Tuesday, September 01, 2009

French women don't get fat, except when they do

-This dress is fantastic. Tavi, the fashion-prodigy, actually responded to my comment asking where it's from, but alas, Topshop Unique seems no longer to have it.

-So early on, Rita has hit upon one of grad school's most salient features: the four-to-a-page print-out. These are the rule even at schools with free printing - computer lab at-a-time page limits are enforced not so much by the staff as by the well-meaning undergrads trying to print just one page, who have to wait while you, the ancient and disheveled grad student, get your hard-copy of the entire scanned contents of the French National Library. Not that I know anything about this.

-Barefoot running: the new raw-pork sausage? In an age of Purell and helicopter parents, it's still worth remembering that some of our society's hygienic advances really are improvements.

-Someone writing in the NYT actually admits, granted via anecdote, that French women are thin not because of a mysterious paradox that involves market-going and a healthy appreciation of delicious food and wine, but rather for the same depressing reason thin women everywhere in the West are so: because society demands it.

Before PG or someone similarly contrarian points this out: obviously the existence of eating disorders in France doesn't necessarily take much away the theory that overall, the French have a better attitude towards food than we do. But for some reason we forget that even if the French are less likely to super-size it - which is changing/has changed - there is also arguably much more pressure on pudgy French women to be thin than there is on American women of the same size, akin to the pressure on Japanese women to have straight hair or on Nordic women to be strapping blondes. 'Natural' factors might dispose a French woman not to get as large as her American counterpart, but 'unnatural' ones - not necessarily anything as extreme as an eating disorder - could well be what take her from not-fat to the super-thin one famously sees in Paris. (Also, weighing yourself in kilos might mean less day-to-day anxiety, but it also means there's no telling yourself, as no doubt nearly all American women have, that a change is due to factors that have nothing to do with weight gained. In that sense, kilos don't lie, and could thus potentially cause more concern.)


Anonymous said...

partly they are thin because they smoke so much more than USA women dave.s.

PG said...

there is also arguably much more pressure on pudgy French women to be thin

I don't think full-blown eating disorders are predominately so much a product of the pudgy wishing to be thin, as they are of the non-pudgy becoming irrationally terrified of fatness and using control of their food intake (or in the case of bulimia, output) to deal with that fear. At least in the U.S., there's a strong correlation between eating disorders and behaviors like self-cutting.

We also have a greater diversity in culture in the U.S. -- black and Latina women tend to feel less pressure to be thin within their ethnic communities, though of course they also are subject to the white beauty norm. "Baby Got Back" contrasted the Afro-centric and white beauty norms pretty well. I don't know that it's necessarily any better for a woman to feel culturally pressured to be "thick" (am thinking of the old TLC song "Unpretty": "I used to be so cute to me/ Just a little bit skinny") as to be thin, but at least it superficially creates another option.

Matt said...

when you weigh in kilos you use fractions of kilos, of course, so it no more covers fluctuations than do pounds- perhaps even less so, as you can look at all those little grams. (We have the scale set on kilos at my house so I know this perfectly well.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Unless it's a digital scale - do those even provide more than half-units?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

That was for Matt.

For PG: yes, disordered eating is often about already-thin women trying to get thinner. But it's almost impossible to determine whether these are women who'd 'naturally' be thin, who are worrying themselves for nothing and who if they could just accept being a 6 rather than a 2 would save themselves much fuss, or if their baseline state is attention to diet and portion control, with some moments of excessive restriction.

As for eating disorders and cutting... perhaps, and I don't doubt you have/could have statistics, but disordered eating is so common among women who are not otherwise self-destructive. Nearly every woman I can think of has gone through at least a phase of seriously restricting her diet, even if cases that make official diagnoses are less common. Even when not in these phases, do women eat normally? Is such a thing possible, when the stigma on being fat is so real?

