Living in Paris means I get a lot of questions. Where’s the best place to eat on the cheap? What are the city’s real “must-sees”? I also get a lot of culture-related queries, too. Among them, this one: “Why are French women so skinny?”
First of all, I can confirm that this isn’t just some ill-founded collective belief: a majority of French people are thin — especially women living in urban areas. Not all of them are sticks, of course, but few 100% French women wear over a US size 8–10.
Not being a French woman myself, I can’t say with absolute certainty what the secret is. There may be some sort of handbook they’re all given, or magic may be involved — I’m not sure about that. But for what it’s worth, here are some things I’ve observed.
Harriet the Spy, illustration by author Louise Fitzhugh (image source)
1. Keep moving. The European lifestyle is pretty active. This is especially true in cities. Here, people have a tendency to walk a lot, or to ride bikes. I have students who live in the suburbs outside Paris, and due to a major hatred of traffic, they prefer to leave their vehicles at home and take public transport, often followed by a bit of a walk, to get to where they need to go when they come to the capitol.
The French value athletic activities in general. Most people can name at least one regular physical activity they do, be it yoga, working out at the gym, hiking, biking, dance, football (soccer), etc. Just about everyone can swim and ski: they learn these at school (the latter usually while on a class trip to the Alps).
2. Portion control. One of the most mystifying things about skinny French women is how they stay so thin in a country that’s obsessed with food — food that’s often covered in creamy sauces, and accompanied by thick slices of cheese. It’s not easy to find a lot of “diet-friendly” foods like grilled chicken breasts and baby carrots here. And when you do find the latter, they’re usually covered in mayonnaise or oil and vinegar.
So how do they do it? While there are some women who flat-out refuse to let anything fattening pass their lips, most just take small portions. Frenchwomen don’t deprive themselves of the good, rich food their country has to offer. To do so would be unpatriotic.
Eating smaller portions isn’t as hard for French people as it is for Americans. We’re a country where everything is big, from our landmass, to the amount of food on our plates. For most of us, if we go to a restaurant and spend $15 for a meal, the food better be stacked high. When I first brought my husband to a New Jersey diner, he ordered meatloaf (who does that??), and then had a moment of panic when he got a long plate with five thick slices of it, plus heaping portions of potatoes and vegetables. “I’ll never finish this!” he moaned. (He didn’t think about doggie bags because those are rare in his native country (except at pizzerias and other fast-food places)).
“le péché mignon” (“guilty pleasure”) from the delightful blog/book Paris vs. New York by Vahram Muratyan
In France, you get a small portion but the food is supposed to be high quality. When I first looked at a French serving size, I felt cheated. But when I started eating, I began to realize that I didn’t need a lot of food to feel full. I’ve rarely left a restaurant here feeling stuffed — just satisfied.
3. Keep it natural. Another thing that might help French women stay skinny is that the food here has less fatty additives. I wouldn’t have believed this, but after years of eating French food — everything from bread, to cookies, to snacks, to microwaveable meals — I now have a hard time digesting a lot of its American counterparts. It seems like in some cases in the US, no matter what you do, you’re still ingesting a lot more fat than you would somewhere else.
I’ve also noticed that in France, natural, low-fat food like produce is usually quite affordable — unlike in places I’ve visited in the US, where it’s often less expensive to buy a frozen pizza than the ingredients for a basic salad.
4. Waste management. Although they’re discreet about it, if you ask a lot of Frenchwomen about what they eat regularly (something I often do in English lessons when we’re studying verb tenses), you’ll frequently hear things like, “When I wake up, I drink hot water with lemon juice,” or “I always have a yogurt.” These women are using natural, healthy techniques to keep their systems flushing out waste.
5. Where there’s smoke… But the French don’t have it all figured out in a good way. Because here’s a dirty little secret: a lot of those skinny Frenchwomen are fixated on something other than food — la cigarette.
It seems to me that a majority of French people are at least occasional smokers. When smoking was banned in restaurants and public buildings here a few years ago, a lot of people, like my chain-smoking in-laws, freaked out. Today, you will see groups huddled outside in all weather, puffing away in the shelter of a doorway. One day last winter, I found myself struggling up a hilly street’s icy sidewalk behind a woman who had a broken ankle. One of her hands was occupied with her crutch. The other, with a lit cigarette.
If cigarettes vanished from the face of the earth tomorrow, I think we’d see a lot more heavyset French women.
6. Fat = Bad. Here, most people have no problem critiquing someone for being overweight. When I first came to France as a student, I wore a US size 12–14, and was comfortable in my skin. Though I was in good health, and far from obese, whenever I went to the doctor, I was always sternly told that I should lose a few pounds. Few Frenchmen looked at me. In fact, my first serious boyfriend here was Tunisian, a culture that appreciates curvier women.
The French are known for their bluntness. Though it seems offensive to outsiders, for them it’s actually a sign of respect: they won’t lie to you. One day, I passed a store that had a gorgeous embroidered jacket in the window — and it was on sale. I immediately went inside. “This is the last one we have,” the saleswoman said to me. I noticed she and her colleague were giving me dubious glances. “Can I try it on?” I asked, taking off my bulky winter coat and the thick shawl I’d put under it. “Ah,” she exclaimed, not bothering to lower her voice, “she is not so big!” And they let me try the coat. The good thing about this honesty is that you’ll probably never be sold something that’s too small for you. On the other hand, you have to put your pride aside.
There are some places where this disapproval isn’t the case. Northern French people, for example, tend to be fuller-figured — perhaps because of their diet (which typically includes a lot of fries and beer) and genetics (many have Flemish, not French, roots).
7. Attack on snacks. Along with this “obesity is bad” mentality is the role of snacks. Amazingly, while smoking is very lightly admonished (if admonished at all) by society, snacking between meals is taken a lot more seriously. The French government requires all advertising for fast food and snack products to include a warning. These warnings typically say things like: “Snacking between meals causes weight gain,” or “It is recommended to have at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day.”
Even the McDonald’s France webpage includes one of these warnings, at the bottom left: “For your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day.”
French people do snack, occasionally — but much more rarely than Americans.
In general, meals are also extremely regulated. People tend to eat at the same time every day (which varies according to each person’s schedule, work hours, etc).
8. Sugar-free. Though they have some amazing pastries here, the French also seem like more of a non-sugar kind of society. When it comes to sweets, most French women rarely indulge in anything but very dark chocolate. Even Frenchmen don’t seem to crack that easily for candies and such. After our annual Halloween party, there’s always so much candy left over — and no one wants to take any home.
9. Something about the genes. No matter what anyone says, I fully believe that genetics plays a role in how our bodies handle weight. I once watched a home video of my great-aunts and great-grandmother, and I noticed that, despite different lifestyles and diets, our bodies were exactly the same: big upper arms, belly, smallish breasts.
Most 100% French people tend to be thin. Men can be sturdy — for example, my husband is tall and broad-shouldered. But I can’t imagine his body with much weight on it. Women here seem slight, as though if their bones held too much fat, they’d snap. The average French woman is taller than I am, but to me, they always seem tiny.
All of these characteristics have combined to make French women the champions of slimness in the Western world. And though it’s good to aspire to some of their methods, like an active lifestyle and regulating portions but not depriving yourself, other aspects of their thinness, like smoking and a lack of respect for overweight people, aren’t so great.
So that’s why French people — especially women — are thin, and how they stay that way, as far as I can gather.
….And now to reward myself with a cookie for this investigative work!
This story also appeared on my Open Salon blog. It was inspired by a question from poet, dieter, and fellow blogger Sarah Cavanaugh.