French women don’t get fat

// 25 March 2008

Zoe Williams has a hilarious and perceptive opinion piece in The Guardian today, exploring the publishing phenomenon based on cultural stereotypes that would have us think that French women are beautiful, elegant creatures entirely unlike our lardy selves.

French women are creatures to be emulated. They do not get fat, according to French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano; the same author, in her next book, French Women for All Seasons, tells us that they are always happy with the season of life they are in, be it the young-filly season or the old-bag season. This is because – and I have scoured this book; I am not being facetious, this is literally her answer – they don’t get fat. What a wonderful secret they’ve unearthed – a way to come to terms with mortality that is the same as being thin. How could such a thing possibly be managed? “When being served meat, soup, vegetables, whatever at someone’s home, or even in a restaurant, French women are apt to tell the person dishing it out, ‘La moitié, s’il vous plaît’ – just give me half of that.” No! But this is too, too delicious! They have these wonderful lives, and qualities, by looking at how much everyone else is eating and just having half of it.

Astonishingly, there is a book by an entirely different author, Debra Ollivier, called Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding her Inner French Girl, which is subtitled, Why French Women Stay Chic, Love Life and Don’t Get Fat. Presumably, one of these women could have sued the other for ripping off her title, except that French Women Don’t Sue One Another Because Suing is an Ugly Thing That Leads to Wrinkles. Ollivier’s book is the same, really – just a load of bilge about how amazing their self-control is, these Frenchies – “Would you look at that, I just saw a Frenchie standing next to an ice-cream van, and she chose a Gauloise instead, what amazing willpower, I wish I were more like her, yik-yak-yik-yak.”

This actually made me laugh so much I spat about half of the chocolate I was eating at the time over my keyboard, so perhaps I won’t get fat either. I’m glad I’m not the only woman who gets pissed off about the idea that in order to be elegant, sophisticated and “feminine”, I am supposed to be wearing Chanel, smoking Gauloises, pouting a lot whilst sitting outside cafes, and not getting fat. How many women actually have the money and inclination to buy designer clothes? And since when has smoking given you anything except yellow teeth, chronic bronchitis and a greater-than-average chance of dying a hideous death? As Williams points out, “Just as a lot of subtle racism slipped in under the guise of anthropology in old-school National Geographics, so a lot of misogyny slips in under the obfuscating, colourful gauze of Studies in French Etiquette.”

Can you imagine what Simone De Beauvoir would have said about being called a girl? About being included in a book whose next chapter explains why it’s important to buy your walking shoes in Prada, because you can never be too well dressed? About being name-checked by a person who doesn’t just not know the meaning of the word existentialist, but can’t even be arsed to look it up before committing it to a paperback? Can you imagine? She would have had a cow.


French women, I’m sure, don’t think of themselves like this any more than we think of ourselves as foul-mouthed alcopop-hounds who eat a lot of fried food. But you cannot escape the implications – that somewhere, not too far from here, is a land where they never had anything as vulgar as a sexual revolution, where women are still, eternally, women, where they get their own way with their cat-like cunning, not with unattractive shouting, and what do you know? They are exactly the same as you; as successful as you, as educated as you, as well paid as you; they have come to the very same endpoint, only they are thinner. This is the most arrant misrepresentation of French feminists, for starters, who are no greater suckers for body-sculpting cream than any other variant of feminist; but it is also a traducement of the aims and ends of feminism, which was not just there so we might all get into the cabinet, but so we wouldn’t have to resemble Elle McPherson to do so, any more than Kenneth Clarke has to justify himself by looking like Russell Crowe.

What am I doing? This is where the extra 10kg come from, which make me look more like an English woman than a French woman. I am not seducing anybody. I am not making time for myself or my beauty regime. I am not internet-shopping for a pair of Tods. Would a Frenchwoman rant on like this? She would not. She would have a fag, and she would say, “Bof”.

I haven’t much to say about this article because I just agree with all of it. French women are not goddess-like bastions of slimness and sophistication to which we must all aspire, and they deserve to be celebrated for more than this anyway.

Comments From You

Catherine Redfern // Posted 25 March 2008 at 4:50 pm

I’ve seen a similar, equally offensive one from the same series called something like: “Japanese women don’t get old”… it strook me as racist, not to mention a blatantly ridiculous stereotype /generalisation. I’m sure you can find them on Amazon (don’t have access to it at the moment)

Virago // Posted 25 March 2008 at 5:03 pm

The thin=successful idea is so prevalent now, and it fits so neatly inside the the concept of women dieting themselves so they shrink and shrink into tinier and more frail beings, just as patriarchy wants them – hungry and weak.

