Ajiri Aki the author of Joie A Parisian's Guide to Celebrating the Good Life after getting a facesculpting treatment at...
Ajiri Aki, the author of Joie: A Parisian's Guide to Celebrating the Good Life, after getting a face-sculpting treatment at the Guerlain spa in Saint James Paris.Photo: Courtesy of Ajiri Aki

What Living in Paris for Over a Decade Has Taught Me About Beauty and Wellness

Last month, a major newspaper sent a photographer to snap pictures of me to promote my new book Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life. A decade ago, I would have called an entire glam squad to give me the works. Instead, I got a soothing pre-shoot massage the day before and proceeded with my morning ritual of layering on French pharmacy elixirs, followed by some YSL mascara and Fenty Ma’Damn matte red lipstick. It’s the simple beauty routine I now stick to, no matter the occasion—and I credit it to my last twelve years living in Paris. It’s remarkable how much the culture has challenged and transformed the person I once was into who I am now, especially in how I look at beauty and wellness. 

In 2011, I moved to Paris with a $700 weave and green contact lenses camouflaging my dark brown eyes. I was chasing the superstar-meets-supermodel look I aspired to throughout my twenties when I lived in New York City. I lusted after luscious flowing locks like Beyoncé’s and a long, lean body like Naomi’s. (I tried each and every fad diet to attain that body—most of which required severely unhealthy calorie restrictions and pungent elixirs that left me in a rotten mood for days). What’s more: I hated my wide nose and gap teeth and spent hours researching possibilities to change them. My approach to self-care was limited to the constant search for treatments and products to mask, change, or eradicate what didn’t align with mainstream beauty standards.

My then understanding of beauty and wellness was also heavily influenced by my upbringing and identity, growing up in Texas as a child of Nigerian-Jamaican immigrants. My mother and aunties were religious about slathering on lotion and heavy petroleum-laced creams and jellies, but only because our skin needed it. No one in my family spent money on a cream that supplied Vitamin C or hyaluronic acid. The idea of an expensive treatment or traveling alone for pleasure was perceived as selfish or a waste of money. That being said, Nigerian women, especially those who immigrated to the suburbs of Texas, did care about hair presentation. And thus, I spent many years dedicating time, focus, and money to my hair. In retrospect, my relationship with it was not unlike my relationship with beauty in New York—complex and lacking in joy.

Aki with her signature red lips.

Photo: Courtesy of Ajiri Aki

When I finally moved to Paris, all the latest trends and treatments I had been lusting after via social media were hard to find or non-existent. And, for the first time, people questioned why I had colored contacts or needed enhancements of any kind. It was immediately apparent that most Parisians—brimming with ease and everyday stylishness—weren’t going to such lengths to change their appearance. I admired both their unbothered attitude and seemingly simple approach. And soon enough, it rubbed off on me. After growing sick of tracking down and paying for those rare contact lenses, I stopped wearing them. And then, in the same spirt, I gave up the arduous fight of maintaining a good weave and decided to shave my head. I became a brown-eyed, bald-headed Black woman—something I had never dared to be before. 

The French have a saying, “être bien dans sa peau,” which means “to be good in your skin.” The cultural obsession with “perfection” that we are so often beholden to in the U.S.—fed to us by social media and fueled by a wildly profitable beauty and wellness industry—is not nearly as powerful on this side of the ocean. The French are, of course, concerned with beauty; it’s practically synonymous with the French women stereotype. But physical beauty, particularly personal choices around it, is not discussed openly. Perhaps not having this constantly up for conversation with friends allowed me, even encouraged me, to embrace the idea that there was no need to change anything about myself. It gave me permission to accept myself and relinquish concerns about where others may place me on that scale of “perfection.” After all, the French celebrate Gerard Depardieu’s nose, Vanessa Paradis’s gap, and Jean-Pascal Zadi’s teeth, which put my perceived “flaws” in fine company. In France versus the U.S. and other parts of the world, there isn’t a perfectionist ideal about beauty; it’s much more individual and unapologetic.

It’s France’s overarching insouciance that gave me the courage to shave my head and shed what was no longer serving me. Well, that and the curiosity and fearlessness of my daughter. One day, when she was five years old, she found a pair of scissors and chopped off all her golden curls while I was reading on the couch. She casually walked past me with a salad bowl full of ringlets, thinking I wouldn’t notice or care. I looked up to see only a single curl left on her head and panicked, but she unapologetically declared that it was only hair and would grow back. While I wasn’t amused by her defiance, I was inspired by how confidently she freed herself of something she no longer wanted to tend to. A month or so later, on a solo vacation, I shaved my head. My decision came from a place of wanting to honor my intuition and feel comfortable in my own skin; to access that French ideal of etre bien dans sa peau.

Aki inside the Guerlain Spa at the St. James Hotel in Paris.

Photo: Courtesy of Ajiri Aki

This liberating act was right in line with my new view of beauty and wellness: emphasizing self-preservation of the mind and body that’s nourishing—never exhausting. French skin care, and its emphasis on creams and serums from the pharmacy, is a prime example of this. It makes skin care feel more like a health necessity than a vanity purchase. My daily routine consists of cleaning my face with micellar water, followed by thermal water spray, some serums, and moisturizers. On a weekly basis, I use face masks, facial steam baths, and cold eye gels; not to change my skin, but take care of it. I’ve also become obsessed with treatments geared toward better health and maintenance. I appreciate how wellness is woven into Parisian life, with regular visits to spas and hammams for everything from facials to deep-tissue massages. When I first moved to Paris, I was shocked to learn how often Frenchies visit a podologue for a medical-grade pedicure (no nail polish involved) to take care of their feet and that the health care system fully covers a 3-week visit to thermal spa for a “cure” if you suffer from anything on a long list of ailments. In this spirit, I see my kiné twice a month for fascia massage or reflexology, and my podologue every winter while still getting mani/pedis year round.

At the Les Sources de Caudalie spa in the Loire Valley outside of Paris.

Photo: Courtesy of Ajiri Aki

I am also always eager to try new wellness destinations, like the Guerlain Spa at the beautiful new Saint Jame Paris hotel, which I visited for a facial sculpt after getting a hot tip from a friend last winter. Months later, I took a two-hour train ride to Les Sources de Caudalie in the Loire Valley because I desperately needed “just being.” I spent these days getting daily massages and scrubs and peacefully reading books by the pool. The French have taught me that beauty and wellness should make you feel more like your best self and not someone else.  

I recognize there are many nuances and layers to the cultural beauty ideals in France. However, I appreciate that Paris has been a place where I have felt that I don’t have to do anything to enhance or diminish my appearance in real life or for a photo shoot. Instead, I get to “être,” just be, with the help of some pharmacy creams, treatments that make me feel good, and solo trips that nourish my soul.