The weighty is­sue of be­ing slim

The Southland Times - - FASHION&BEAUTY -

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.

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