French Women Do Get Fat

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When I lived in Paris as a young woman in my 20s, I believed I was the fattest person on the whole European continent. And I might very well have been. That was 40 years ago, when it would’ve been virtually unknown to encounter an overweight French woman – or any overweight European – for that matter.

But, oh, how times have changed. Maybe it was once true that French women don’t get fat. At least it was when Frenchwoman and former CEO of Clicquot wines, Mireille Guiliano, wrote her charming and bestselling book, French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret to Eating for Pleasure” over 20 years ago.

What was the big secret? Basically, the book is about eating normal portions, eating fresh foods, eating real foods, cooking for yourself, not snacking between meals, drinking a couple quarts (liters) of water a day, and not eating after dinner. Now, I ask you: what’s so “secret” about that? It’s basic and it’s how a lot of us actually grew up in this country.

But her book is also about life. It’s about living in season and procuring fresh seasonal ingredients, savoring food and the time spent sharing it in good company. It’s about living well and simply.

Throughout my travels that year in Paris (the same year Madonna hit it big with Like A Virgin), I was ongoingly intrigued by how petite French women were. The men, too. So many so tiny, like Napoleon. I saw a uniform of his once displayed in one of the countless museums that dot the city in the same way that fast food joints dot every city in this country. The General’s costume was proportioned just right for the body of an 11-year-old American boy.

Early in that year, I had become friends with a French woman named Christiane. She was in her 40s and mother to three children. She was learning English, I was expanding my French. She took me around to various cultural activities in Paris, invited me to events, invited me over for dinner.

Like most French women back then, Christiane was lean, with nary an extra ounce of flesh to be found anywhere on her body. And I’m not going to lie, it’s esthetically-pleasing. I’m not talking anorexic, mind you. I’m talking just enough extra to maybe get through half of a hard winter.  Nothing extra, like I just said. But if a real famine hit, they wouldn’t last long at all, if you know what I mean.

I always enjoyed the dinners at Christiane’s simple yet elegant apartment. We’d start with a light appetizer, such as olives or an uncomplicated canapé, followed by a simple potage (soup). Then, an entrée consisting of a 3 to 4 ounce piece of fish, chicken, or beef traveling with a small serving of green beans, potatoes, carrots, onions, or some other vegetable.

Next came an anemic, three-leaf endive salad topped with a crushed walnut and some vinaigrette. Finally, the cheese platter – which felt more like a sampler at whole foods’ cheese department – was followed by a small dessert and some fruit.

Put together, this sounds like a rather substantial meal but the portions were ever so small (like Napoleon).

Bread sat on the table throughout the entire meal. I could easily have eaten the entire baguette (and I wanted to, believe me), but I had to restrain myself and follow cultural protocols by eating one tiny piece at a time. When in France, do as the French.

Much as I enjoyed Christiane and her family, I couldn’t wait to get back home so I could eat. Truth told, those portions were perfect for a weight-reduction regime, and I know what I’m talking about because, by my early 20s, I had already been on a bunch of them, starting at age 10.

Throughout that wonderful year in the City of Light, I wondered endlessly how it was that French women were able to make it through the day on so few calories.

One sunny afternoon while Christiane was driving us over to her tennis club, I happened to casually mention my intrigue with the lean stature of French women.  She kept her eyes on the road and her hands upon the wheel as she admitted the following: “I’m hungry all the time.”

OUF! ET LA VOILÀ! There it was. The truth, at last. The real secret to why French women don’t get fat I had suspected all along!

Fast forward a few decades later when I came upon Mireille’s book holding a whole lot of open “secrets” but with no mention of the real one.

Can you imagine the pressure of living in a culture where women are called to uphold a worldwide belief that, unlike every other woman on the planet, your women happen to not carry around any extra weight. Not only that, but you’re expected to not get fat. You’re expected to uphold that lean standard, lest you find yourself subject to pressure to do so from family, friends, co-workers, or, in my case, a complete stranger out in public.

One overcast spring day, I was swimming at a quayside pool running along the Seine, enjoying watching the people, when un petit mec francais (small French dude) came up and stood right beside me. We shared some small talk, and then, out of nowhere, he mentions my weight.  “Yes, I said in French, “I’ve gained 7 kilos (around 15 pounds) since I’ve been here. I’d like to get that off, for sure.”

He looks at me with pursed and gathered lips pointed skyward before saying – I kid you not -“You have more than 7 kilos to lose.”

Granted, I was still young then, and frankly, quite flabbergasted. Had that happened just a few years later, that 80-pound, speedo-clad weakling would have been picked up and tossed into the Seine with the words, “va te faire foutre” echoing throughout his flan of a brain before he slap slap slap belly flopped into those murky, historic waters.

As I re-read this now, I’m still flabbergasted. I’d like for you to imagine right now an American man going up to a woman he doesn’t know and commenting on her weight. In 2023, with 61 percent of American men either overweight or obese, odds are high that a scenario such as this would add up to the pot calling the kettle black type of scenario, but still.

For a long time, French women held the distinction of being the leanest of all European women. While it’s still true that in Paris, only 14.7% of women dare to carry any extra weight (related, no doubt, to the high pressure that affluent women place upon each other to be underweight), the unfortunate percentage of overweight or obese French people at-large adds up to 47% of all citizens across all age groups. And it’s no surprise that these high rates prevail in lower socio-economic strata. Across the entire European continent, 59% are overweight, of whom 23% are obese.

These types of out of control numbers alarm the French, so much so that they’ve created the “League Against Obesity”, while we Americans have created the Fat Acceptance movement. Whereas the French consider overweight and obesity to be a major public health concern, we Americans consider an open discussion of our collective weight problem taboo and if you happen to bring it up, be prepared to be labeled a “hater”. Thus, we have the Fat Acceptance movement. Where the French are actively pursuing solutions, Americans are clinging to the Fat Acceptance movement.

We Americans also have a whole lot of low-quality foods and our real foods’ prices are actively on the rise. Fast food joints stand beckoning on every street corner like drug pushers.  Criminally so, “the greatest nation on earth” still has “food deserts”, even though that sad phrase slithered into our vernacular over 30 years ago.

There are solutions to these problems, of course, but we must each start acting on our own behalf by returning to a simpler way of living – of eating real foods, preparing our own meals, moving our bodies, getting proper sleep, drinking water. It really is simple. Unfortunately, this way of living has become a luxury for too many of us.

It saddens me, after all, that French women do – and did – get fat. I liked them being unicorns. But it’s probably no fun being a unicorn if you’re hungry all the time.

Penultimate

Earlier today, after sharing a lengthy conversation with a man and his wife at Alon’s,  swapping stories of caregiving, death,

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