16 September 2018

Weighing in

Yesterday I happened to walk into my local butcher shop just as everyone was still reeling from the size of an American woman who had bought a chicken.

Knowing I am originally from the U.S. they asked if it’s true that obesity in America has become epidemic, and brought up something I’d once heard from a small group of French doctors I'd been training at The American Hospital of Paris: In Paris, most hospitals don’t have scales to accommodate people of such proportions, "so they get sent to a veterinary clinic outside the city, in Asnières, where livestock gets weighed."
Obesity (not to be confused with being surpoids or merely overweight) in Paris, while it exists, remains a visual rarity, as noted with surprise over and over by visitors from the U.S. When severe obesity is spotted in Paris ("Mais c'est pas possible!"), usually it's in areas that are magnets for tourists, and it is assumed that they are not French.
Illustrations often depict French girls and women as stick thin, which of course is not the norm nor is it the desired norm. But fashion and beauty, synonymous with Paris, is a big part of French culture. Most café terrace chairs face outwards so passersby can be seen, and appreciated. One has but to look up at the sky just about anywhere inside the city limits and no electrical or telephone lines are visible because, as a French architect friend explained, "It ruins the eye!”

I used to wonder if Mireille Guiliano's best-selling “French Women Don’t Get Fat” shouldn’t have been titled, “French Women Won’t Get Fat.” When I was growing up my father, who never lost his sense of style (or his French accent), used to admonish us to "take a little pride" in our appearance. Getting fat was not an option; obesity was associated with letting oneself go, and lower socioeconomic groups and, as recent studies show, still is today.

Later, in college, to my usual uniform of jeans and jackets (little has changed since) I'd add small "French touches" - a scarf here, a choker there (I'd design my own), maybe a bright lipstick - and became an unwitting sort of fashion trendsetter on campus, particularly in grad school. But it was how I was brought up.

In Paris, so far, beauty remains in the eye of each beholder. We won't be bullied into changing our tastes to suit PC outsiders. When it comes to obesity, health is one consideration yes, but for now, at least, the French will quote Fyodor Dostoevsky at dinner parties: "Beauty will save the world."


Adapted from my talk:

Eating French: Why French Women Won't Get Fat 
(a.k.a. A French Paradox: The French Non Diet and The Art of Eating for Pleasure)

Special thanks to:

Treize au Jardin
5 rue de Médicis 75006

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