Imagine a special on ‘Big is beautiful’ in a high-class fashion magazine. Now imagine the special to be in the French Elle. Impossible? That’s what I thought, too. So when I read about it on Tish’s blog A femme d’un certain age, I had to dash out, grab a copy and see it with my own eyes. After all, French women don’t get fat, right?
Well, not quite. Apart from France rushing at high speed into the Globesity trap (more on that later), a lot of maintaining a low weight is simply down to an obsessive relationship with food. Food plays a central role in the French culture, which I believe is a good thing. But when it comes to watching what you eat, you might find a usually private affair becoming of interest to the public.
Putting too much sugar in your coffee, or helping yourself to another serving from the cheese board can easily lead to tut-tutting from your French partner and even the withdrawal of said cheese board. In front of all your friends. If I still had the food police around me, I’d be stick thin today, too. Miserable, but stick thin.
A little straw poll: I know exactly one French woman that is very thin without obsessing about food. In fact, she eats cake for breakfast, helps herself to generous servings and never skips desert. It’s her metabolism that makes her stay thin, and it is quite unique. I know about ten more French women. Seven of them extremely thin. And seven of them picking on food like little birds, having doll-like portions and living with what I’d call controlled anorexia.
A study by TMO from 1999 revealed that 69% of French women are preoccupied with thoughts about their weight. Another study that looked at eating habits of girls compared with boys revealed that in France, 68% of the girls wanted to limit their calorie intake, compared with only 21% in Canada. We are talking about children aged five to 17! Whilst the boys’ meals contained an average of 3.3 items, the girls’ meals only contained 2.1. As they get older, these numbers decrease for the girls and increase for the boys.
With that much pressure from the outside world, staying thin is more than a personal choice.
But the times, they are a changing. And unfortunately, a lot of what used to be the French paradox is changing for the worse. Rather quickly, France is losing its ‘common food culture’, leading France into an obesity crisis. Absolute figures of people being overweight or obese are still relatively low compared to Britain, Germany or the US. But the growth rates are appalling with five percent annually since 1997.
The rising availability of fast food and prepared foods (which are higher in fat and calories than your average home cooked meal), the ubiquitous availability of snacks (snacking has never been part of the French food culture) and the current change of where and how to buy your food (i.e. fresh and only your daily needs from the market vs. piling food at home after a trip to a gigantic hypermarché) all ad to the shift in eating habits.
Sadly so, the myth of French women not getting fat is vanishing into thin air.