Picking from the Fig Tree: A Look at Choosing Majors in 3 Countries

In Aziz Ansari’s new TV series, Master of None, the comedian’s father dishes some hard-hitting advice to his indecisive son. He shares this cautionary Sylvia Plath quote:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree . . . . From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Watching this segment, I thought – save for those lucky few who harbor a single, burning passion from the day they’re born – what young person hasn’t faced a similar dilemma? Whether choosing a college major or a career path, or deciding where to live, the array of life choices can be overwhelming. Now teaching a university seminar for first-year international students, I found the quote pertinent to my class as well.

leaning against a barren tree

No figs here, sadly. Just a melancholy undergrad and a barren tree.

In my seminar, most of the international students are Chinese, and many were mystified by our university’s insistence on a liberal arts core curriculum. In fact, only a few had heard of the term “liberal arts” before, and – even after we thoroughly discussed it – some still seemed perplexed. Their confusion led me to wonder: just how different are the processes through which foreign and American undergrads choose their courses of study?

After a little research and reflection, I understand better now where the students are coming from, both literally and figuratively.

~

I think back to my own undergraduate experience and my “fig tree” problem of the period: declaring a major. I had applied to college as an undecided student, after having gone through the brochure a hundred times. When I finally arrived on campus, I thought I’d study computer science like my mom. A single introduction to Java class quickly set me straight. I then veered into economics, spending countless hours staring at mystifying graphs and figures. Eventually, I acknowledged I’d only ever be a mediocre economist at best. My final, serious attempt was French language and literature, a subject I ended up both loving and succeeding at academically. Ultimately, I graduated with a double major in economics and French, the culmination of a winding  journey which also included rest stops at the departments of English, history, art history, Asian studies, astronomy, psychology, sociology, hotel administration, and – last but not least – plant pathology.

Greedy me ended up plucking two figs after having taken a bite out of almost all the rest.

~

When I contrast my experience to the experience the  Chinese students might have had, had they gone to Chinese universities, the gulf boggles my mind. Much ink has been spilled over the feverish process by which high schoolers get into Chinese universities (the process by which they prepare for the make-or-break gao kao, China’s national higher education entrance exam) — but considerably less attention has been paid to how they choose a major if indeed they pass.

As it turns out, Chinese students usually select their major around the same time they take the gao kao. Instead of sending application packages to various schools, they complete a single form indicating which colleges they prefer and naming a few majors which sound appealing. If they’re lucky, their gao kao test scores will qualify them for one of their chosen colleges, and the college will return an offer of acceptance with one of their listed majors. The vast majority of students are then locked into the major, given the laboriousness of the procedure to change majors at most institutions.

This is akin to speculating about which figs taste best, then eating whichever one happens to fall in your lap.

Infant academoiselle reading a book

My parents chose to raise me in the US, but what if they’d stayed in China? Who knows if I would’ve even made it to university, never mind what I would’ve studied.

~

At this point, I need to try to rein in my personal biases (as well as my panic at the thought of an alternative reality where I had to take the gao kao). I have to concede that both the US approach and the Chinese approach have advantages and disadvantages.

In short, the US system allows those like me to indulge in a bit of dilletantism, in the hopes of broadening students’ perspectives, instilling certain values, and fostering creative, interdisciplinary collaborations. But this approach comes with the danger of dawdling beneath the fig tree.

Meanwhile, the Chinese system allows young people to delve deep into their specializations, without the burdensome distraction of taking classes in other subjects. Of course, the downside is that students don’t necessarily receive the lauded benefits of a liberal arts education, and they may end up studying something which no longer interests them or doesn’t suit their abilities.

It all makes me wonder: isn’t there a middle way? How do we get at the fig that’s just right for us without wasting too much time putzing around?

~

Diderot monument

Let’s turn to France, one of the centers of the Enlightenment.

Before I’m accused of viewing the French system en rose, let me just acknowledge that it has its own set of deep and troubling dysfunctions. For instance, only 50% of students in France’s public universities successfully pass their first year of study. But – if we examine only the process by which undergraduates choose their majors – we can see that they offer something of a middle way between the American and the Chinese systems.

Starting in the penultimate year of high school, French students are asked to think broadly about which discipline they’d like to pursue. Students are then split into 3 tracks: the ‘L’ track (for literary studies), the ‘ES’ track (for economics and social sciences), or the ‘S’ track (for the sciences). In general, though, the track they choose isn’t particularly limiting. It determines which version of the bac they will take (another national higher education qualification exam), but the bac isn’t widely seen as a demanding exam. As long as students get a passing score, they can enroll in public universities.

