The BBC's news magazine recently ran a piece entitled 'The Perils of Being Fat, Female and French', which argues against the myth that Gallic women never gain weight. Its author, Joanna Robertson, seeks to expose a system of peer pressure and tyrannical-yet-hushed dieting.
She goes on to make a number of claims, including that overweight French woman can't get jobs, and that French families secretly deprive themselves at dinner, sitting down to "a frugal meal of steamed vegetables and a cup of herbal tea in the evening to avoid weight gain."
Related: The French Woman Diet
Her claims sound ridiculous, but being a born and bred Parisienne, I can safely say they're also (sadly) true.
Robertson opens her article with the story of a plump art gallerist unable to get a job because of her size. Yes, women in top jobs in the country are generally petite–but so are the great majority of women that hold the media's attention. This isn't necessarily specific to France, but to any major city where a premium is placed upon looks (New York included). Women's success is associated to thinness because "it isn't only about seduction, it is a sign of confidence, initiative, ease, autonomy" sociologist George Vigarello writes in La Silhouette, du XVIIIeme Siècle Nos Jours. In other words, slenderness equals physical and mental control.
But then there is a culture of slimness that is very particular to France. In a Catholic country, gluttony is historically perceived as a sin. Meals are highly controlled, and come at regular hours: entirely families sit down at dinner every night, and companies are given at least an hour to have full meals during lunch break—a sandwich over your desk is a rare occurrence. There is no snacking culture and portions are small by American standards. Food is seen as a necessity rather than a craving.
Obesity is rare and is seldom encountered in France. A 2009 study showed the France had the highest proportion of clinically underweight women in Europe. There is little fear of becoming overweight, and no culture of radical dieting. The idea is that everyone is born thin and being 'fat' (usually anything bigger than a Medium) is your own fault–and everyone's business.
In other words, surveillance is everywhere. To quote philosopher Michel Foucault (yes, I'm going there), "Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere" he wrote in Surveiller et Punir about the way (French) society is kept in place by constant, often unconscious self-discipline.
So, while French families don't sit down and eat boiled vegetables every night, the dieting is covert and often near-unconscious: entire aisles in the supermarkets are dedicated to diet yogurt, cereal, and sodas. Smoking often replaces desert, red wine and peanuts during "apéritif" are considered a meal.
I consider myself reasonably slim. I wear 'small' sizes in the United States, which translates to a French 'medium'. Yet people around me frequently tell me I am la limite (at the limit) i.e. not to gain a single pound. It is accepted for people to comment on each other's weight because they feel they are doing you "a favor". See: My parents gently advising me to skip dessert, or a waiter in a café mocking my second order of frites. Recently, a friend walked up to me at a party and asked "Have you gained weight or are these jeans simply unflattering?" His reason for telling me was that it was "in my own interest."
Although I don't consciously diet, heavy or fried foods are accompanied by pangs of guilt, which I usually make up for by walking home or commuting by Velib' (Paris' bike share program). Although I consider myself a feminist, I can't help but feel a strange sense of pride if I go to bed feeling a little hungry—and I am simultaneously furious at myself for it.
Nevertheless, things are changing. According to a new survey by ObEpi-Roche "the average French person has put on more than half a stone since 1997 to weigh in at 11 stone 6lbs. That means that 15 percent of the French population is now obese and 32.3 per cent overweight." The World Health Organization shows that 30 percent of France is "pre-obese."
Globalization has brought chains and take-out culture to France, and today, a coffee break turns into a stop at calorie-feast Starbucks. Teens are growing bigger but ideals here aren't evolving.