The Skinny on French Women

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By: Savannah Thorne

Ed. Note, Savannah is an upcoming fiction writer who has kept writing groups lively with her unabashed point of view.  What does keep those French so thin.  Savannah sets about to analyze this.

When author Mireille Guiliano penned her book, “French Women Don’t Get Fat”, she might not have expected the fanatic cult following she accrued. Her book has been translated into thirty-seven languages, sold over one million copies, and was a New York Times #1 bestseller. It has spawned spin-off books by copycat authors, articles by the dozens, and has led to “French” diet plans, French “dos and don’ts” of eating and dieting, and angst-ridden analyses of how slim and elegant French women are.

Ostensibly, the book includes advice about smaller portion size, and savoring food. However, one cannot help wondering if such obsessions with slim figures reinforce harmful stereotypes that thinness equals success; that the more powerful women become, the less space they are expected to take up; that to be beautiful and admirable, women must starve and smoke themselves to death; and that the only women who matter wear size 0 expensive designer clothes while they sneer at other countries’ “barbaric” customs.

Americans are so eager to feel culturally inferior to our European counterparts. We need to give ourselves some credit.

Why are French women skinnier? Here’s the real “skinny”…

1. They smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke. In France, smoking is a God-given right, handed from God to Louis the Sixteenth to Frenchmen everywhere. They smoke in the malls. They smoke in the bathrooms. They smoke in the restaurants.

Guiliano’s cultists give the impression that, given a choice between enjoying some filling food and smoking a tarry, black Gauloise, French women will pick the latter every time with their slim, elegant (and non-nicotine-stained) fingers.

French women are skinny from being jazzed up on nicotine.

If Americans are so “inferior,” why do we have Clean Air laws?

2. And speaking of being jazzed up, French people drink the most thickly, highly caffeinated coffee that can come chunking out of a percolator. The buzz almost certainly contributes to keeping them thin.

3. The cities of France are built for pedestrians. The cities of America are too sprawling to be able to walk. We sit in our cars; we sit on the trains and the buses. We are not walkers–we are too busy trying to get to work. And with a fast-food stop on every corner, our fate seems sealed.

Americans take 1% of their trips by foot, 9% by bike, and 84% by car, whereas European nations are known to take up to one-third of their trips by foot, and frequently bicycle to their locations.

In fact, Mireille Guiliano noted this sedentary lifestyle: she observed Americans in airports gulping down hamburgers and fries while typing on laptops, talking on their cell phones or reading the newspaper. “I couldn’t see anyone eating with pleasure,” she commented.

4. Europeans in general and French in particular have higher rates of vacation, sick and break time. This lowers stress, and stress is a factor in weight gain.

5. They also have longer lunches. We have a half-hour in which to grab the fastest thing we can: a burger and fries. But because of our work ethic, productivity is much higher.

6. The French eat less snack foods and garbage foods stuffed with Trans-fats.

7. In fact, French women feel terrible pressure to be thin. A recent survey showed that French women have the lowest BMI (body mass index) of all European countries. The average BMI is around 23. The survey showed that French women feel fat with a BMI under 19. Quite simply, like a bulimic or anorexic, they look in the mirror and see a far person staring back at them.

Worse yet, France is the only country in which more than five per cent of women are officially underweight.

Why should we celebrate, or emulate, this horror?

In a world where the numbers of critically obese people have matched those of the starving and malnutrition, I am certainly not advocating obesity. The percentage of Americans over 20 who are regarded as obese has more than doubled, to about 30 percent, from about 14 percent in the early 1970s. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say obesity was responsible for 112,000 premature deaths in 2002 and for $75 billion in medical costs in 2003.

Attention needs to be paid to health. Health–whether one is overfed or underfed–is the vital issue.

American women must stop beating themselves up about what they look like. Certainly, obesity is not good. It shortens lives, raises stress, and affects health. I am not arguing for fatness, but I think we should be allowed to have our shapes. We shouldn’t worship bulimia. We shouldn’t make ourselves neurotic because all we had time for was a quick, packaged meal. We Americans are interested in health, but we shouldn’t become obsessed with starvation in order to achieve some stick-thin ideal we believe is true–for false reasons.

25 Comments on “The Skinny on French Women”

  1. I work as a psych tech with anorexic and bulimic patients at a local psychiatric hospital. The push to be thin is not only extremely physically unhealthy – eating disorders are the most deadly of all mental health issues – but it causes women to focus inward in a very unhealthy fashion.

    One requirement of patients who near the end of recovery is that they volunteer somewhere part time while in treatment. Focusing on others is good! I think Americans in general probably stare at their own navels far too much. Fat OR skinny.

  2. I would much rather be beautiful and mysterious than pretty anyway. And most of history’s great beauties have been volumptuous. Interesting women make their beauty known in ways that outshine the shell. We need a re-adjustment of our thinking.
    That is not to say that we shouldn’t take care of the body that we are in, but everyone’s body is going to have a different set point and to resist that is futile.

  3. I’ll just settle on mysterious. I gave up any initial intentions for conventional beauty a long time ago. All the wrong requirements; not that i was over-weight or missing any limbs but that girl next door look just isn’t fashionable unless she looks like a Hollywood production of Lois Lane. Healthy is beautiful; sparkling eyes, glowing skin, lips with natural color. You can’t acquire that look of good health through anorexia, bulimia, fast food diets, obesity and prescription drugs, but you can through good diet and exercise. About the long time the French take to eat… my father swore it was good for us to eat slowly. Our dinner time began at six p.m. and often lasted a good two hours, everyone eating leisurely and discussing their day in between bites. Since we were not allowed to eat and talk at the same time, there was often a lot of dawdling over the food.