And re: cultural diversity... I tend to think the acceptability of being overweight in non-white communities is both overstated and out-of-date (TLC seems recent as far as I'm concerned, but objectively...), with women of color having their own share of eating disorders. But I also don't doubt that ten 'extra' pounds are a greater burden in some communities than others. Still, wouldn't that also be the case in much of Europe? Are the girls protesting to wear headscarves in France as concerned with being slender as their 'French-French' counterparts? I probably should know this, but haven't a clue.

PG said...


Your concept of "eating disorders" is probably much broader than mine. I consider bulimia to be inherently an eating disorder because throwing up is so very clearly Bad For You (if only for the damage to your throat and teeth). Anorexia to the point of malnutrition, ditto.

But what does "seriously restricting her diet" mean? My grandmother is a strict vegetarian (no eggs) and also fasts on holy days, which in Hinduism is a lot of days. In the last 10 years, my mother has lost about 8 dress sizes (and is now a size 12, at 5'2) by eating very little simple carbs (once you cut rice, naan, chapatis etc. from an Indian diet, not a whole lot left... she "treats" herself by having basmati rice once a month). My little sister has gone all the way up to a size 6 recently because she was grabbing whatever food was available and not working out while she was on her last hospital rotation, but she'll probably be back to a 2 when I next see her. All of them are far more conscious of what they eat, and how much, and how much they exercise to burn calories, than I am. But does that mean they're disordered, or that I am (given that I'm working with the same genetic tendency to be short and round)?

At least within my quasi-clinical understanding of "eating disorders," they are statistically less common among black and Latina women than they are among white women. Further up the socioeconomic scale, the pressure to assimilate to white norms is more severe, but the middle/ working class black and Latina women I know (e.g. women with a high school or junior college level of education) are generally much more OK with being "thick" than their white peers are. These women's idea of ideal weight for height (which is in the BMI zone for "overweight") is not atypical for their ethnicity and class.

The girls who are protesting in order to be able to cover themselves up more are probably less concerned with looking like runway models, and more concerned with churning out babies when the time comes. I expect that rejecting Western dress goes hand-in-hand with rejecting Western beauty norms that are disconnected from the traditional function of women's bodies.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I made a point in writing 'disordered eating' and not 'eating disorders' where I meant disordered eating and not eating disorders. There's obviously a spectrum from not eating all the cake you might otherwise on account of wanting, for health and appearance reasons, not to be overweight, all the way to clinical diagnoses. In my experience, if 60-pounds-and-hospitalized situations are rare, so too are (Western/Westernized) women who've never gone through a phase of restricted eating that, had it continued further, would have been clinical, or one that, though not as a diet terribly unhealthy, nevertheless involves an unhealthy amount of time and anxiety spent on the question of weight. It's neither a disorder nor disordered to pay attention to what you eat, unless that comes to dominate your life.

As for women restricting diets for reasons unrelated to thinness - religious fasting, veganism - I'd say that once again, there's a spectrum. Since thinness is so valued in the West, behaviors that are ostensibly for other reasons may well end in the woman saying, 'huh, look at that, now I fit into my old jeans!', all the while being able to claim a higher reason than vanity's behind the change. It's hard to 'innocently' undertake any behavior of which a side effect is thinness. Not sure which if any of this holds for your grandmother, however, not knowing her cultural/vanity situation.

PG said...

It's neither a disorder nor disordered to pay attention to what you eat, unless that comes to dominate your life.

I don't know anyone in good physical health for whom fat/ calorie restriction is the dominant concern in their lives. The one person I know who does think about it more than any other subject is a person with Type 2 diabetes who finally quit smoking when he was diagnosed, but has admitted to me that while quitting smoking wasn't very psychologically difficult (though he did use the patch), he still has dreams about candy bars. On the other hand, when he was being super-careful about what he ate, he could live without insulin, whereas when he worries about it less, he needs medication.

My grandmother has been a widow for 45 years and wears nothing except saris in relatively muted colors. Jeans aren't a consideration for her.