When students start university, that’s when they choose a filière or major. Generally, ‘S’ students can pick any major, including those in the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, ‘L’ and ‘ES’ students might have difficulty breaking into the sciences, but they enjoy pretty much every other option.

And if it doesn’t work out? Students can change course to a different (but related) subject after the first semester. If they want to do something which deviates more drastically, they can also decide to retake their first year.

In reality, as many as 30% of students retake the first year (including those who fail as well as those who want to change majors). Since annual tuition is only a couple hundred Euros, many can afford the option. Furthermore, since French universities grant a bachelor’s degree after only 3 years of study, retaking the first year simply puts the repeaters at 4 years, a common degree duration worldwide. It’s not a perfect system, but students largely end up studying what they want — even if they can’t take a bite out of every fig.

~

Outside of the formal education system, what I really admire about France is the deep-seated culture of the liberal arts. In France, being a talented engineer doesn’t exempt you from having to argue philosophy at the dinner table, and being a financial analyst doesn’t mean it’s cute to be clueless about the latest exposition at the Grand Palais. This is a society where the tradition of the “public intellectual” is still alive, even if everyone rolls their eyes each time Bernard-Henri Lévy makes a television appearance.

Maybe this is the answer to the riddle of the fig tree.

Maybe we can taste some and describe the rest in poetry.

cassis chocolat macaron

Or  we can turn the figs into giant macarons. That might also work.

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Matryoshka Dolls

I don’t remember where I first learned about what I’ve come to think of as the “matryoshka doll” theory of personality. Most likely, a book introduced me to the idea by comparing a character’s personality to a set of Russian nesting dolls. The character at her oldest, wisest, most generous, and most morally developed was the largest nesting doll. But inside of that doll existed the person she was as an adolescent, as a six year old, and even as an infant.

matryoshka dolls

These.

Most of the time, the largest nesting doll was able to keep the little ones under control. But occasionally, one of the smaller dolls would slip out. This explained why people sometimes felt so small and so out of control. This also explained why, once in a while, an otherwise level-headed person could be reduced to tears over something ridiculously petty or trivial. According to this theory, we’re all walking around carrying other versions of ourselves inside. All it takes is a little twist of the waist and – pop – these other versions start acting out.

After a bit of clicking around, I found a Wikipedia article referring to this concept as “the hypostatic model of personality.” Whatever it’s called, it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently as I’ve begun teaching ESL in the afternoons. Even given a small class size with a 10 student maximum, I’ve found myself tapping into different versions of my personality in an attempt to connect with every student.

~

In many ways, I have a very easy class to work with. Most of the students range in age from their late teens to early twenties, so they’re used to being in a classroom environment. In addition, no two students come from the same country, which means I don’t have to wrestle with side chatter in a language other than English.

My biggest challenge is trying to meet the differing expectations of such a diverse group. Some students want to get through as much of the workbook as possible and learn as much new grammar or vocabulary as possible. Others want to dispense with the book entirely and simply jabber about everything under the sun. Still others are just trying to make it through the afternoon — the evening and New York City nightlife is what really interests them.

And perhaps this is the mark of a newbie teacher, but I want all of them to get what they want.

Who do you need me to be?

Who do you need me to be? Just let me dig through my wigs…

I want all of them to get what they want, and I want to be the teacher who delivers what they want. That’s the unvarnished and slightly embarrassing truth. Even though I realize I’m striving towards an impossible end, I nonetheless hope that each of them will leave – in some measure – satisfied.

I would love to satisfy the sweet, wide-eyed teenager who volunteers  all the answers. There is a part of me that has been in her shoes.

The totally lost and timid student: she recalls a part of me as well.

The haughty twenty-year-old with a hangover staring at her phone throughout class? Actually, I’ve been there too.

And I can easily imagine myself in circumstances similar to the forty-year old taking a break from work to travel and to study abroad.

following footsteps

Are you coming this way too?

Of course, I haven’t been in the exact shoes of any of these individuals; I can’t really know what they think or feel. Still, I try to relate and to adapt classroom activities accordingly.

At the end of the day, the proof of my efforts has been coming back to me in the form of student evaluations.

“The class was OK,” wrote some.

“It was good,” wrote others.

And then there was that one note. “Even though she is a new teacher, she has much capacities.”

(When I read that one, every version of me smiled.)

My Father’s ESL Teacher

During one of my breaks in college, while rummaging through boxes in my parents’ home, I made a surprising discovery. On the back of what looked to be a scrap piece of paper, I found a short text written by my father. It had been written for an ESL class he took in the ’90s, shortly after we moved to the US.

