I’m gonna keep on writing a bit on the differences between France and other countries. But this time, it’s not about veganism. It’s about the pressure to look good. I had already touched upon these topics here and there.
The more I live abroad, the more I can see clearly what makes France so typically French, and why it’s often seen as such an attractive country. French culture is very strong. It’s such a diverse country geographically speaking, yet somewhat culturally homogeneous for the size. Food is important, art is important, fashion, love, freedom are important, in ways often pervasive through society and difficult to recognize while you’re part of it. For example, I had never understood why Paris was seen as the city of love until I went abroad and noticed that Public Demonstrations of Affection (or PDAs, which at the time I didn’t even know there was a word for!) such as couples holding hands or kissing on the street, which were typical for me, were weird or even frown upon in other countries. Oh cultural norms! The main critic I will always bear towards Frenchies is their pride, for except perhaps Americans and Italians, I have never met people so proud of their countries. Now, there are many reasons to be proud of France, and I am proud of my country, but I often think it crosses borders when it becomes such a strong part of your identity that you can’t talk about anything else.
Anyways as usual I am diverging. I was going to talk about body image, specifically concerning women. I recently talked to a couple of people about what you’re expected to look like as a woman in France compared to other european countries. If you’re at least a tiny bit into fashion, you might have heard of the term “effortless chic”. Well, as a French woman, the ideal is for you to be “effortlessly thin”.
This involves two parts: first, that you should eat everything. If you’re going to the restaurant, you should eat bread with butter while waiting for your starter, have a three course meal with wine, and coffee with sugar to finish. Secondly, you should not do sports, except maybe dance or gymnastics. You wouldn’t want to be muscular (= unfeminine)!
So, you ask, how does this work? You should be slim or better thin, eat everything and not do sports? It sounds impossible! And you’re right, it pretty much is. I’m sure you’ve heard before of CICO (Calories In, Calories Out): if your calorific expenditure is lower than your calorific intake, you will put on weight. If it’s the reverse, you will lose weight, and if they’re equal, you will stay put. You’ve probably also heard that muscle mass burns more calories than fat tissues, so an even weight of muscle vs fat will not burn the same amount of calories. This means that if you’re the same weight but have a different percentage of muscle you will not burn the same amount of calories at rest. And of course, the best way to build muscle is to use them, a.k.a. do sports. So these “effortlessly thin” simply doesn’t work.
Why, you ask, is it that most French women still look so lean?
First, this is rapidly changing. France, like other developped countries, has an increasing number of overweight and obese people, as obesity levels doubled between 1995 and 2004. So it’s pretty much a myth that French women don’t get fat. But let’s dig in a bit more, the French women who do, how do they do it? I’m not going to talk about eating disorders (even though France ranked second amongst european countries for rates of anorexia in 2012), but about things I’ve seen many of my friends do through the years. Some are positive life choices, others not so much. I’m not advocating you do what they do, just telling you how they do it. Here we go:
- They walk. Walking is not considered as exercice, and cities are easily walkable. Furthermore, the Sunday post-meal walk is somewhat of a tradition, as it is seen as very healthy to walk in nature, whether it is a park, the seaside, or a mountain.
- They take time to eat. When I was studying, we were always complaining that the one-hour lunch breaks were too short because we didn’t really have time to eat properly (we had around 30 minutes sat-down time once you count going to the university restaurant and queuing for the food).
- They skip meals. If you’re gonna induldge during your meals, skipping one efficiently cuts down the amount of calories you’re eating in a day.
- To help with not feeling hungry because of point 3, they smoke and/or drink a lot of water. Both help cutting through the feeling of hunger. Interesting article on France and smoking.
Overall, many French women are unhappy with their weight and their looks. When I was living in France, I was one of them. I would never be caught out of my appartment without make up or unfashionable clothes. It tooks a few years of living in the Netherlands (where what you should look like is very different, but that’s for another post) and yoga practice until I found myself happy with my looks, and I often stop and reflect at how happy I am with my body. It might sound conceited, but for me, after years of struggling with body image, it’s simply noticing how much brain space has been freed from not thinking about what I look like, how I could look better, and what people on the street think of me.