Monday, April 06, 2009

French women do get fat (New research raises questions concerning one of my favorite books about eating: French Women Don't Get Fat. How much longer will French women be an example to us of healthy eating?)
When I was last in Paris, the book French Women Don't Get Fat was all the rage in the U.S. I actually brought it with me to read on the flight over and back. While in Paris, my beloved husband and I enjoyed some great French food and still lost a few pounds. I had spent a summer in Paris in my teens, and I was now trying to show my dear one as many of my favorite sites in just a few days. So, we walked and walked and walked - in metabolism-raising brisk spring air, moreover. We were not trying to diet, but the pounds slipped off, nonetheless.

I intended to continue eating in the traditional French style when we returned home and to continue walking a lot, too. Alas, those pounds we lost in France eventually found their way back across the Atlantic and back onto our American tummies. Sigh.

I was interested to note on our trip that most of the Parisians still seemed both slender and petite in frame, despite the plethora of Starbucks and McDonald's that now saturate the city. Many other ethnic groups who live in that cosmopolitan city also share the tendency toward slenderness. I did notice, however, some signs that made me wonder if the next generation of French will struggle with expanding girth just as so many Americans do.

Three decades earlier, when I spent that wonderful summer in Paris, I had been surprised by the fact that you could with near certainty pick out certain nationalities by appearance. For example, Scandinavians were generally the tallest in a group, and they invariably had slender frames. Americans were next in height, and, while they were generally fit, they were usually of a bigger build than the other ethnic groups around us. The French were petite in stature and slim, to boot.

At the time, there was a pronounced difference in the European and American cuts of clothing for men and for children. French men fit into shirts and pants that were cut close to the body, with lots of seaming and darts. Even very fit American men sometimes had a hard time squeezing into the European cut. Though the sizing systems differed, there was not as much variation in the cuts of French and American women's clothing. However, the problem that American men had with the European cut usually had more to do with having a larger bone structure than with excess weight.

Since my friends and I were in our late teens at the time, our youthful metabolisms handled a daily taste of wonderful French pastries without any of us gaining an ounce. (I don't think the French would have eaten these delights every day, as we did.) Of course, as soon as our classes were over each day, we headed out to enjoy the sights and the parks of Paris. We burned up a lot of calories sight-seeing and giggling and just being young.

At the time, the people of France still did their grocery shopping on a daily basis. They selected their foods from the offerings of many small markets. There was a market dedicated to each kind of food. There were a few large American style supermarkets -- or supermarch├ęs as they are called in France. However, they were just coming in style there and had not replaced the French demand for daily fresh food supplied by local merchants. (The supermarch├ęs still have not vanquished the small markets entirely. Many Parisians do still shop the small markets. They carry rolling carts with them to carry their food home, and they stop by markets on their way home in the evening.)

We were there a year before the first McDonald's opened in Paris. At the time, there was not a real hamburger to be found in the whole city. The closest the French had to a fast food burger chain was the British establishment, Wimpy's. Though we delighted in all of the wonderful French meals we were having -- many of which were prepared by Portuguese nuns in the dormitory where we stayed -- we decided to try Wimpy's one day in order to get a taste of home. We found that the Franglicized idea of a hamburger was a bit different than the American one. Perhaps, the French were happier for not yet having so many supermarches and fast food restaurants to choose from.

In the intervening three decades between my visit, many Americans - including myself -- have found themselves battling weight issues. While this was once a middle-aged phenomenon, I've noticed that even school children and young adults often carry more weight than our generation did when we were that age. And, though our mothers often complained of packing on a few matronly pounds, I believe that middle-aged Americans have an even greater struggle than middle-aged Americans of a few decades ago.

Of course, the issue for me is not really about appearance, but about health. I'm no fan of the runway waif look. Nor, do I subscribe to the idea that you have to be extremely thin to be healthy, happy, or attractive. Sometimes, French culture -- as well as American -- puts an unhealthy focus on being skinny versus looking and feeling your personal best.

The principles in the book "French Women Don't Get Fat" harken back to a time when the French ate fresh foods purchased daily in local markets and to a time when the French and many other Europeans ate most of their meals at a leisurely pace. Also, the French were extremely family centered and their custom was for an extended family to enjoy a wonderful dinner together on Sundays. Cooking and eating were seen as arts to be enjoyed.

I remember being fascinated when I was in a restaurant in Rome on my first trip to Europe. A woman had a whole peach for her dessert. She gracefully used a knife to cut it portion by portion. It took her so...o...o long to eat that one peach. I'm sure she left the restaurant feeling as satisfied as if she had had a calorie laden confection.

