Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I’d like to add a fourth to that list — claims about French women.
Anyone who types the phrase “French Women” into Amazon search will instantly be presented with a list of reasons our sisters across the Atlantic are superior. According to the cheerfully colored paperbacks which constitute the search results, French women don’t get fat, feel beautiful everyday, never sleep alone, and generally glide about in clouds of effortless grace.
Out of these, the biggest lie of all is probably the one that kickstarted this whole French-women-are-superior phenomenon. In 2004, Mireille Guiliano (mouthpiece for luxury empires LVMH and Veuve Clicquot) published a book purporting to reveal the key to Gallic girls’ svelte figures. It was titled French Women Don’t Get Fat:The Secret of Eating for Pleasure.
Upon its publication, a collective gasp rose from the throats of everyone in the US with two X chromosomes. Ladies this side of the Atlantic were clamoring to discover how French women mainlined eclairs and cheese plates while still keeping trim. Guiliano’s book shot to number 1 on the bestseller list, and an insidious misconception was born: according to Guiliano, French women felt no guilt over their consumption of rich foods — they simply integrated them into a lifestyle of discriminating taste and deliberate appreciation of indulgences.
While certain elements of French culture feed this idealization (no pun intended), the truth – as always – is much more complicated. Here, I’ll take a look at the reasons people believe French women don’t get fat, then posit what I think are real, sociological reins on waistlines.
The Kernel of Truth
Statistics, though occasionally misleading, can nonetheless shed light on the origin of this myth. While rates of obesity have climbed in France, they still hover at around 11%, the lowest in the EU and far below the US’s 35%*. France is also the only country in the EU where the average BMI of both sexes remains firmly in the “normal” range, and the only country moreover where significant numbers of women are medically underweight (5%).
According to Guiliano, this is largely due to a more ritualized culture of eating in France. From food shopping (going to the markets multiple times per week to purchase what’s fresh and in season), to food preparation (cooking!), to actually sitting down and eating at meal times instead of snacking mindlessly — the overall culture encourages the savoring of foods, which then naturally moderates their consumption. In Giuliano’s equation, slimness is the result of controlled gastronomical enjoyment, not anxiety or fad diets.
Since I’ve previously written about my own run-ins with French eating rituals, I see where Giuliano is coming from. I even believed it myself during my first few months in France when I saw many a woman sit down to a rich meal with no mention whatsoever of dietary restrictions, weight-watching, or calorie-counting (even today, I don’t know how to pronounce the French word calorie). This was in startling contrast to the meals I’d shared with Americans, who would inevitably launch into either self-reproach or commiseration with fellow neurotics about the nutritional content of what they were about to dig into.
Still, over time, I began to notice cracks in this veneer of effortless moderation. While traditional food rituals and gourmand attitudes may be contributing factors to France’s ability to stay thin, ultimately I believe these offer only a truncated explanation.
The Actual Truth
In the 2013 film “Before Midnight,” French actress Julie Delpy (a director in her own right and one of my personal feminist idols) offers a frank and telling glimpse into what French women think of their bodies. Delpy’s character, a curvaceous blonde in her forties, refers to herself at one point as “a fat-assed middle-aged mom losing her hair.” Off screen, Delpy has admitted having similar insecurities, both denigrating herself and feeling denigrated by others due to her weight.
Though Delpy looks like a goddess to me, I can’t say that I’m surprised. After spending more time in France, I began to suspect that women poked at minuscule portions not because they wished to savor every bite, but because they had a hushed horror of putting on weight.
Why hushed? I believe that – similar to how the French disdain formal exercise – they perceive it as really uncool when anyone reveals an arduous effort to stay thin. Not only are French women just as neurotic as American women about their weight, they carry the added obligation to appear as if they don’t care.
That apprehension may be muted at the dinner table, but it’s literally spelled out at the pharmacy. Whereas American pharmacies might have a “Diet and Nutrition” aisle, the equivalent in French pharmacies is just a section labeled “Skinniness” (minceur). The first time I noticed this, I was shocked. For all the efforts people made to appear as if they weren’t deliberately dieting, this observation glaringly highlighted their real priority. It wasn’t gourmet quality they cared about. It wasn’t even health. What mattered most was conforming to norms of attractiveness, which in France means really keeping down one’s weight.
Once this suspicion struck me, it wasn’t hard to find evidence in its favor. A report headlined “French women, thinnest in Europe, think they’re fat” indicated that the ideal weight in France is indeed lower than in other countries. Sadly, what isn’t any lower are rates of eating disorders. Despite a culture that shuns calorie-counting in public, about 1 to 3 percent of young French women are anorexic, while 5 percent are bulimic*.
Another sobering result of this pressure to remain waifish is the reluctance of French women to give up smoking (and its convenient powers as an appetite-suppressant). While between 1950 and 2010, the percentage of the French male population who smoked was cut in half, the percentage of female smokers increased from 20 percent to 26.5 percent. The gloomy motto one article extracted from this trend was “plutôt mourir qu’être grosse” … “better dead than fat.”
In summary, French women are not magical. Yes — the stats show they have greater success at staying slim, but that success comes at a cost. Far more formidable than the expense of leeks from the farmer’s market is the psychic cost of pervasive social pressure and inflexible beauty norms. I, for one, am not all too sure that the trade-off is worth it.
With each passing year, I like to think that I become a little more assured of my identity, a little more comfortable in my body, and a little more impervious to the insipid brand of beauty peddled by global mass media. Unfortunately, I’m not totally there yet, and neither are most women I know. As we move into the holiday season and the ensuing period of self-flagellation and magazine endorsed cleanses, my hope is that – over time, around the world – women give less weight to the Earth’s gravitational pull on their bodies and more weight to the loveliness within themselves.