The Real Reason French Women Don’t Get Fat: Social Pressure and Beauty Norms

The Myth

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. 

Eva Green smoking

Popular media would have you believe that all French women are more or less cast in the mold of actress Eva Green.

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.

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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.

Carrots and ketchup

Not gonna lie — I too had a hard time overcoming dietary neuroticism. After downing a box of cookies, I’d resort to carrots and ketchup for dinner.

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.

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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.

Julie Delpy Ethan Hawke

I have a huge girl crush on Julie Delpy, gah. ❤

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.”

Ben and Jerrys Flavor Grave

Which is so not my personal motto. I can’t even handle the death of a Ben and Jerry’s flavor.

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.

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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.

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On Being a Cultural Ambassador

It boggles the mind but is true: my position as an English Teaching Assistant in France has officially ended. As I reflect back on the school year, there’s one topic I realize hasn’t been given its due — what it’s like to serve as a “cultural ambassador” of sorts for the good old US of A.

When I applied for the Teaching Assistant Program in France, this was an aspect of the job description that gave me pause. I was certain that I could handle instructing English, but “sharing my culture”? I was a bit less confident.

Could I “share” my culture in a less than superficial way? Was I allowed to share negative aspects of it? What did “my culture” mean anyway: my individual perspective or some nationally recognized narrative about the US?

Would I even be credible as a representative American?

Me with apple pie

I thought walking around with apple pie might help my case.

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Over the course of the school year, there have been plenty of opportunities for cultural exchange. The students were surprisingly receptive to my whackadoodle lesson plans, from singing Katy Perry in unison (picture a classroom of French youth screaming “make’em go oh oh oh!” — ’cause that happened) to analyzing conflict resolution techniques in The Avengers.

Still, it wasn’t all pop stars and superheroes. Here are some of the cultural challenges I dealt with while teaching, and how I smashed them with Thor’s hammer (or else fumbled awkwardly through).

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Challenge 1: Student reticence

Reticent. Taciturn. Laconic. Terse. I could go on, but it appeared my students couldn’t. In general, French young adults are even more hesitant to participate in class than their American counterparts. This is largely due to an educational model which favors lecture-style teaching and insists that teachers are infallible and thus unquestionable.

The idea that the teacher has all the answers and the students have none obviously isn’t very conducive to fostering discussion. But getting the students to speak was my job. What to do? I thought of all the great American teachers I’d had. They were never simply lecturers but also warm conversationalists who treated students as equals.

I tried to apply this highly un-French model to my classes. But first, I had to convince the students that contrary to what they’d been led to believe, they had as much to contribute as I did. To this end, I prepared a lesson which involved looking at images from the graphic design blog Paris vs New York — then discussing stereotypes of the two cities, France and the US.

NYC vs Paris, yes and non

One student argued this stereotype was accurate because I smiled more than the French teachers. Immediately after making this point, a grumpy teacher poked his head in to make sure we were in the right classroom. The students burst into laughter. “See?”

It worked. Once they realized I had only half the answers and they had the other half, they were more likely to participate. This lesson – given early in the school year – set the tone for a much more discussion-based method of learning than they were used to.

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Challenge 2: One-sided “debates”

I quickly discovered that some teachers loved leading débats but their definition of “debate” differed from my own. Some would propose a controversial topic only to  guide all the arguments back to their own personal conclusion (a facet of the teacher-knows-best mentality I described above).

The week after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a teacher asked me to speak to her class about it. I actually thought it would be a good idea to address this horrifying and tragic event with the students. Specifically, she requested that I lead the discussion in the form of a debate about gun control in the US.

Though I have very strong feelings on the topic, I tried not to give any indication of my opinion. At first, I simply elicited reactions from the students, many of whom were confused about why people would want to own guns at all (civilian gun ownership in France is extremely restricted). The teacher, who stayed in the room, nodded enthusiastically at these responses. From time to time, she interjected regarding American policy, “Yes, it’s horrible!”

Seeing as the “debate” wasn’t moving, I tried to push the students to at least consider the other side. Why might people want to own guns? I asked. What negative consequences do people think may result if gun ownership were prohibited or severely restricted?