I could only guess what the writing prompt had been. Perhaps, “Write about regret.”

In the text, my father narrated the story of how child-me had asked my parents for piano lessons. Apparently, many of my Chinese-American peers at the time were already learning piano. Given our family’s precarious finances, however, he’d had to say “no.” He wrote about how deeply sad he’d felt denying his child.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but the text contradicted my own vague recollections. I’d always had the idea that it was my parents who had pushed me to take lessons, and that it was who had stubbornly refused. What I remember for sure is my dad’s proud statement on the topic. “You’re different from the other immigrant children.”

Had his pride been a guise? — I wondered, after reading the text. Like flocking birds, other incidents suddenly converged in my memory.

What about the time I was 6 and expressed admiration for my classmate’s white, patent leather shoes? My dad had sniffed derisively, “You can hardly move around in those things.” My admiration had then turned to the girl’s smooth, unmarked skin. At the time, to my great embarrassment, my own limbs were covered in raw scrapes and old scabs.

My dad had simply shrugged. “Who wants a perfect looking daughter?”

Scabbed and wearing frills

Don’t let the frills fool you. See if you can spot the scab.

~

The name of my father’s ESL teacher was Robert. I remember this because my dad frequently talked about him after class.

Robert, frankly, seemed like a saint to me. How could he deal with my father’s halting English and endless questions about vocabulary and grammar? Eventually, my family moved and my father stopped taking ESL. I became his de facto authority on English, even though – as I got older – I resented the never-ending task of editing my dad’s every email, his every cover letter as he applied for job after job.

Teenage me sulked, sighed, and outright shouted at my dad for his errors. He never seemed to get it right. To all the abuse, my dad simply responded, “Your English is so good.” The more impatient I was, the more convinced he was of my competence.

The prouder he grew.

I was nothing like Robert. From time to time, my dad wondered aloud what his former ESL teacher was up to.

~

I’m now in training to become an English teacher to speakers of other languages. My course (called the CELTA) finishes at the end of May. As part of my training, I teach an adult class once a week, and – while the pressure can be intense since I am observed and graded – I have to say it is a whole new kind of pleasure.

The students hail from Venezuela, Turkey, Japan, Tajikistan, and every corner of the world. They range in age from college students to retirees. Their motivations for studying English are just as varied. From a professor in sports economics wanting to bolster his research skills, to a girl learning to sing pop songs … I am frankly amazed at all the reasons folks give up 2 1/2 hours on a weeknight to better their English.

I try to picture my dad’s ESL class. His classmates. Robert.

My eyes follow the arc of desks and rest on my dad himself. And I finally see him through Robert’s eyes: a young man (unemployed, terrified) … with a kid and a wife trying to make it in a whole new world.

It is then I realize — there is no language on Earth that can carry my gratitude.

Introversion and Culture (Or, That Time I Built a Fort in my Boyfriend’s Apartment)

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an introvert. Interacting with others never came easily to me. Nonetheless, over time, I’ve learned how to fake it, e.g. how to make a compelling speech in front of an audience (thank you, high school Speech and Debate); how to exude warmth towards customers (thank you, tech support job in college); and how to muster good humor when meeting people socially (thank you, red wine).

I guess I’ve improved enough at projecting a comfortable persona that some might not even believe I still struggle. On a recent Friday at the office, when I admitted I’d be staying home that night “just me and my introverted self,” my colleagues snorted, “You’re definitely not an introvert.”

Crawling into a hole

Actually, yeah — I could stay in my woman cave forever if I didn’t have to work…

While the rewards are great, performing socially is tasking, and I haven’t always been as capable. When I first joined Speech and Debate, one of the more experienced club members noticed my tendency to avoid eye contact, so he blocked me in a corridor until I could meet and hold his gaze. (We stood in that corridor quite a while.)

Nowadays, I would have no issues entering a staring contest, but I still require lots of alone time. This even applies to time away from those closest to me. For instance, when living in Z’s studio apartment a couple years ago, I built a “fort” out of clothing and chairs just to have some personal space for the day. I wasn’t the least bit upset — just needed a private area to read a book and have some snacks.

Friends under a virtual tree

Adolescent me loved escaping into online games. I could look fabulous in a corset, while wearing pajamas in real life!

Some might find these tendencies off-putting, but they’re part of who I am. Introversion is a spectrum; of course there are going to be people who fall towards the ends. Given my own nature, I have a great deal of empathy for international students coming from countries that view introverted behaviors as the norm. Arriving in the US where extroversion is glorified as well as materially rewarded, these students have a tough cultural adjustment to make.