Shapely Prose has a wonderful post about this concept that I was reading only today. If we all just accepted ourselves, loved ourselves, focussed on being happy and healthy, a lot of the financial scaffolding holding up patriarchy would collapse.

And on that note, it heartens me to see body-positive blogs and communities springing up :)

vibracobra // Posted 25 March 2008 at 6:18 pm

I’ve certainly never known any French women to say ‘la moitie, s’il vous plait’.

It’s ridiculous, people in the UK used to see me as French and people in France tend to see me as British. Which is very weird, because the British stereotype of French women is that they’re incredibly beautiful and sexy, whereas the French stereotype of British women is that they’re exactly the opposite. Mindfuck.

Betsy // Posted 26 March 2008 at 10:35 am

I saw this book in a shop and just laughed, probably because it was just after my Francophile sister, having spent three months doing social-esque work in France, had told me that overweight French women are so embarrassed about being overweight that they don’t leave their houses much. Probably more sad than laughable, but the juxtaposition is crazy. France if the 3rd most obese nation in Europe, so according to these books only them men are fat then?

Cara // Posted 26 March 2008 at 10:39 am

Loved Zoe’s article.

As if all French women are all slim and perfect. And very good point, the media are seemingly unable to report on a female politician without mentioning her appearance and it bugs me.

I have to point out though that generally, the French *do* eat proper food, not processed crap, and less of it. Not about starving yourself, just about not over-eating.

The French have less obesity, surprisingly.

Not saying they have found some magical diet solution…but they do mostly eat real food.

“Have a bit of what you fancy, take time to eat rather than shovelling it in while working/ watching TV, stop eating when you are full, and have some fruit and veg once in a while” wouldn’t sell many diet books, would it?

Not to mention being pretty difficult to do, when *most* women have a screwed up attitude to food…with tempting junk easily available and heavily marketed, on the one hand, then the pressure to be stick thin on the other.

Lisa // Posted 26 March 2008 at 3:05 pm

Also “calories in = calories out” doesn’t sell many books either ! Why not books like this – “Martial Arts for Women”, “Free Climbing French Women Champions” (yes the ones not starving themselves and smoking themselves to death, have fun), “Building Core Body Strength” but most importantly “Exercises to Strengthen Bones and Prevent Osteoporosis” would be more useful.

Jane // Posted 26 March 2008 at 4:20 pm

Good article but the one thing Zoe Williams didn’t mention was that all the French women pictured, Segolene Royale, Cecilia Sarkozy, Rachida Dati, are all in their forties or older. The myth that all French women are slim and chic may be just that – a myth, but as a race, the French seem to celebrate an older woman’s sexuality. Getting older is not a federal offence and French women are not expected to disappear beneath a pile of baggy tweeds and blue perms.

Oh and the real reason why French women are so slim? They eat rien.

katarina // Posted 27 March 2008 at 1:58 pm

Thanks for picking up this piece. I laughed long and loud when I read it and wanted very much to write to Zoe Williams and tell her I love her.

Just seeing the title of those “French women…” books made me very uncomfortable because they were obviously buying into the woman-hating French stereotypes exemplified by a French acquaintance whose large belly hung over his Speedos as he proclaimed that it was forbidden to get fat chez lui.

vibracobra // Posted 27 March 2008 at 4:49 pm


as a race, the French…

By race, you meant ‘culture’, right?

As for expectations, they vary quite a lot from region to region. The French aren’t a race, and they’re not a monolythic culture any more than the UK is. It’s a big place.

As for the women portrayed in the books, I think what the author means is the French women who matter are the ones who can afford designer clothes. There’s a class thing going on there – the rest simply aren’t people.

In fact the whole idea is kind of racist – in that it does characterise the French as a different race with different body types and different habits.

Seph // Posted 27 March 2008 at 11:25 pm

Wow, I never knew that all French women were secretly Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the sheer stupidity of stuff like this is just laughable.

Whenever I see the thin=happy and succesful argument, I always remember a picture I happened to see in the newspaper of the Beckhams at an airport (before the went to America) where David was carrying one of the kids, one of the staff had another and victoria was holding a tiny bag, because she was way too skinny to pick up one of her own damn kids without breaking something.

Yup, success and power, right there >_>;

I think i’ll stay overweight thanks, means I can actually remain upright and concious at rock concerts, now *thats* sucess.

David Space // Posted 28 March 2008 at 1:19 am

Yes…it’s kind of difficult to comment when you agree with everything someone says. I find she usually leaves me feeling there’s just nothing to add.

And yes, it was funny. But it stopped being so funny when she moved from the subtle sexism behind the praise French women receive, and on to the overt and totally unsubtle sexism that female politicians in the UK have to deal with.

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