It was at this point that the conversation could have gotten complex and interesting, but unfortunately, it didn’t. When one lone student started speaking about people protecting themselves, the teacher quickly shut him down. Feeling bad for him, I finally broke my silence to come to his defense — the defense of an argument I didn’t even agree with! The teacher stared wide-eyed as I talked about concerns about criminality, the Second Amendment, and historical precedent.

When the bell finally rang, I was left feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I hadn’t enjoyed making arguments for a viewpoint which I found distasteful days after a national tragedy. On the other hand, my discomfort was assuaged by the fact that I had managed to voice an opinion common to many Americans. There was some merit in that, wasn’t there? After all, advancing understanding of American culture – which all its diverse and difficult aspects – had been one of my goals.

angry pacifist at occupy wall st

America, how do I explain you?

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Challenge 3: The “French Exception” mindset

France — fields of lavender in the countryside, ornate monuments in the Capital, haute cuisine, a plush social safety net, and the birthplace of some of the most brilliant artists, writers, and thinkers in human history… How do they do it? Even the French don’t know. Here’s where the nebulous concept of “French exceptionalism” comes in.

Everyone’s familiar with the stereotype that the French are snooty and supercilious. Well, let’s dismantle that right now. Generally, if you’re friendly and considerate, attempt a few words of the language, and don’t stand in the middle of the street snapping photos of pastry displays (guilty as charged), you’ll get no Franco-flak.

Nonetheless, it seems the idea of French exceptionalism is woven into the national psyche in some way. I encountered this mindset during a lesson when I assisted a teacher in leading another débat about “copycat tourism” — that is, when one country builds a “copy” of another country’s famous monument to attract tourists (think Las Vegas or Disney World Epcot Theme Park).

copycat vegas eiffel tower

Indulging in some copycat tourism in Vegas. Whateeeevs.

Again, this was a completely one-sided debate. I was surprised at how fiercely defensive the students were of French monuments and aspects of their cultural heritage in general. No one could replicate the beautiful artifacts of France (and other European countries), they insisted. No one should replicate them.

That’s an understandable way to feel, I replied. But could anyone think of a single reason why copycat tourism could be advantageous or attractive?

Crickets.

“Has anyone been to Vegas?” I asked.

“Yes!” squealed one girl. “It was amazing!” We all laughed.

“Okay, so you had fun. But did the entertainment in Vegas take away from the historical beauty of Paris?” I probed. “Do you think someone who sees the Eiffel Tower in Vegas would no longer wish to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Isn’t it possible that a tourist in Vegas would wonder what Paris was really like and want to come here even more?”

The students were silent as they reflected.

“Who’s been to Disney World Paris?” I inquired.

“I love Disney World,” shouted another girl. “I go there every month!”

“Great!” I responded. “But you know that Disney World is a famous American attraction right? Do you think it’s really so bad to have a ‘copy’ of it here?”

Ultimately, the students and I were able to put together a balanced list of the advantages and disadvantages of copycat tourism. Again – though my personal view actually aligned with that of my students – I was glad to have been able to push them to see the other side. Perhaps it was okay for others to mimic France a little. And perhaps France had done a little mimicking of its own.

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Today, I am writing from the United States. I’m happy to report that I have accepted  a job offer as an International Student Advisor at a university in New York City. Though I am a little sad to have left the City of Light, I’m also excited to move on to this next chapter of my life. I look forward to continuing to help international students adjust to American culture, and more specifically, life in the Big Apple.

What it’s like to be Asian in France

It’s time to address a sensitive topic I’ve been mulling over since first setting foot in France. Issues of racial integration tend to raise hackles here in the Hexagon, so I’ll  admit it: the title of this post is misleading. I don’t speak for all Asians in all of France. No. This is only my piece of the puzzle. That piece is colored by my skin – sure – but it also owes its shape to myriad other factors. Living in the capital. Being a young woman in my twenties. My Chinese American heritage. Speaking with an accent in French. Smiling a lot and wearing big, shiny earrings, etc.

While far from universal, my perspective is nonetheless based on actual encounters that may or may not only occur to someone without my specific set of characteristics. This is what it’s like to be Asian in France, for me.