I am thinking specifically of the students in the English support program I work for, most of whom are Chinese or Indian. Though they come from privileged families, many were brought up in a way that they don’t seem self-confident by American standards. They’re often hesitant to speak up in class, though class participation is a major part of their grade. They may shy away from chatting with professors, though relationships with professors can be key to later internships and recommendation letters. For many, career fairs are particularly nerve-wracking — not only because of the language barrier, but also because they were taught never to boast about their accomplishments. Some, having been raised to keep their problems private, are even afraid to speak with us advisors.

A couple of incidents I’ve witnessed highlight how drastic these cultural differences can be. Once, a female student came to me in tears because her professor had made remarks to her that she saw as harsh or impatient. She didn’t understand why the professor seemed not to like her — she was quiet and got good grades, facts which had always endeared her to teachers in her home country.

The other incident involved a taciturn young man who was almost removed from his professor’s class. He hadn’t been misbehaving in the traditional sense; it was just that his silence in class “creeped out” the professor. The professor insisted that the student either go to counseling (a huge no-no in the student’s culture), or not come back to class. Though the young man was eventually reinstated, it was an incredibly frustrating ordeal.

~

Situations like the above are hard to advise in, because there’s not necessarily a party that’s right or wrong. I am also loathe to make international students feel that the values they grew up with are at all inferior. Still, the fact is that they chose to study in the US, where – for better or worse – a certain amount of sociability and self-promotion are critical to success. And so I give students what tips I know to  mimic these traits … ways to approach a professor, clubs they could join to make friends, how to deliver a presentation …

Introvert

I would never have thought I could advise anybody about how to appear less introverted.

Final thoughts before I go. First, culture is not monolithic (there are introverted Americans and extroverted Chinese). Secondly, the differences between individuals will always be greater than the differences between groups (in any large sample of international students from the same country, there will be immense variation in personalities). These things said, we can’t be blind to the fact that culture plays an enormous role in shaping behaviors.

Fortunately, new behaviors can be learned and new cultures adapted to. After all, none of us can stay in our forts forever.

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

A couple months ago, I went to an event at a local bookstore in Brooklyn called “Lucid Dreaming Night.” In the packed bookstore basement, three guys who’d co-authored a guide to lucid dreaming gave tips to the crowd on how to direct what happens in their dreams (à la Inception). I listened with detached bemusement, jotting down notes now and then, but upon returning home, my scribblings were soon lost behind a stack of bills, catalogs, and credit card offers.

For better or worse, I’ve gone from a teenager who avidly writes in her dream journal, to an adult immersed in the practicalities of everyday life. While there’s nothing atypical about that transformation, what surprises me is the extent to which I still find myself and others – young and old – tied to dreamy romantic narratives.

This is especially true when it comes to the topic of romance itself.

Cinderella in the display windows at Galeries Lafayette

Is it time to wake up from the fairy tale yet?

Often, at a certain point in getting to know someone, it comes up in conversation that my boyfriend is French. I divulge that he lives in Paris, and that he visits me on occasion. Just these basic facts lead many to believe our coupling is plagiarized from some scoff-inducing chick flick. And while I usually don’t correct that notion, the reality couldn’t be more different.

International long-distance relationships are like Cinderella stories in reverse. The romantic stuff happens at the beginning; then, when the distance kicks in, it’s a lot of maintenance work. Most of that work has to do with communication, something which is subject to the frustrating limitations of technology. In practical terms, this means I spend a lot of time staring at mysterious conglomerations of pixels which only vaguely resemble a human face.

In addition, I’ve frequently had to choose between catching some z’s and catching up with Z (couldn’t resist that one, sorry). Since we both work full time, there’s only a tiny window during we can chat on most days. If I’m home by 6pm (Z’s midnight), we can hang for an hour before he falls asleep. If I return a bit later, I might have to stay up until 1:30am (his 7:30am) for a brief check-in before he dashes off to work.

selfie in bed

I end up taking selfies in bed if he doesn’t pick up … At least the camera loves me, riiight?

Another issue I haven’t mentioned is the expense of being long-distance. I fully realize how privileged we are to be able to visit each other enough to maintain our relationship. Though Z bears the brunt of the cost, when he forwards me his flight confirmations, I cry a little inside calculating how many bottles of wine and burritos we could have bought with that money.

breakfast burrito

So many of these — SO, so many.

