French Women Do Too Get Fat

What the best seller neglects to mention.

Mireille Guiliano, the French-born CEO of Clicquot Inc., Veuve Clicquot’s American subsidiary, has many things to toast these days. Besides being 58 and still weighing what she did in her 20s, she is now a best-selling author, too. Her recently published memoir-cum-diet book, French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure is currently at No. 3 on the New York Times list for hardcover advice books. Since the book’s publication, she says, she has been inundated with offers to write a sequel, host a cooking show, and wear various designers’ dresses to the Oscars. There has even been discussion of a movie. While it’s still too soon to tell, it is possible that Guiliano has helped launch one of the periodic turnovers in American dietary mythology. Out with carbophobia; in with Francomania.

Guiliano’s book centers on the well-worn idea often called the “French Paradox”: French people, who love their cheese and foie gras and croissants, are nonetheless thinner and have lower rates of heart disease than we diet-obsessed Americans. Scientists used to attribute it to red wine; the current theory is that the French “secret” lies in no one food or ingredient, but in their traditional culture of eating.

As Guiliano tells us, the French have elaborate food rituals. They go to the market several times a week and eat only what’s in season. Unlike Americans, who buy processed, flavorless food and therefore need to eat a lot of it to feel gratified, the French, by eating better-tasting food and savoring it more consciously, “fool themselves” into being satisfied with less. That is, French women do, since, in Guiliano’s book, it is specifically the women who must master “the useful art of self-deception”—mentally balancing the pleasures of food against the competing desires to fit into the latest fashions and to be attractive to French men, who she says like their wives to be “very elegant, very thin.”

Before we come under assault by the rest of the French Women empire (the TV show, the movie) we should take this mythology—Americans, hopelessly schizophrenic about food; French, universally blessed with natural moderation—with a grain of Breton sea salt. The first problem with this picture is that it may already be out of date. Guiliano grew up and learned her eating rituals in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Today, thanks to globalization, the French are starting to eat, and look, more like us: According to a recent article in the Times of London, the traditional French meal is eaten by only 20 percent of the population. Instead, they increasingly favor the abbreviated, on-the-go meals of Americans. The national rate of obesity is rising fast. While only 6 percent of the population was obese in 1990, today the proportion is 11.3 percent. That is still well behind the same figure for the United States (22 percent) but on track to match our levels by 2020. The French are not happy about it. In a parliamentary report last spring highlighting the dramatic increase in obesity, legislators proposed launching a new government agency to fight weight gain, to be funded by a tax on high-calorie or high-fat foods.

Which brings us to the second way in which the American/French divide is more complicated than Guiliano acknowledges. The French accept a level of government paternalism that would not go over easily here. The way that French families eat, or until recently ate, is actually a product of state intervention, as Greg Critser pointed out in a 2003 piece in the New York Times. At the beginning of the 20th century, concern over France’s high infant mortality rate led to a largely state-sponsored movement called puericulture. The movement’s initial focus was on getting mothers to breastfeed; clinics were set up across the country, and the government required factories to have areas for nursing. But puericulture advocates also stressed that overfeeding infants was worse than underfeeding them. For older children, they advised regular mealtimes, modest portions, no seconds, and no snacks. Children’s own appetites and preferences were to be ignored. This is the tradition in which Guiliano was raised, and which she proposes to those of her readers who are parents. It is another interesting paradox: The French ability to take pleasure in food, and to choose food based on taste rather than dietary dogma, begins with a child’s lack of choice, and a degree of parental and state authoritarianism.

The third problem is that, while they may be admirably successful at staying thin, French women are not necessarily more balanced in their attitudes about food. While many people think of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia as an American problem, they are, as far as can be measured (and these statistics should always be taken with some degree of skepticism), equally prevalent in France. In the United States, somewhere between 0.5 percent and 3.7 percent of women will be anorexic in their lifetimes, while 1.1. percent to 4.2 percent will suffer from bulimia. Between 2 percent and 5 percent of Americans binge eat. Among young French women, an estimated 1 percent to 3 percent are anorexic; 5 percent are bulimic; and 11 percent have compulsive eating behaviors. Certainly, young French women today are as interested in eating disorders as their American counterparts. While Guiliano enjoys her publishing success here, a quite different book is in the spotlight in France: a memoir of bulimia called Thornytorinx. (The title is an anatomical name for the digestive tract.) The book has been favorably covered by the French press, and its author, a 25-year-old actress named Camille de Peretti, appeared last weekend on one of France’s most popular talk shows.

That the incidence of eating disorders in France roughly equals that here suggests that anorexia and bulimia do not require a widespread, openly discussed culture of calorie- or carb-counting and devotion to the gym. They may take slightly different forms, depending on the prevailing national habits, but eating disorders arise wherever thinness is deeply valued and admired.

French women do not care less than American women about being thin; if anything, they may care more. And while much of Guiliano’s advice seems sensible, there is also an opening for extremism in her suggestions * that we savor our food and refuse to eat anything that isn’t of the highest quality and taste. When she met the New York Times’ Elaine Sciolino for coffee in Paris, Guiliano took one bite of her croissant, declared it “disgusting,” and left the rest on her plate, thereby demonstrating a lesson from her book: “Life is too short to drink bad wine and to eat bad food.” Sounds nice enough, but sticking to this philosophy in all circumstances would be remarkably neurotic. What if you’re hungry? The scene calls to mind a certain type of weight-obsessed woman, the kind who uses the excuse of a refined palate to mask her suspicion of food (and to justify how little she eats).

The essence of Guiliano’s book is the claim that women can trick themselves into experiencing what is actually self-denial as a kind of pleasure. She never questions that most women, if they wish to be attractively thin, will have to play some mental games. But such games are, as Guiliano acknowledges, something that the French generally value. They think of themselves as an old culture, skilled in the arts of irony, hypocrisy, and nuance. We Americans may be innocent, artless, and nuance-allergic, but we are sharp enough to recognize that French women’s advantage over us is simply that they are thinner—not that they have better, saner, less complicated attitudes about food. “The useful art of self-deception”? Let ‘em have it.

Correction, Feb. 25, 2005: This piece originally used the word “imprecations” incorrectly, to mean “suggestions.” An imprecation is a curse. Slate regrets the error. (Return to corrected sentence.)