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First things first, I love France. While Paris is my HQ, I’ve traveled to other parts of the country and found it consistently awesome. Probably 93.5% of the interactions I have with people are neutral or positive (precision, j’adore), but it’s that remaining 6.5% that I’m going to talk about now.

Napolean and Asian baby me

I was a born Francophile. Also, my dad had the brilliant idea to dress me up as Napolean when I was a baby.

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The first hint for me that being Asian in France might be different from what I was used to came during a dinner at the Paris home of a Chinese French couple (friends of my parents) and their high school age boys. At the time, I had only spent a few days in France and was still shy about using the language. Still, I managed to engage the high schoolers in a discussion about French versus American cultures.

The boys were friendly, extroverted and spoke animatedly. They both attended a prestigious school, made references to plentiful friends, and engaged in extra-curricular  activities. To me, they sounded perfectly integrated into French society. After all, why wouldn’t they be? They were born in France, and in my mind, they were French.

However, as the night progressed, something seemed off about our conversation. I struggled to put my finger on it, when it suddenly hit me. Each time I spoke about the US, I used “we” to refer to Americans. But when the boys spoke about France, they used “they” to refer to the French.

I wondered if I was reading too much into things, but I couldn’t shake the impression that the boys didn’t think of themselves as French. If that were the case, which societal factors led them to feel that way? Now, after over a year of cumulative living experience in France, I think I can offer some possible answers.

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“Japan?”

I stayed silent.

“Korea?”

I remained stony-faced.

“Vietnam?”

I stared resolutely across the tracks to the opposite side of the subway station, determined to ignore this stranger who had wandered over and – after issuing a cursory, unanswered “Hello!”  – begun interrogating me about my racial origins.

“Do you speak English?”

Do I ever, I thought to myself as I mentally listed all the curse words I wanted to unleash on him. Unfortunately, their meanings would have been lost on him, a non-native speaker, and I feared that engaging him in any fashion would only provoke further interaction. After what seemed an eternity but was only a couple of minutes, my train arrived. I managed to get into a different car from my harasser and take some deep breaths. At last, my racing heart slowed to a normal rhythm and my fury at being objectified, exoticized, targeted, and accosted while simply going about my business began to dissipate.

My head on a terracotta warrior

Thanks for playing Guess-My-Asian-Country-of-Origin. Your implication that Asians all look alike / are interchangeable has allowed you to unlock a new level: Find-the-Asian-Girl-among-the-Asian-Statues.

I wish this had been an isolated incident. It wasn’t. Similar incidents happen on a monthly basis. Sadly, when I say similar, I mean identical except for the slightest of variations such as the perpetrator substituting “konnichiwa” for “hello.”

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It’s easy to shrug off strangers who hassle a young woman as simply creeps. Unfortunately, there are more insidious ways to single someone out for their race — ways which may even be construed as friendliness or fraternal lightheartedness.

I’m thinking, in this case, of a professional acquaintance who is an older male. When he found out that I had Chinese heritage, he was extremely enthusiastic. “My GIRLFRIEND is Chinese!” he exclaimed as if we had uncovered an intimate connection, instead of one that is completely statistically unremarkable given that one fifth of the world’s population is Chinese (also, pro tip: Chinese American is worlds away from Chinese, culturally). However, recognizing that this person was only trying to be friendly, I refrained from shooting back a wide-eyed “No way! Get this, my BOYFRIEND is French!” Instead, I smiled and nodded as if he had just conveyed a curious novelty.

When he further asked if I knew Mandarin, I responded that I could converse at a basic level though I couldn’t read or write. After this regrettable admission, I had to grit my teeth and endure some “[Presumable Chinese], can you understand what I said?!” each time I saw him. Though my answer was always “no,” his attempts to communicate with me in Chinese escalated to writing me occasional work-related e-mails with lines in Chinese, despite the fact that I couldn’t read a word of the language.

Maybe this is an example of someone who’s only a bit clueless but ultimately harmless. In an effort to get along, that’s precisely what I told myself. Surely, I thought, others I encountered in the professional realm would be a tad more sensitive. This latter belief was blown to pieces when I went to a dinner hosted by this very acquaintance and attended by a few others in our field.