Matt said...

Our digital scale works in decimals (so decagrams), just as you'd expect. I've never seen one that doesn't use decimals.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I don't know anyone in good physical health for whom fat/ calorie restriction is the dominant concern in their lives." If you replace "the dominant concern" - extreme I'll admit - with 'a very, very dominant concern, if less of a concern than, say, the welfare of one's loved ones, paying the bills, etc.', do you get a different result? Because the latter is what I'm getting at. People who can't leave the house because a bagel has how many calories? are obviously ill. Those who might spend an otherwise not-so-stimulating afternoon at work wondering if maybe they should have only had half that bagel are far more common. Many if not most Western women can and do worry excessively for at least part of their lives, without crossing the line into formally-recognized eating disorders. I can't believe this is even subject for debate.


I have seen such a scale, I think. I win!

PG said...

Many if not most Western women can and do worry excessively for at least part of their lives, without crossing the line into formally-recognized eating disorders. I can't believe this is even subject for debate.

Maybe we just know different women (I'm guessing the ones you know are mostly thinner), or have different ideas of what is "excessive." My assistant at work has stopped eating bagels for breakfast because she thinks they have too many calories, but she enjoys the hell out of her twice-weekly Mr. Softee (180 calories) plain vanilla cone and does so quite deliberately (not in a "I can't resist the truck and I hate myself for it" way, but "I want a dessert that I know I'll easily burn off during spinning class"). I wouldn't consider her eating disordered at all, nor her concern "excessive" unless any conscious calorie restriction is assumed to be such.

If you have a natural tendency to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes (all of which afflict people of color at higher rates than white people, but are pretty common for the entire U.S. population nowadays), it is not disordered to be aware of what you're eating. I've had high cholesterol since I was 11, and am not supposed to eat more than two egg yolks each week. People who don't have this concern probably find it bizarre and wasteful that when I make eggs, I use only the whites. My first boyfriend was overweight to the point that his doctor told him he needed to lose some, and he'd have been better for cutting the full calorie soda and fast food out of his diet.

Maybe you just know a lot of women/ people generally who have no need to think much about what they consume -- whose bodies actually can self-regulate them into a perfectly health state -- than I do. I look at Westerners, especially Americans, and I think we'd (we including me) do better with a little more consciousness of what we're putting into our mouths.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

It’s really unknowable from this thread, and from what I can gauge from your other comments, how the women I’ve known in my life compare size-wise to your sample, but I don’t see how it impacts our views on this. Plenty of people who are overweight (yes, including some of whom are part of my sample) also have disordered eating – it’s not as though more time spent dieting or obsessing necessarily leads to weight loss. For some, the weight-conscious phase is also the phase at which one’s weight is actually the highest. Just ask Frank Bruni, who is being interviewed - and given what appears to be the same interview - on what seems like loop in every publication and on every podcast.

What I think you’re missing is that there’s a spectrum from attention to diet that’s innocuous or even positive all the way down to eating disorders. In the middle there are all kinds of behaviors that fall somewhere between the two. You’re dividing dietary concerns into absolutes – either someone’s concerned in a healthy way, or it’s bulimia. When many, especially women, obsess in ways that are overly time-consuming and at times counterproductive to the goal of reaching/maintaining a reasonable weight, either by leaving the person higher or lower than ideal. That Americans are overweight is, I think, less about us as a population worrying too little than about us worrying in unproductive ways.

PG said...

I guess it seems impossible to me that someone could be as pervasively worried as what you describe as "disordered eating -- worried about every bite that she's allowed into her mouth -- without losing some weight. I mean, the anxiety/ adrenaline effect alone seems like it ought to raise the heart rate and burn some calories, but the main effect ought to come from the fact that one is actually really conscious of what and how much one is eating all the time. How does one eat a Big Mac 5 times a week at this level of consciousness without thinking, "I think I'm going to stop eating like this"?