What comes to mind when you hear the word “Parisienne”? Most of us will have images of slender, stylish female residents of the French capital, sipping wine at a sun-drenched cafe or cycling along the Seine, sporting red lipstick, heels and eye-grazing bangs.

It’s a powerful stereotype that’s hard to escape because it’s everywhere. In advertising campaigns, films, lifestyle magazines as well as social media, the trope of the pencil slim, effortlessly chic and seductive Parisienne with slept-in hair and invisible makeup has been repeated endlessly over the decades.

Personified by style icons like Jane Birkin, Ines de la Fressange and Caroline de Maigret, the myth has contributed to selling luxury fashion, beauty products and even the city of Paris.

Over the years, the cliches around the Parisienne, a term often applied to French women in general, have spawned a rash of books such French women don’t get fat and How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are and articles with titles such as “Aging gracefully, the French way.” 

‘Damaging’ stereotypes

But, some are pushing back against what they see as an unattainable and exclusionary ideal. Lindsey Tramuta, an American writer and journalist moved to Paris 15 years ago to pursue her love of French language and literature.

Author Lindsey Tramuta (Joann Pai)

Writer Lindsey Tramuta wants to recast the image of the ‘Parisienne,’ one of the most romanticized and commodified group of women

“It’s frustrating to see the same old tired images of these bourgeois, thin, white women being recycled that offer a very narrow, superficial view of Paris and French women in general,” Tramuta, 35, told DW at one of her favorite cafes in the city on a recent summer morning.

She says she felt inadequate herself in the face of the beauty standards of the idealized French female when she first moved to Paris in her early 20s.

“The way the stereotypes are branded and marketed are damaging because they prey on the insecurities of women and exclude a large number of them who will never fit the mold because of their skin color or their religion or their body shape,” Tramuta says.

Spotlight on women of substance

In a bid to reframe the image of the Parisian woman, Tramuta has written a book titled The New Parisienne: the Women & Ideas Shaping Paris.

Published last month, it contains portraits and photographs of a diverse array of women living and working in the French capital across a range of fields — activism, tech, media, art, food, business, design, politics, and more.

Not all them were born in the city or even in France but they’re all residents of Paris and its suburbs. What these women have in common, Tramuta says, is that they are all forces of change in their spheres, drawing on their own unique experiences and struggles to shape and transform Paris.

“My goal is to show a plurality of faces and voices that reflects who actually lives here,” Tramuta says. “It’s time to celebrate and highlight the many other voices that are here and are hardly heard and who are trying to make this city a better place for those of us who live but also those who visit.”

BG Lob und Fluch der Einsamkeit | Leila Slimani (Imago-Images/C. Villegas)

Portrayed in ‘The New Parisienne’: Award-winning author Leila Slimani

They include prominent figures like Paris’ recently reelected Spanish-French mayor, Anne Hidalgo and Franco-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani, but also lesser-known activists working in disability and transgender rights, a female rabbi, a Romanian-born coffee roaster, a feminist podcaster, several successful entrepreneurs, an aeronautical engineer and even a boxer pushing for gender equality in sports.

Race and identity

Several women of color are featured in the book and their stories resonate even more today amid the global Black Lives Matter movement. The book even has a cultural primer on the French model of secularism, identity and race.

Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent Paris-born anti-racism activist, is portrayed in the book. She’s one of the few Black journalists and commentators on French television. She says the recent, sweeping anti-racism protests have heightened awareness about issues of representation of both women and minorities in French society.

Rokhaya Diallo
(DW/S. Phalnikar)

Rokhaya Diallo, who’s featured in the ‘New Parisienne,’ is one of the most outspoken anti-racism activists in France

“I’ve been struggling for a very long time to make myself identify as a French woman and as a Parisian,” Diallo told DW. “I think all the cliches perpetrated by the media and by advertising really erase women who look like me. Women of color but also women who are disabled, who are LGBTQ, who are not slim, who are not young.”

An outspoken voice on discrimination and police violence, Diallo says France is now being forced to deal with issues that for too long were swept under the carpet.

“Even though the debates are really tough, all the notions of white privilege and systemic racism are out there in the mainstream and are being vigorously debated, even fought against. At least we’re having a conversation,” she says.

Changing the narrative

Tramuta too hopes that the book will shift the conversation around the female residents of Paris and their representation. She says women, for too long, have taken a back seat in French history and that it’s time that changes.

“The narrative in your average tour of Paris highlights the valiant and great men who have shaped the city and maybe a few rebellious women along the way. That’s a very reductive way of referring to women’s contributions,” Tramuta says.

“My book is also a way to say women are shaping the future of Paris. We may have told those stories inadequately in the past, but let’s do it right this time.”