French women are world famous for their beauty, their elegance, their style, and their innate sensuality. They are notorious for aging gracefully, and we’re prompted at every turn to envy them and attempt, if possible, to try to emulate them. Of course it isn’t possible. They are French and we are not. They stay slim and we get fat. That’s the way it is. Right?
What are we told about this mysterious breed of women who apparently can gorge themselves on cheese and swill wine all day with abandon and never gain an ounce?
We’re told they eat smaller portions and drink a lot of water. Yes, we’re informed that French women smoke, about 30% of French women smoke, among the highest in the world, but they still outlive nearly everybody else, coming in second only to Japanese women for longevity. And we’re told that they walk a lot. But they don’t actually exercise. In one week canvasing huge swaths of the city I never saw a gym and, in a city of 2 million people, I witnessed less than five people running. I haven’t researched this, but I’m pretty sure there is no Jillian Michaels counterpart in France.
But none of these are the real reasons that French women don’t get fat. I know the reason and I’m going to tell you.
Their toilettes. Their toilets are teeny, weeny, teeny, tiny. I am 5’4″ and weigh 120 and I could barely wedge myself into their public toilets. According to my husband, the men’s rooms were equally as narrow. It became a running gag between us to check out the public toilettes of the restaurants we patronized and come back and compare how small the bathroom was. My husband said that one was so small he could barely move his arms enough to unzip his pants. That’s a small bathroom. But it isn’t just the bathrooms. Their restaurants have tiny chairs and teeny-tiny tables all crammed together tightly. In fact, their whole society is like a pair of freshly washed, tight blue jeans without any of that forgiving spandex.
It is my opinion that French women don’t get fat because their surrounding environment immediately lets them know if they’ve gained an ounce. Gain weight and you will immediately become ungainly and ungraceful in a society that worships grace and elegance. You won’t fit in the toilette; you will turn over tables and chairs as you’re trying to make your way to your table at the cafe.
American society is, by comparison, like a nice, comfy pair of stretchy sweatpants compared to France. In fact, in America it is okay to wear those stretched out sweatpants in public whereas no French woman would be caught dead where people could see her looking like that. French women are expected to dress up and look the part. And they do.
The French do to obesity what we’ve done to smoking in this country: They use social pressure and make obesity a social embarrassment.
It is a fallacy that French women don’t diet. French women do diet. Somehow. I didn’t see it, but I know they must because the laws of physics demands that they must. Energy in must equal energy out or the energy is stored as matter, period. That’s it.
In every restaurant we ate, every Frenchwoman we sat next to ordered dessert. I paid attention because I wanted to know how they did it. How do you eat cheese and dessert and not gain weight? I still don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that all the reasons given in the bazillion articles you can find on the web are why They eat smaller portions, they drink a lot of water, and they walk a lot. But they also don’t let it get out control because they have societal cues all around them to alert them to changes in their weight.
I did notice there are plenty of diet aid displays in drugstores. Here’s just one of the many I saw prominently advertised all over the city:
I also suspect that French women have an entirely different relationship to food than we Americans do. Eating a delicious, perfectly crispy/chewy croissant while sitting in a lovely cafe and chatting with a friend or a lover is much more soul-satisfying than gobbling down chicken fingers with a diet soda while chauffeuring your kids to and from soccer in your car.
But it is the social pressure that provides the impetus. Social pressure is a very powerful tool to manipulate public behavior. In France, it is simply unacceptable to be fat.
I grew up in Pacific Beach, California, where bikinis were mandatory and there was a great deal of pressure to be thin. When I was 16, I was sent to Southern Indiana to live with my grandmother for the summer. During that summer I gained 20 pounds and didn’t even notice it. At the end of the summer, I was still significantly smaller than most of the people around me. When I came home to San Diego I immediately became acutely aware that I’d gained that weight. How is it that I could gain 20 pounds in three months and not even notice it? My perception of my weight was altered by the society I was living within and the people who surrounded me.
Of course, we can’t expect our culture to change overnight, and I highly doubt we’d even allow it to happen. But you can do a bit of the same thing for yourself that French society does for the women there with just this one little piece of advice: Do not wear elastic waistbands; they are the bane of weight control, especially as we reach middle age.
If you liked this, you might enjoy this: Paris is for Lovers.