Wednesday, 29 July 2009


Thinking back to this post, it's interesting to get a male perspective on the French relationship with body image from David Lebovitz's fabulous blog. It's not just women who are subject to mass surveillance regarding their weight in France: men are victims of it too... Unfortunately, that's not really what we meant when we asked for equality!

(Some of the comments are really sad: That post definitely struck a cord. I'm French-American but alas, I take after my more "bulky" American father. Thus ever since I was a teenager, I've become accustomed to hearing comments about my weight from my very skinny, very French, family members. If you think the French are honest to friends/acquaintances, you have no idea of how bad it is when it's "en famille", especially to girls..." for example!)

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The right to bare breasts

When the heat is on here in Lyon, sometimes the only thing that makes life bearable is a trip to the outdoor pool. There are many things that strike a British person as a little funny when they visit a French pool. One is that topless bathing is allowed - at our outdoor pool at least. Women of all ages and body types appear to be quite happy bearing their chests as they sunbathe (though I've yet to see anyone who hasn't replaced their bikini top to actually go for a swim.) That said, there are more women with their chests covered than not, a trend which is apparently growing here in France.

I personally don't sunbathe topless. For one thing, I prefer one-piece swimsuits to bikinis - I find they flatter me much more. Perhaps more significantly, I am just too paranoid about any unwelcome attention I might get (though I have to say that I've never seen any blatant oogling going on around our pool). But now I'm wondering whether I should address my discomfort with the issue, buy a stick of sunblock, and bare all. Should I learn to embrace the right to go topless as an important feminist issue, in the same way that it has traditionally been within the French feminist movement?

There's no denying the inequality in dress codes for men and women: in Britain and America, at least, men's chests are acceptable in public, but women's are considered to be strictly for 'private viewings', so to speak. France's tradition of topless sunbathing is supposed to address this imbalance. As for me, the fact that it is partly a fear of catcalls or unwelcome stares that puts me off topless sunbathing is a sign to me that something is amiss. It's proof that society makes me (and others, for surely I'm not the only one) feel uncomfortable about our bodies in a way that men are not made to feel. My fear that I might be increasing my chances of being on the receiving end of predatory comments from men is perhaps exaggerated, but is based on a lifetime's experience of patriarchal society in which women are the object and men the subject of a kind of mass gaze.

Carole Cadwalladr couldn't be more wrong when she states that the best thing women can do now is to cover themselves up. She argues that female nudity has become hackneyed and overused, specifically in the world of advertising, claiming that this has lead to the naked female form becoming banal and uninteresting, if not downright tacky via images of glamour models and in lads mags. Her column fails to see that this is simply another manifestation of the same social symptom which the those first feminist topless sunbathers were fighting against back in the 60s. Back then, a woman's breasts weren't hers to control - society did that for her, and told her cover them up. Today, society has appropriated women's breasts in another way, and made them a tool of titillation and marketing persuasion. In both cases, control over the way her body is used is still not in a woman's own hands. The answer isn't to hide away and ignore the issue, but to redress it...metaphorically speaking. When a woman's decision as to whether she goes topless is not influenced by either a fear of transgressing social mores (and attracting scandal) or a fear of being associated with over-sexualised commercial images (and attracting predatory sexual attention), then we'll have made some progress.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

So why don't French women get fat?

I'm currently in the middle of a summer stay in Lyon, France. Keeping up with my mostly UK/US based blogs (read: 'continuing to waste time on the internet') brings up an interesting point: many stories posted on said blogs are related to the plus-size clothing market - whether it be the debate surrounding Beth Ditto's range for UK plus-sized retailer Evans, or an airline's decision not to produce its flight assistants' uniforms in large sizes. It's a hot topic for Anglo feminists, this continuing discrimination against larger women and what this reveals about society's views of how a woman ought to look - and how much she ought to weight.

In France, it's extremely rare to see a woman who would classify as 'plus-sized'. Of course not every French woman is skinny. But a lot of them are - according to a recent report, there are more very slim women in France than anywhere else in Europe... 'Curvy' - fat - whatever you want to call it - women are scarce here. It's so unusual to see someone who isn't slim that it attracts my attention when I do, despite myself.

So this is the 'French paradox': how can the women of a society which prides itself on its food culture, based around bread, red meat, great frites, excellent butter and cheese, etc. stay so much slimmer than in Britain or America? Books have quite literally been written on the subject. I get the impression that many American and British women imagine that the French either have magic genes or are in possession of some incredible secret which allows them to feast on steak and cheese while guzzling wine and never gain a gram, and long to be the same way.

Well, not me. For what it's worth, while French women's (and French culture's) thinking about food, weight and diet might be healthier in the sense that it leads to lower levels of obesity, I personally don't think it's something that's globally worth trying to emulate. Not, that is, if you oppose the kind of body-fascism that is evident in our culture's mistreatment of larger-sized women.

To put in bluntly, being fat in France is just not acceptable - especially for women (as ever). Of course you can say the same thing about Anglo culture. Apparently, only slender women's bodies are acceptable on our TV and cinema screens, and in our printed press, just as in France. But I would argue that the pressure from others around you to be slim is felt more strongly in France. If you put on a bit of weight, you need to lose it. As fast as you can. Exercise, dieting, magic creams, however you like. You don't talk about it, perhaps... and you certainly act before it's even visible to others, rather than waiting until you go up a size to address the 'problem'. If you could even get to a lower weight than you were at before, all the better. If you're scheduled to go out for dinner then perhaps you shouldn't eat all day, just so you don't have to make a fuss about only having one course in the evening. Coffee and cigarettes will help keep those hunger pangs at bay.

Ah, I generalise. Every woman is different, of course. But still, every culture has its overarching patterns. Let's think back to that report, and the way that la presse féminine received it here in France. From French Marie-Claire: French women are the winners of a contest between European women that's been going on for years! With summer approaching and in the middle of our most drastic diets, let's make the most of the good news! ...The authors of the report were surprised to find that despite our excellent results (or, rather, our victory!) French women aren't happy with their weight. Even though we're the slimmest (and let's underline just how happy we are to hear this), we're also most likely to consider ourselves too fat. According to the report, France is home to a veritable cult of the slender female form: when asked, French women gave their ideal BMI as 19.5 - just at the lower end of the 'normal' range.

Is this kind of culture of eating and dieting really something worth admiring? If this is why French women don't get fat - not magic genes, not unconsciously virtuous eating habits, but rather a state of constant vigilence, self-criticism and inadequacy, then they are perhaps even more victims of body-facism than the larger woman who struggles to find a decent pair of jeans on the British high street.