost like a uniform. It reminded me of the slum uniform for young Black men. Long white T-shirts (that to me, almost look like T-shirt dresses). Sagging jeans. Tennis shoes. As far as I’m concerned, these uniforms are not an attractive look. They don’t reflect self-respect. I also noticed that the French generally don’t look like this.

These different cultural attitudes toward one’s appearance come up in a memoir called Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. It’s an account by an Australian woman who moves to France with her French boyfriend. One Saturday morning, she decides to wear sweatpants to go to the neighborhood bakery for baguettes. He was horrified. She describes how their different cultural attitudes about self-presentation were a long-term source of tension in their relationship. She mentions that the French have an expression, se mettre en valeur. It means to make the most of yourself. This is expected in France.

I believe the French view is correct. Self-maintenance is a mark of self-respect, and one that is sorely lacking among many African-Americans. It’s also important to note that the French approach to personal appearance takes self-discipline.

Class Matters: Elite Women Are Trained to Have Themselves Together in All Sorts of Ways

Every arena in life has its own rules. Too often, Black folks like to pretend that these rules don’t exist or that they don’t matter. The rules always matter. It would be more honest for us to say that: (1) we will avoid entering certain arenas because we don’t know, and are not willing to learn, the rules; or (2) we are willing to act in ways that are inappropriate to the arena because we refuse to learn or honor the rules.

When I encountered Black elite girls or young women in high school or college, I could tell that they had been coached in certain ways. I never took the time to investigate the world of finishing schools or debutante balls, but I knew these things existed. I also knew there were rules to these things, and that I had no clue about them. I didn’t grow up being taken to black-tie events by my parents. Because I didn’t grow up going to formal social events, I never learned certain details like the correct way of handing off my coat to the butler, or the right technique to get in and out of a limo. Let’s not even get into all the intricate table manners surrounding five-course formal meals that I don’t know.

There’s no shame in not knowing these details if you weren’t raised that way. However, that doesn’t take away the fact that I’m not polished or poised in this arena. It’s the same way Michelle Obama is not polished or poised. She (or her husband’s staff) had to hire people to hook her up with this information. I would also have to hire people to learn these things. If somebody has to coach you as an adult in these matters, then you are behind the curve in this particular arena. There’s no shame in this fact. It is simply a fact. I don’t feel any compelling urge to learn these details. This information is not essential for my lifestyle. However, I am also not going to redefine “polish” and “poise” to accommodate my ignorance of these matters. The bottom line is that elite girls are trained to know all of these things by the time they are teenagers.

Elite girls are also consciously raised to be much more careful about their appearance in general. They might choose to rebel and break the rules, but they know what the rules are. In this way, the old-money rich really are different from the rest of us.

Are you ready to feel flawless? Are you willing to se mettre en valeur, to make the most of yourself?

Are you ready to feel flawless, and make the most of yourself with the body you have right now? Even if you have things to work on with your body (and who doesn’t), you don’t have to wait to feel flawless. Too many women tell themselves, “Oh, I’ll buy a new, flattering wardrobe when I get down to size _____.” I believe that this is a demoralizing mistake.

Are you willing to commit to the discipline that it takes to truly feel flawless? For example, are you willing to seek out ways to feel flawless with whatever budget you have?

Are you willing to stop stepping out of the house looking subpar? You can’t feel flawless if the public has already seen you looking lousy on so-called “off days.”