It turned out that our host’s Chinese girlfriend was not present but had prepared some dishes for our party. As we chowed down, I was taken aback as the diners – both men and women – joked about this missing girlfriend giving him “massages” in addition to cooking, and “massages” being part of the educational curriculum in China. Though I felt uncomfortable, I am ashamed to say that I did not speak up and, after a few cups of bubbly, even laughed along for a bit. At the end of the night, one man flippantly said to our host, “Thank Lucy Liu for her cooking.”

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In France, the standard size of a coffee is what Americans tend to think of as an espresso. If you want more of the black stuff, you have to specifically request a “long,” “lengthened,” or “Americano style” coffee. Even then, a French cafe will only  serve you the amount of about half a cup from an American deli. This is something I had trouble getting used to, after having run around New York for a year with a cup of Joe constantly glued to my hand.

On the now rare occasions when the desire for a heartier beverage strikes me, I turn to the much maligned Starbucks. This is a choice I’ve had to defend multiple times. I say this so that you can imagine my disappointment when last September, news broke of an instance of racism at a Starbucks in Paris. A barista had drawn a face with slit eyes on the drink of a Korean-American.

The article induced some head-shaking and sighing on my part but did not stop me from patronizing their establishments. After all, this was perpetrated by an individual barista, and – as indicated within the report – this kind of stuff happens in the US too. However, it’d never happened to me in the US, and, even after the report, I didn’t think something similar would happen to me in Paris either.

Sing with me now the refrain of this blog: Ah, how naive I was.

No, my drink at the Starbucks Saint-Lazare wasn’t labeled with an offensive caricature. What happened instead was that I ordered my typical “Americano” and when it was ready, the barista shouted, “Chino!! Oops, I mean Americano.” Then he turned and cackled with the barista next to him.

I briefly considered the damage that a steaming hot beverage could do, but I restrained myself. Nonetheless, the drink left a bitter taste in my mouth — one that had nothing to do with the coffee itself.

election 2012 american embassy in paris

You’ll just have to believe me when I say I’m American.

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When I set out to write this entry, I first opened a Word document and simply listed all the times I could remember being singled out for my race in the past six months (I’m still wary about using the word “racist” to describe these encounters; I’m optimistic – perhaps naively so – that people are basically decent, just ignorant). I came up with a total of 12 anecdotes I could use.

Twelve. In six months. That I can remember. From those, I had to select just a few to sketch my experience.

On average, I have an uncomfortable racial encounter on a bi-weekly basis.

I don’t really know what to make of this figure. Perhaps others have more encounters of this sort than I do. Perhaps others experience something similar on a daily basis. I may be supremely privileged, and this may all sound overblown. I may also just be unlucky; perhaps other Asians saunter about France completely unassailed.

What I do know is that in nine months of living and working in Manhattan, I can only recall two instances of something like this happening. Sure, I probably would’ve told another tale if I’d lived in Jasper, Alabama — but I can only analyze my experience within the context that I know. (It also seems more reasonable to compare New York and Paris, as each is an international metropolis with a significant Asian population.)

I just want to conclude with a couple of caveats.

1) It’s possible that I’m noticing and remembering these incidents more often in Paris and around France because I’m a foreigner to this country. I may just be more wary than I am in the States because I have a foreigner’s sense of always being an outsider. However, I can frankly say that some of the racial encounters I’ve had in France have simply never occurred to me in the US.

2) I don’t want anyone to think that the offenders are always old white guys of Gallic descent. Nope. Offenders come in all colors of the rainbow, can be any age, and of either sex. Besides the fact that strangers who approach me in public spaces to inquire about my race are always male, there is really no pattern.

In the end, I’m proud of my heritage and am happy to talk about it with people who know me or who are in the process of getting to know me. All I ask is that those who are curious not make assumptions and actually listen when I relate my individual background. That’s not too exacting a request, I hope.

mannequin chinatown new york city

I make a valiant effort to explain what being Chinese American means to me. But there are some things I can’t explain — like this storefront in Chinatown, New York.

(For anyone wishing to read more on the topic, I recommend this insightful article about how Asians are treated in France from a Frenchman’s point of view.)