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 by books and magazines 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?
1. French women eat smaller portions, and drink a lot of water.
2. French women smoke. Yes, about 30% of French women smoke. This rate is among the highest in the world, but they still outlive nearly everybody else, coming in second only to Japanese women for longevity.
3. 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.
French women are forced to use toilets that 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.
French women don’t get fat because their surrounding environment immediately lets them know if they’ve gained an ounce. Gain weight, and they immediately become ungainly and ungraceful in a society that worships grace and elegance.
The French do with obesity what we’ve done to smoking in this country; they use social pressure to make obesity a social embarrassment. Gain weight, and you literally won’t fit in. Anywhere.
America 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 in something like that. French women are expected to dress up and look the part. And they do.
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. To bolster my theory that French women diet, I saw numerous billboards everywhere touting various diet supplements.
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.
1. They do eat smaller portions.
3. They smoke cigarettes.
4. They walk a lot.
But they also don’t let it get out control because they have cues all around them to alert them to changes in their weight.
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 while chatting with a friend, or a lover, is much more soul-satisfying than gobbling up greasy chicken fingers, and washing it down a diet soda, while chauffeuring your kids to and from soccer in your car.
Food in France is a social experience, and I suspect that weight is too. It’s 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’ve experienced what this social pressure is like firsthand, and what happens when it is removed.
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 part of how the society around me perceived me and size.
Of course, we can’t expect our culture to change overnight, and I highly doubt we’d even allow it to happen. The change must come from us. You and I can do a bit of the same thing that French society does 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.