20 January 2014

The fatness of French women (and men)

In the wake of the revelations about François Hollande’s triangular private life, there has been a spate of articles in the British papers about French women, particularly married ones and how different they are from their equivalents on the other side of the Channel. But books on this subject have been a publisher’s staple for a while and are usually more concerned with appearances and the tricky subject of weight than with adultery.

Prospect magazine’s website has a review by Lucy Wadham of French Women Don’t Get Facelifts by Mireille Guillano. Wadham is the author of The Secret Life of France, which according to her website, is “an account of Lucy's relationship with France, her adoptive land, was published by Faber in July 2010 to great acclaim and updated in 2013. You can read more about her there and on Wikipedia. In her review, she is gunning for “… books from a growing branch of the self-help tree, all inviting me to think, look, and generally be more like a French woman”. “Guillano’s book exemplifies many of the worst traits of the genre”, but it’s not her first and:
Thanks to [their] worldwide success … French femininity, as a global brand, has become accessible to the masses, perhaps for the first time. It is, by extension, a model for everything we Anglophone women have lost in our post-feminist, consumerist world: refinement, discretion, moderation, and above all sexiness.
How did this loss come about?
The school of feminism that advocated policing the private sphere as well as the public one seemed to bypass France during the 1960s and 70s. French feminism, esoteric as it was, left the roles traditionally played by men and women virtually untouched, nor did there seem to be any appetite among the population at large to revolutionise private relations between the sexes. … there has been little movement in France towards equality in the bedroom. French gender roles are not contractual (nor indeed are parent-child relationships) but hierarchical. That’s why there’s relatively little conflict. Judging from the success of books such as Mireille Guillano’s, we seem to find this state of affairs refreshing compared to the pitiless transparency of male-female relations in Britain and America.
And on top of that:
Anthropologists often distinguish between what they term “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.” Britain and America, according to this division, are predominantly guilt cultures while France is a shame culture, still steeped in notions of pride and honour. These ideals override those of truth-telling and transparency. In shame cultures, appearances are all-important (this might explain the elegant but highly conformist style and rigorous dress code so admired in French women) and there are dos and don’ts that serve as effective regulators 
... By contrast, Britain and America’s Protestant heritage emphasises the individual’s conscience over the code. Social control is achieved, not through norms of behaviour but through the feelings of guilt triggered by an act of transgression. The internal policing inherent in our culture means that pleasure can easily become a trap. ... In America in particular, the excessive emphasis on diet has turned the eating of fatty foods—which French girls supposedly love—into a sin.
Wadham concludes
So what lies behind the French woman’s ineffable charm? For a start, because she hasn’t been entirely reconstructed by feminism, she’s playing a more traditional role. Secondly, she’s relatively free of the guilt that seems to emanate like toxic fumes from all areas of Anglo-American life—from parenting, to sexual relationships, to food. And lastly, she has a much more flexible relationship with the truth: none of my French girlfriends have any scruples about lying when it comes to dieting or plastic surgery, even to their closest friends.
The books Wadham is sniping at are probably best regarded as the non-fiction equivalent of Chick lit – Chick nonfic, one might say. Marina Hyde tilts at the same windmills in a Guardian opinion piece, French Women don't get fat – or live in actual France, and comes to a similar conclusion but without anthropologically-based comparisons with Anglophone women:
As for how quite how much French Women have to do with French women … well, there are plenty who maintain that so-called Swinging London was actually limited to 17 people and Mick Jagger, and one can't help but sense that, were one to click one's fingers and teleport right now to a regional French high street, to say nothing of one of the HLM housing projects in which one in six people in the country lives, it would become clear that the France of the proverbial French Women actually involves 23 Parisians. And at least half of those are being economical with the actualité of how they truly live. 
Who am I, a mere male who visits, but isn’t resident in, France, to disagree with all this? And there may be an element of truth in the contrast Wadham on the one hand, makes between the “modern French “girl”—at least the middle-class, Parisian version of her” and “we Anglophone women” and, on the other, between Hyde’s 23 Parisian women and the 16% in the cités HLM.

The OECD publishes data which shed light on the issue of “fatness”, ie the state of being overweight or obese. Their data are in terms of Body Mass Index (BMI) so the first chart below is an international comparison of adult obesity, defined as a BMI more than 30). The Anglophone world seems to be concentrated at the high end on the right, whereas France is well to the left, although its position relative to other European countries seems to have deteriorated between 2000 and 2010. It’s difficult to see how Wadham’s shame culture/blame culture model can explain the anomalous position of Luxembourg relative to its cultural neighbours, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and France.

The table below shows the underlying data for UK, US and France for overweight (BMI 25 to 30) as well as obesity for men and women.

The second chart allows this data to be viewed as a comparison of women and men which adds the percentages of both not falling into either the overweight or obese categories. It shows that French men and women are always healthier than their US and UK equivalents, that there are more overweight men than women in all three countries and that in both sexes the UK is worse than the US in being overweight.

Interestingly, although there is more obesity in the US than in the other two nations, men and women are not significantly different when it comes to obesity, unlike being overweight. Wadham’s shame/blame model doesn’t explain why French men are more likely to be overweight than French women. However, her remark that “French gender roles are not contractual … but hierarchical” might suggest that French men think they can get away with being overweight without censure but, coming from a nation of hypochondriacs, tend to avoid the risks to health of being obese.

The Chick nonfic assertion that French women don’t get fat does seem to be supported by the statistics for almost 2/3 of them, and fewer than one in seven is obese.

(Anyone with a BMI over 30 or below 18.5 should be seeking medical advice.)

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