The Skinny on French Women


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.