So, enough bad news. Now what to do about it? We might take a lesson from the French. "There's no question that European women are more comfortable with their bodies," says Billie Blackhurst, 62, an American who has lived in France for 25 years and definitely picked up the laissez-faire attitude. "I feel less worried about my body now, I think less about the body parts—what's hanging on them and how it's hanging on them."

A study found that French women—and this would include those with a few hanging parts—continue to have sex later in life than American women, especially after the age of 50. John H. Gagnon, PhD, the lead author, suggests that French women think of themselves as sexy even as they age and that French men see them that way, too, in contrast to American guys, who equate attractiveness with youth. If you have any doubts, check out the spate of French movies featuring older actresses like Nathalie Baye, in her fifties (An Affair of Love), and Bulle Ogier, 62 (Venus Beauty Institute), playing erotic leads.

But what can American women do about the fact that our men seem to prefer the Britney Spears type to the slightly (or greatly) more mature? An attitude change has to start with us: The more confident we feel about our attractiveness, the more likely we are to be perceived as attractive. Even if you end up without a partner, you'll feel better about yourself and, because of that, enjoy your life in other ways more fully. French women seem to approach the business of enchantment in this spirit. Blackhurst notes that while American women often drape themselves in loose outfits to hide their perceived flaws, Europeans have fun with sensual clothes that cling to the body: "For example, women after a certain age tend to get a little potbelly. European women just love to show it off, wearing something snug that might accentuate it, and it looks great. They're not obsessed with having a hard, flat stomach."

Mariette Broussous, an archivist living in Paris, adds, "In France we know that life is about getting older but that we can overcome the feeling of aging." After recently seeing a 75-year-old woman on TV talking about democracy and Greek heroes, Broussous comments, "She was all wrinkled but she looked great—so bright and intelligent, not just the physical envelope. She was blooming! Aging like that I don't mind." In fact, Broussous, 58, has a lover who is 20 years younger than she is. "I know I'm not a beautiful woman," she says, "but I'm tall and have a nice silhouette, and I'm elegant in the way I walk."

Broussous and others commented on how easy it is to spot an American in a European crowd: Women from the States, they notice, all try to look alike. "There's not such a strict standard of beauty in Europe," says Marie Charlotte Piro, 28, a New York City real estate agent who was raised in France. "People there appreciate all different kinds of looks." When she lived in Miami, Piro was particularly shocked at the conformity. "The women all had thin bodies, big breasts, long blonde hair, and white teeth," she says. "Boring."

Piro suggests that American women take a look at other standards of beauty—and that's great advice, according to Kearney-Cooke. "Research shows that women who set up their own beauty ideal have better body image," she says. That means finding clothes that you (not a fashion model) feel good in, wearing a hairstyle you like (so what if it hasn't been chic since the eighties), celebrating the best of what you have. Another boost for physical self-esteem: Work toward making your body strong and competent—capable of lifting heavy furniture, defending yourself, playing a sport, hiking miles. "Women who exercise for fun or adventure rather than to look good or to lose weight develop a better body image along the way," adds Kearney-Cooke.

Speaking of diet and exercise, the French score here, too, with their kinder approach. "I swim twice a week, but it's not for my figure, it's for my well-being," explains Broussous. And Lori Hieber Girardet, 39, an American mother of two who lives in Cessy, France, notes, "We have a completely different relationship to food in France: In America, portions are huge, there's junk food at every turn. Eating here involves quality over quantity, and it's much more of a social event."

So aside from moving to Paris, how can you get more comfortable in your body and feel sexier in your own skin? Start doing what feels good, indulge your senses a little, try a new style, enjoy your silhouette (potbelly and all), and be elegant in the way you walk.

Okay. You can take your clothes off now.

More Ways to Learn to Love Your Body


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