The weighty issue of being slim
Claire Morel leads a double life, she tells me with a playful smile, ‘‘like almost all Parisienne women’’. She’s referring to food, and the pain she and many others endure to live up to the myth that French women stay slim effortlessly, despite eating three-course meals and drinking wine.
It’s a myth perpetuated by Mireille Guiliano’s 2004 bestseller, French Women Don’t Get Fat, and exemplified by actresses Marion Cotillard, Audrey Tautou and Eva Green.
‘‘When foreigners visit Paris, they see skinny women in restaurants, feasting on traditional dishes with butter and cream sauces, tucking into cheese and desserts and quaffing wine, so obviously they wonder how we manage not to get fat,’’ says Morel, 33, an events manager, when we meet in a hip cafe beside the Bassin de la Villette.
‘‘The truth the tourists never see is that we watch our weight compulsively. You have to be a bon vivant and take pleasure in food, but what you show in public and what you live in private are two different things. After eating out, you compensate at home. No one sees how little you eat for the next three days.’’
With her warm smile and engaging manner, Morel is selfassured, attractive and slim at 5ft 6in and 9st 10lb. Though not stickthin in the way many young Parisiennes are, she could never be deemed overweight; except perhaps under what she calls the ‘‘diktat’’ of the fashionistas.
‘‘When I was younger I often felt guilty,’’ says Morel. ‘‘Here, you’re seen as plump if you’re size 10. The ideal Parisienne woman is superskinny and we all suffer while we struggle to conform to an unrealistic body image. In Paris, image – le look – is all-important.’’
The reason the myth that French women don’t put on weight endures in cities like Paris, argues author Gabrielle Deydier, is partly because few overweight people live in the affluent central arrondissements.
‘‘Employers tend not to hire the overweight. They’re banished to the banlieues [suburbs].’’
Deydier, 38, has become something of a media sensation since publishing a book about what it’s like to be obese in France, On Ne Naıˆt Pas Grosse (You’re Not Born Fat), exposing the quiet tyranny of the country’s cultural mores.
National coverage has prompted a public reaction ranging from empathy for the ostracising effects of what she calls ‘‘grossophobia’’, to complaints that she is trying to normalise obesity.
‘‘You’re seen as a loser, someone with a self-inflicted disability,’’ says Deydier, who, despite her two degrees and confident manner, was forced to abandon a job as a teaching assistant after becoming the target of ‘‘constant jibes’’ about her 23st (146kg) weight.
‘‘I thought about bringing a discrimination case but there’s a feeling in France that if you’re fat it’s your fault, so you feel guilty.’’
In a job as a receptionist she was sexually harassed. ‘‘A male colleague threatened to rape me, then denied it, saying I was ‘too fat’. My bosses, who were women, advised me not to take the case any further. I went to the police but they said: ‘It will be complicated for you. You’ll be humiliated’.’’
Yet the French are getting fatter. French women are still among the thinnest in Europe but, according to a report by the OECD, more than 15 per cent of the adult population (over-15s) were clinically obese in 2015, up from 12 per cent eight years ago. And the number of bariatric surgeries has doubled in the past six years, to 50,000 annually.
At the other end of the scale, more than 600,000 people suffer from anorexia or other eating disorders. Morel blames the fashion industry for jeopardising young women’s health. Under a new ‘‘Photoshopping’’ law, pictures that are digitally altered to make models look thinner must carry a warning.
‘‘It’s men who are most at fault. As soon as we become a bit curvier, they look at us less. They don’t want to take out a woman who might be categorised as ‘plump’. But it’s really competitive among women, too,’’ adds Morel. ‘‘Being slim gives you power over other women.’’
A few years ago, she consulted a dietitian. ‘‘I wanted to lose four or five pounds but the dietitian told me I was overweight and needed to lose 15 or 16 pounds. He made me feel like I was ill. I lost seven or eight pounds but it became obsessive and I think I would have made myself ill if I’d carried on. Afterwards I put the weight back on.’’
Tiphaine Chevalier, a 36-yearold lawyer, says she became anorexic in her late teens.
‘‘It started when someone said I was too fat, so I wanted to take control. It lasted five or six years. I was cured when I spent a year in Glasgow, away from friends and family. I returned to eating normally without thinking about it.‘‘
The enthusiasm generated by Deydier’s book, however, suggests that many French people share her desire for a relaxation of attitudes.
Having done the TV talk show circuit, she is planning a documentary, and her book is due to be published in the UK next year. It’s a far cry from the days when she had her shopping delivered to avoid disparaging remarks from strangers.
‘‘Fat people don’t get respect. People you don’t know think they can insult you or give you patronising advice. I used to feel like I was under house arrest. Now I go to restaurants.’’
In fact, our interview takes place in the same cafe in which I met Morel, who, recognising Deydier instantly from TV, is delighted to meet her. ‘‘I admire your courage in speaking out,’’ she tells her, warmly.
After Deydier leaves, she adds: ‘‘This isn’t an issue that only affects heavily overweight women, it also affects women like me who look normal on the outside but who are compelled by the tyranny of society to be even thinner. There’s a conspiracy of silence.’’
Perhaps it is finally ending.
Don’t expect every French woman to look like Marion Cotillard. If they do it’s because they’ve spent days starving themselves so they can be seen in public as skinny.