How the French approach to aging helped Olivia Stren revitalize her skin
It was a sunny day, the buds on the magnolia tree in front of my house looked particularly plump and downy, and I was feeling good. That is, until a visit to my local café, where a barista asked: “Just the flat white for you, ma’am?” Ma’am. ( Translation: Perhaps some dentures with your coffee?) I’m sure the ma’am-spouting millennial in question didn’t mean to offend. But let’s be honest, this odious title is a pronouncement that the climax of your life is over, and you’re now firmly in the post-fun denouement, hobbling toward the credits.
The French use the same objectionable distinctions: young (and unmarried) women are called Mademoiselle—even the word is lingerie-light with its coquettish “ll” tail feathers. Madame is the stolid matron who has traded in her ballerines, and joy, for orthopaedic footwear, reality and wrinkles. (It was Madame Bovary—not Mademoiselle Bovary—who longed to escape the banality of her life.) The mademoiselle jig is up for me, I’m aware. I’m 40, a mom and, evidently, a ma’am.
Despite this issue with titles, the French do seem to have a healthier relationship to aging than we do in North America—theirs is less based on shame, fear and resistance. In France, women bloom into “une femme d’un certain âge,” a term laced with sex appeal and mystique. And, of course, the French are as elegant at aging (see actresses Fanny Ardant, Miou-Miou, Catherine Deneuve and the late, great Emmanuelle Riva) as they are at tying foulards and feasting on croque-monsieur (or croque-madame, as the case may be) without gaining weight. So I wondered: Perhaps the ideal way to approach my madame years is to be more French?
I seek out the counsel of Dr. Philippe Allouche, who helms the cult French skincare company Biologique Recherche. It’s a dismal, grey morning when we meet during his visit to Toronto, and I am feeling exceptionally haggard. But when I ask him to appraise the state of my visage, he is too charming, too French as it were, to tell me anything potentially wounding. “The best anti-aging is what I call skin reconditioning,” he says. “It’s about getting back a fully functional epidermis that can play its central role of protection. Our skin is like a sandwich made up of lipids, water and protein.”
“Un croque-monsieur?” I suggest.
“Oui! Un croque-monsieur,” he agrees. “We need to fill up that sandwich!”
His first suggestion is that I splash my face with cold water in the morning to decrease inflammation as “the big problem with the whole body is inflammation.” Then, he advises: “Apply your products gently in front of the mirror, from the centre outward, without too much rubbing.” He is passionately against harsh exfoliation, and instead recommends Biologique Recherche’s hero product, Lotion P50, which hydrates, balances pH and gently exfoliates on a daily basis.
His final tip: Take up happiness. “There was a great study done at Harvard showing that longevity is about the happiness you get from social and deep relationships,” he says. “I’m not talking about stupid social relationships, I’m talking about real relationships with friends and family.”
I enjoy the idea that all that is standing between me and looking like Juliette Binoche is a splash of cold water and a few laughs. But not too many, apparently, as laughter along with smiling is partly what’s gotten me into this mess. “You have a lot of expression lines!” says my facialist, Jane, at Toronto’s Lac + Beauty spa as she examines my skin. I am embarking on Parisian skincare guru Joëlle Ciocco’s signature “buccal facial,” which involves a series of stretching and kneading movements from inside the mouth— oui, that’s correct—meant to tone and plump facial muscles and boost circulation in the skin. A biochemist by training, Ciocco counts Carine Roitfeld, Monica Bellucci and Sofia Coppola among her devotees. She personally trains select aestheticians in her method—there are only eight such disciples in the world; two of them are now here in Canada, at Lac + Beauty. “The Buccal is efficient for sagging features, as it tonifies and acts as an anti-aging gym— a workout!—for the face,” Ciocco explains over email. “It also relaxes tight jaw muscles and gives noticeably plumper lips.” Lord knows, the rest of my person isn’t going to the gym, so I’m glad my countenance is being aerobicized. Jane applies a procession of Ciocco’s cleansers, oils and masks—many of which smell, exquisitely, as if you’re capering through a citrus grove in Corsica. And then she massages my face from inside my mouth— a peculiar experience that, frankly, flirts with the painful. This is not the kind of facial you fall asleep to whilst listening to Enya. Instead, I listen to Jane talk about Ciocco with the same mixture of admiration and fear many reserve to describe, say, God. Among Ciocco’s commandments: Don’t cleanse in the morning, to avoid disturbing the natural flora that will have developed during the night. “A gentle toner or lotion will be the only necessary gesture.” And like Allouche, Ciocco does not believe in harsh treatments such as chemical peels that might leave your skin red or sensitive.
The following day my face looks glowy and plumped, and I celebrate with a buffet of the most revered French serums ( which I apply gently, after a bracing cold splash). They’re made by cosmetic doctor Dr. JeanLouis Sebagh, who spent years reconstructing the faces of burn victims at Paris’s Hopital Foch before earning his reputation as the Botox King and amassing a client list that includes Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson and Kylie Minogue. While he’s more than okay with peels, fillers and lasers, Sebagh’s approach is subtle and prevention-focused— he believes that skin health should be maintained from age 20. There’s no time to waste. Following his mix-and-match instructions, I blend his Rose de Vie serum, packed with regenerating rose-hip oil, with a dab of his collagen-powered Supreme Maintenance serum. I top that off with his Platinum Gold Elixir—each drop contains 24K gold and platinum tasked with firming skin— one imagines Marie Antoinette applying it after nibbling a tower of petits fours and bathing in a vat of rosewater.
The decadence of the product is thrilling— but not as thrilling as what happens a week later. I go to interview a woman at her condo and her doorman greets me cheerfully: “Hello, young lady!” (I’m reluctant to add that the building’s average age hovers around 78.) We chat— about parking and weather— and I wave au revoir, beaming. Not too broadly, though. Joy can be so aging.
“The mademoiselle jig is up for me, I’m aware. I’m 40, a mom and, evidently, a ma’am.”
Through the ages: from left to right, MiouMiou, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant with their younger selves.
DR. SEBAGH PLATINUM GOLD ELIXIR, $871 (4 X 10 ML), GEEBEAUTY. CA. JOËLLE CIOCCO BOTANICAL LOTION, $65, LACANDBEAUTY. COM. BIOLOGIQUE RECHERCHE LOTION P50 PIGM 400, $82, ONE2ONEONLINE.COM