Henna adorns Indian women's hands, rose oil is massaged into the skin of Moroccan ladies, and we American chicks swear by dousing our hair in vinegar to keep it shiny. As an American living in Paris for the past five years, I had grown acutely aware of my attachment to my own homespun beauty rituals, but I didn't realize just how profoundly they influenced my worldview until recently, while watching a film.

The movie in question was Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel-turned-film (in American theaters Dec. 25) about her lost Iranian childhood. What entranced me was the way beauty customs seemed to signify the divide between the heroine's Iranian heritage and her European upbringing. The ultimate symbol of her lost memories of Iran: an image of her grandmother removing the bra she keeps filled with jasmine flowers, the petals floating gracefully to the ground.

All the way home, I mused about how our vision of womanhood is inextricably linked to our culture: After an illfated four-year romance with a Parisian man, I was only starting to pierce the intricacies of what it meant to be French. But my time here had revealed an alternative version of sensuality.

When I arrived in the City of Lights as a starry-eyed student, I fell hard for Monsieur X, leading me to relocate to France permanently, p*ss off my mom, and sign off on Yankee guys forever. I was the American girl and he, the slightly louche Frenchman with more than Godard on his mind.

We cuddled, danced, talked, traveled, and two years later, moved into a little apartment near the Bastille. But well before the arguable bliss of domesticity came the First Valentine's Day. Remember the scene in Annie Hall when Annie opens a package from Alvy containing a black lace teddy? After observing that it's more of a present for him than for her, she tosses it aside. Imagine receiving the same present, only in red...and with garter elastics dangling ominously from it. Not only was I embarrassed by the contraption, I found the whole idea silly and cliche.

When I confided in my French friend Emilie - sputtering as though he had proffered a copy of Juggs, not some expensive Eres lingerie - she rolled her eyes and dragged me out to buy the proper stockings. It was normal, Emilie said, for French women to wear these contrivances, even (gasp!) by the light of day. It was a way of being conscious of what you have on under your clothes, and a way of pleasing your man, she told me, without the slightest hint of irony.

We American girls, sisterhood of the Fruit of the Loom, have been raised to think that such adornment is counter-feminist. We dress for ourselves; we do not lace ourselves into uncomfortable undergarments for men. But hearing this Valley of the Dolls lecture from PhD-candidate Emilie made me rethink my utilitarian views. What was wrong with occasionally wearing lingerie for a man?

Couldn't it be a way of seeing yourself in a different light, through the eyes of your desiring boyfriend? And in time, I came to love my red porte-jartelles. Yet, as the underwear quotient in France increases, I learned, the grooming quotient decreases. Fact: French men do not expect bikini waxes. And here, messy hair is held in higher esteem than a perfect blowout.

The more time I spent with French femmes, the more I realized they don't spend the inordinate amount of time grooming that American women do. Most let their hair air dry, wear little makeup, and skimp on hair removal. And honestly, they look better for it: more natural, more nonchalantly gorgeous.

When I began cutting down on prep time, Monsieur X was appreciative. He could finally smell "me" and not my deodorant and shampoo, he murmured, nuzzling my neck. I'll admit the comment made me want to sprint to the shower. But there was something so liberating about letting go of my Californian Ivory Girl sensibilities. I didn't need to be depilated and exfoliated to a shine to be attractive. Americans make much of the sophistication of French women, but the truth is, when it comes to beauty, these swans are fairly rock 'n' roll. Yes, they eat sensibly (no snacking) and pay attention to their skin, but they also engage in a healthy abandon we sometimes lack.

French girls will smoke a cigarette at a party, sit in the sun for an afternoon without SPF 50, or dance until 4 a.m. drinking champagne with girlfriends on a work night - and not castigate themselves the next morning. There's something joyful and sexy in their blithe disregard for the rules, a quality that seems to be innately French.

Case in point: Monsieur X once surprised me after class and took me to the beach. There, rather than a romantic afternoon, we experienced our first fight - because I couldn't let go and enjoy myself. I didn't have sunscreen, I had a paper to write, my clothes were all wrong, I needed my hair thingy. Later, I saw myself from his annoyed perspective: a needy, insecure control-freak. Have I since become a carefree goddess who frolics topless on the beach? Uh, not exactly. But I have relaxed my inhibitions, whether it's "forgetting" to take my makeup off one night or drinking wine with lunch.

When Marjane of Persepolis travels to Europe, she becomes completely Westernized, even uncovering her hair in public. Yet the further she gets from her strict upbringing, the more she mythologizes the beauty rituals of her past. Similarly, as France teaches me to unlearn the rulebook of my adolescence, certain memories become more seductive. I remember childhood summers by the ocean, and the simple motions that separated me from the boys: scrubbing my feet with sand, smoothing my legs with baby powder, rubbing lipstick into my cheeks, and brushing my hair one hundred strokes each night before bed.

Some of these nostalgic notions - my first baby steps toward womanhood - I'll keep to remember the girl I was. Other times, I wear my red garters, even by day, to celebrate the woman I've become.