Now mind you, in the U.S. at that time, home cooking and eating breakfast and dinner together were also still common for American families. Americans were active outdoors. More children and teens, especially, spent a lot more time moving about in the fresh air. We had only rudimentary video games; few of us spent long hours in day care; and we probably watched fewer hours of TV than our counterparts of today. Yes, even then, Americans were racing down the trail to the modern lifestyle and excess poundage faster than Europeans were. However, our culture still shared some principles of healthful eating and healthful living that are put forth in FWDGF.

Somewhere along the way, we Americans started working out in gyms (nothing wrong with that) but stopped including healthful outdoor activity throughout our day. We began to gulp down our meals in a hurry to get somewhere else. The family seldom ate breakfast together anymore, and even family dinners were in peril. People started eating more pre-packaged foods and fast foods. And, we started packing on the pounds. This has been a mystery to some doctors, because, in a way, Americans are more health conscious than they used to be. Many cut fat from their diets and try all sorts of diet and exercise regimens. We have made strides in overcoming heart disease and other ailments. Still, we have been super-sizing our bodies for thirty years and are continuing to do so at an alarming rate.

Well, statistics say that as the French and other Europeans are becoming more and more Americanized, they are -- you guessed it -- picking up American -style pounds. Here's an excerpt from an article about that:

"The French are looking more like Americans because they are living more like Americans. Goodbye shopping at outdoor markets. Hello processed foods. Goodbye two-hour lunches. Hello cramming a sandwich in your face at your desk as you scroll through e-mail. Goodbye savoring. Hello snacking.

"Most shockingly, French women (and it is still mostly women) not only don't have time to cook anymore - they've forgotten how. At a recent Weight Watchers meeting, a bunch of ladies who battled an hour of grinding Paris traffic to make it there after work were unable to identify a measuring spoon."

Another article about the book FWDGF describes the role of French government in regulating things related to diet. The article points out that Americans have traditionally found this paternalistic style of government to be too intrusive into one's personal life.

I'm fascinated by the connection in both countries -- France and the U.S. -- between extra girth and the fact that women no longer have time to cook. Of course, France is the land of great male cooks. Yet, in the home, it is usually the woman who plans the menus, does the marketing, and cooks the daily meals. It is generally the women who see that the family eats dinner together and organizes meals for the extended family on Sundays. On both sides of the Atlantic, it seems that women are struggling to find time to exercise the domestic arts that make for healthful and happy home lives. Have we Americans done the world a favor by spreading the wonders of fast food, as well as the idea that women are no longer needed in the home sphere and should turn their talents elsewhere?

Since my blog tends to be about domestic things, it's obvious that I have an interest in home and family. I do believe it's important for a woman to see home keeping as a worthwhile and satisfying sphere of life -- perhaps even making family her main career. Let me be clear; I am not rigid in my views about the choices women make concerning family and work. I don't want to err on the side of trying to dictate to others what decisions they should make in this regard. Still, findings like this research about French and American culture do make me wonder...Hmm.



John Maszka said...
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Angela said...

We went to France in August 2006. I had been told that all french women were very chic and dressed smartly - and as we were camping and travelling on a motorbike, I had very few clothes. I was concerned I would look scruffy.I have to say that in many of the villages, the women were neither smart, nor chic - nor slim! But they were all very friendly - esp when torrential rain made camping difficult. It is sad tat we stereotype people.

Miss G said...

Great post, Elizabeth. I think you have a lot of excellent points. I too have a passion for it to be valued for women to take care of many home activities that benefit not only their families but also our society as a whole. Thank you for sharing. Kelly

p.s. I found your blog via an old post on Meredith's blog, Like Merchant Ships. Kelly

Elizabeth G. said...

Hi! I found your blog while blog "window shopping" and stopped in for a read. What a wonderful post and very thought-provoking. I think you are right. There must be a real link between having most meals home-cooked and being more slender and healthy....Ugh, I get so sad when I think that normal homemaking skills are becoming "lost arts".

Well, you are helping to carry the banner of domesticity.

You are also a wonderful writer.
God bless,

Elizabeth said...

Hi Angela,

Yes, we do have to be wary of sterotyping people of any culture. I have always found the French to be very friendly, too, and I've always been surprised when I hear people describe them as being rude. Many French women do complain of the stereotype that they must always be chic and slim, when they are real women just as we are. However, statistics do show that France has long had a much much lower rate of obesity than America has. They are catching up with us, though.

Hi Miss G.,
Thanks for your encouragement. I love Meredith's blog! I will visit yours soon.

Hi Elizabeth G.
Always glad to hear form another Elizabeth. Thanks for your encouragment.

Buffy said...

I agree with your conclusions. I too have the book and very much enjoyed reading it. We have been very affected by the American fast food culture in the UK and we have an obesity problem here too.