Even when we lived together during my teaching assistantship, life was far from a bed of roses. The constant anxiety of what I would do after the school year tore me apart. My work prospects in France were severely limited by the fact that my visa would expire with the assistantship itself. I was a nervous wreck who barely stepped outdoors, taunted by the wicked stepsisters of despondency and self-doubt.

So.

If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that what makes an experience worthwhile is not always the appeal of its narrative. The unnarrated hours are what make up the vast majority of our days, and – ultimately – they’re what count.

~

We finally got engaged during Z’s most recent visit.

Brunch at the Rabbit Hole

Obligatory happy couple photo (you’re allowed to roll your eyes — I know I would).

The next step in the story that you never hear about is the year (give or take) that it takes the US government to process applications to marry foreigners. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks filling out forms as well as printing out old emails and photographs to prove that we’re not in a fraudulent relationship. Whenever the immigration officials decide we’re legit, Z must fly over to marry me within exactly 90 days.

Or the coach turns back into a pumpkin.

While I’ve already started getting questions about wedding dates and where we’ll eventually settle, I’m holding off for the moment on thinking too far ahead. I know that no matter how rigorously we plan, no matter how lucid we try to render the future, there’s only so much we can control of our realities and our dreams.

tattou reve

“Is this forever?” is a question I posed to both my tattoo artist, and to Z. (The ink reads “rêve” — or “dream.”)

A Typical Day in Paris je t’aime

As we near the end of another year and I collect my thoughts about returning to New York, I can’t help but remember my first experience of Paris. I wrote the below as a study abroad student during those heady days of discovering the city. Though some of the romanticism has been wrung out of me, this does take me back.

~

A Typical Day in Paris je t’aime

I don’t believe in love at first sight and Paris was no exception. Had I just been touring, I would’ve gone home and said that I loved Paris, of course. But that sort of “love” is just exaggerated enthusiasm. True love doesn’t spring from three days of voyeurism; it takes at least twenty-one.

So after three weeks and a few odd days, I find myself madly in love with her. Paris, after all, is a woman, I’ve decided — beautiful, her cold elegance tempered by her burning cigarette. The city charges every moment with the possibility of pleasure. The tiniest details and most mundane rituals can yield joy.

When I wake up, it’s to a languorous half-light seeping in through the chinks of a metal screen. The screen, which covers sliding doors to the terrace, is retractable by twisting a dowel. Every morning is cinematic; as I retract the screen, light flows in slowly. It’s a polite guest which takes time to greet the space. With each inch of its advance, I readjust my readings of the day’s weather and temperature. Naturally, the City of Light manifests her mood through the medium of her namesake.

bedroom chambre

I take the elevator down to the lobby. During the ride, I struggle to resist primping in front of the mirror. A sign warns: “under 24 hour surveillance.”

The front door confronts me with one of Paris’s quirks. Even from inside the building, I can’t just push it to exit. As a smug act of defiance to globalized user-friendliness, many buildings require pushing a button on the wall before the door itself. After I helped a visiting Frenchwoman figure this out, I realized it was just one of the city’s slinky winks to those who know her and love her.

Out into the courtyard, past the bed of roses. Past the green gate, out onto the street. I glance to my left and voila … the Eiffel Tower rises above the treetops. Bleary-eyed, it looks like a construction crane or radio tower at this hour. Paris is not a morning girl.

Fun exercises: dodge the dog shit on the pavement. See how closely I can pass a pigeon without its flinching.

In the metro station tunnels, I wait for that moment. That one electrifying moment when everyone’s footsteps synchronize, setting the beat for a uniquely urban chanson. And I smile and I smile because the music is beautiful.

I hold my breath through the parts of the station that smell like shit.

Once on the train, I flip out a folding chair, a strapontin. If I choose to stand, I lean against the doors, knowing that they won’t open automatically behind me. When it’s my stop, I like to lift the latch while the train is still slowing, so that the doors open and I can watch the ground whizz by my feet.

Paris je t’aime.

I love your men, your women, your children. Your scarves, your coats, your darling shoes. Your cigarettes, your slang, your unkempt dogs. Your cafes, your bookshops, your boulangeries. Your patisseries. Your creperies. Your strikes. Your parks. Your bikes. Your chilly autumn nights. Your puddles of light from the restaurants humming respite from the wind and the rain in my hair in my shoes in my eyes.

When I come home, the train crawls out of the underground and takes an overpass bridge. The Eiffel Tower is a blaze of light.

She’s alive.

eiffel tower abstract

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.

~

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.

~

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.

~

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.