  4. Conventional beauty doesn’t really exist anyway. When I was young, feeling unattractive and neglected, I thought “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was just a euphemism. But it actually is true. If you think about it, there is someone who adores every type of body type, just as there is someone who will appreciate the unique vision of different types of art. Some love classic beauty, others, the unique and unusual. Some love underfed skinny boys and girls, others, the more rounded.

    Dawdling over the food is what the author, Guiliano, *intended* to discuss. Taking pleasure in that which fuels us. It is a vital concept, and it is unfortunate when that genuine pleasure becomes forgotten in the rush to cram in some nutrition before lunch break is over, or worse yet, a solitary consolation to make up for other, lacking, pleasures.

  5. These points are so insightful. No great secret to being thin, especially if you smoke and jazz yourself up–the secret is that maybe thinness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

  6. I think nobody is worshiping bulimia – I believe that Guiliano wrote that book, not to promote extreme thinness, but to show people who are overweight they can lose weight by making little changes in their lifestyles.

    A recent survey showed that French women have the lowest BMI (body mass index) of all European countries.
    The survey showed that French women feel fat with a BMI under 19. Quite simply, like a bulimic or anorexic, they look in the mirror and see a fat person staring back at them.”

    The survey only showed that the BMI standard in France is lower.

    And people in France also get fat. The obesity in France is growing at 5% a year. There’s nothing in France itself or their way of life, that can’t get you fat. Or to rephrase that: There’s nothing that restrains you from getting slimmer 😉

    You should remember that homemade stuff is the best – all the prepared food has certain additives that you don’t need, and should stay away from.
    Don’t take food for granted. Eating can be a social event and a pleasure. Snacking isn’t.
    And walking should be a way of transportation – in that way you don’t need the gym. The gym is a punishment for all the unnecessary sitting.

  7. Even though this article was written and posted almost a year ago, I loved reading it and including a link to it in my blog. I was thinking about the same thing and could not have said it better! Love it!

  8. I lost 86 lbs about 4 years ago. I was 45 years old at the time and I was fed up with the way I looked. I was 246lbs and 5’8 tall. I started with my eating first since that was my biggest problem. I bought a book called the sugar addicts total recovery program that I still follow to this day. After losing some weight on my own I started going to the gym and got a personal trainer who helped me lose the rest. I am going to be 50 years old this year and I am very fit and feel great. I am also taking courses to become a nutritionist and my personal trainer and I are going to open up a studio together sometime next year. Good luck with your weight loss. Remember to take it slow and you will develop good habits that will last the rest of your life………..

  9. i know this article was written over 2 years ago now, but i just stumbled upon it and had to reply. i think you are not well informed in your counter-points to the french life style. i am canadian but have been living in france for 4 months now, on a 1-year visa. here is where i disagree:
    1. yes, the french smoke alot, but no, they do not smoke in bathrooms, restaurants and malls. they also have clean air laws and cannot smoke in public areas. actually today i was at a mall, and there was an automatic recording that frequently gives updates about happenings at the mall and reminds patrons smoking is not allowed. perhaps this only changed within the past few years, but i somehow doubt it.
    2. as for their coffee, yes it may be more caffeinated and condensed than “american” coffee, but when you are have one, at the most two, shots of espresso, this has NOTHING on the american coffee culture of constantly walking around with a large paper cup full of coffee in your hand. the amount of coffee a day a french person vs. an american person would surely be heavier on the american side. starbucks venti sized drinks would fit more than 20 shots of espresso i bet. also, they drink coffee black, not full of sugar and fattening dairy products.
    3. on the topic of pedestrians. just because american cities are sprawling doesn’t mean one can’t make an effort to incorporate walking into their daily lives. park in a parking lot 30 minutes away from your work, only use the stairs, do SOMETHING. that is hardly an excuse.
    4 and 5. sick time and longer lunches – do french people live longer and healthier lives than americans? yes, and surely more enjoyable as well. it seems to me that this point is trying to say french people are lazy and american people are righteous because they value money and work over the rest of their lives. why not savour life? “because of our work ethic productivity is much higher” – as is the rate of cancer and disease, not to mention stress.
    6. american food is horrible. big food companies promote lies in order to make money. coke promotes its products as hydrating and pepsi owned quaker somehow adds trans fat to oats. food is not food in america, and they should learn a lesson from elsewhere and keep food natural.
    7. you cannot say american women do not feel a pressure to be thin? hollywood and american pop culture is rampant with images that cause obsessions with weight.

    maybe i missed the point and you aren’t trying to say that the american way is better? but it sounded like it to me. so instead of trying to use unfounded points of proving why americans shouldnt feel culturally inferior, you can learn from these things and become better as a culture. americans are fat and sick because something is wrong with their system. thinness in french society shouldnt be the only indication that their system is better, but in such a weight and image obsessed world, that is going to be the most gleaming example. weight is one thing that all people can control, to a certain extent. such as the inspiring story from gale, who took her weight into her own hands and changed it. don’t try to blame the french for being thinner because they smoke and drink too much coffee, they are also more conscious about what they put into their bodies and where it comes from.

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