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.

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