Monday, June 11, 2012


I love that the woman profiled in that article about how French women are in fact capable of getting fat, or at least of worrying that they might, is named "Bignon."

While we're on the interminable topic, because this is on the well-trodden WWPD beat, or because a trip through the artificial-butter-scented food court that is Penn Station served as a reminder of why Americans are, why aren't the French (or Parisians, or Europeans) fat? In a word: qualms. Or lack thereof. They have qualms about eating the "wrong" foods at the "wrong" times (explain me this, Europeans: a chocolate croissant can be breakfast, but a large-ish chocolate-chip cookie that's nutritionally identical cannot? and is eating lunch at 11:45 or 2:30 such a disaster?), but not so many qualms about shaming the overweight, or the consumption of food in manners conducive to weight gain.

We Americans more inclined to dance around others' weight and eating habits. If someone's 500 pounds from eating that much kale and quinoa, we can point to health at any size, to the possibility, however remote, that it's mostly muscle. If it's from Cheetos, then saying anything means you're an elitist (says the liberal) or a nanny and a nag (says the Ron Swanson conservative).

This dance, in extreme cases, is dangerous, but in just-overweight ones is probably for the best. A culture that strictly penalizes five-pound weight gain on a still-thin person, where you risk being fat-shamed even if you're underweight but picked an unflattering style of dress that day, can get oppressive oppressive and is not necessarily conducive to health. Fewer obese people, but more nutty, neurotic dieters struggling to stay below a healthy weight, often resorting to not-so-healthy measures.

Is fat-shaming the price we're willing to pay for a slimmer populace? Probably not, and shouldn't be, but alas, that is much of what makes certain Parisiennes look the way they do. I get that this isn't as aesthetically pleasing a reason as, 'they eat all their food from local-seasonal farmers markets' or, 'they smoke magical cigarettes that don't merely keep off five or ten pounds but make the difference between need-crane-to-emerge-from-home and runway model, keep your skin smooth, and actually make you live longer, into a ripe old age into which you'll carry on multiple affairs with married Socialist politicians.' Those scenarios appeal to us 'mericans, but rampant and largely preemptive fat-shaming is much closer to the truth. The French/Parisians/Europeans/ferners-who-are-of-course-a-monolith are not effortlessly thin. They just don't have the luxury of being anything but.

Thus why, as Susan Dominus points out, a country of skinny people might well be on the market for diet advice, even if the suggested plan involves voluntarily subjecting one's self to airplane food at home, in France. (Can these women please send me the Camembert and baguettes they no longer have use for?)

But the policing not of weight itself, but of eating that diverges from a rigid schedule, is a relatively nonjudgemental way of making obesity less likely, one that might even catch on in the U.S. Although how nutritionally-arbitrary-yet-effective "food rules" might work in a heterogeneous society remains to be seen. It's hard to artificially create a society in which the mid-morning snack is unheard-of. It's not just that we're committed to our "right" to eat the garbage of our choosing, without legal interference or informal commentary (concern-trolling!), but also that you basically need to have been raised believing that certain times are not food times, that desserts are not breakfast foods.

And this isn't the same as the American thing, where your parents might have said, for example, no ice cream for breakfast. It's a much deeper system, one that feels natural, not punitive, to those who grew up with it. They don't feel they're denying themselves a slice of chocolate cake at 10:30 in the morning, and they appreciate the piece they have at the accepted, later hour because cake is an only-at-certain-times thing. Can qualms be acquired? Maybe somewhat, but despite ample exposure to the qualms approach, I remain convinced that absolutely every cake or pastry can - in a sensible portion, assuming this isn't what you do every day - be the morning meal.


Britta said...

I think the qualms thing is really interesting. I grew up not in a French household, but where certain types of foods were eaten at certain times (though probably much less strictly than in France), and it definitely feels 'off' to eat the wrong foods at the wrong times (I still eat cake for dinner, but I feel bad about doing so), so I don't know how you would acquire these qualms as an adult. It does appear you can be raised in the European way and not have qualms though. My boyfriend is Italian, and although he literally shrieks if he sees parmesan on pasta that's supposed to have pecorino on it, he would happily eat bread and chocolate for every meal of the day, and I think pretty much does so when I'm not around. One difference could be gender, especially since Italian men are not known for their attention to the domestic side of life.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Re: your boyfriend, maybe this is some evidence that Europe isn't a monolith? My anecdata come from France and Belgium, Germany to a lesser extent, and I don't at all get the sense that men are less qualm-having than women. Not that any of this is, obviously, all that scientific. There are also Europeans who'll come to the States and really embrace the freedom to eat whatever, whenever. Food qualms, like any other strict part of an upbringing, can perfectly well be rebelled against.

And it's not that Americans are fully qualm-free. My parents, for example, were OK with Apple Jacks but not Lucky Charms. And I have my own idiosyncratic set of qualms, coming from who knows where, utterly arbitrary things like if I've eaten chocolate/chocolate dessert of some kind once in a day, it will seem gross to eat something chocolate-based later the same day. Not to eat another dessert, just more chocolate. And if the day is done and it occurs to me that I had a chocolate croissant in the morning and a brownie later, that will strike me as wrong, but not if instead of a brownie it had been a lemon bar. I'd say this is definitively in the realm of qualm, as opposed to an explicit diet/nutritional concern, but like all qualms, it probably does in some indirect way serve as an obstacle to obesity.

But without society-wide qualms, qualms don't in any systematic way prevent obesity in this country. And I really think that at least as much as the absence of qualms, it's that Americans see something vaguely fascistic about the dictates (cultural rather than legal, but still) of a homogeneous society, telling grown adults what they can and can't eat when. We tend to think adulthood means getting to decide these things for yourself. We even think this is healthier - which it probably is in some cases, the whole 'listen to your body' approach, the one that allows you also to have salad for breakfast if that's what you're up for. But for many, this type of food anarchy is a disaster.

Anyway, the need we have to have "normal" shown to us is why I think the Bloomberg jumbo-soda ban is one of the best moves taken yet. More than about preventing anyone from having anything, it simply shows New Yorkers (and everyone else following the story) what "a soda" consists of.

PG said...

The homogeneity of the culture is probably the biggest factor. From what I understand, there are also very strong norms in Japan about what to eat, when and where, though of course the what is itself often odd to an American (rice and fish for breakfast...). I suppose the Japanese example of thinness is also noted less than the French because the former are non-white and thus assumed to be less comparable to the average American even at a biological level.

Anyway, the homogeneity in Japan comes with a large dose of accepting discrimination not only against the fat, but also against people of the wrong race, sex, even Japanese lineage. I don't think it's possible to have really strong norms for "good" behavior that helps no one but yourself, without the nasty underbelly of penalizing behaviors and even non-chosen identities that are morally neutral.

Heterogeneous cultures are much better at establishing norms against behavior that's seen as hurting others, hence the stronger prejudices in the U.S., relative to Japan et al., against smoking and drunk driving. I'm not sure how to get American society to feel strongly about other people's eating habits except consequentially, e.g. "You shouldn't be eating cake for breakfast because then you'll get fat, and then you'll be a burden on our Coming Socialized Health Care."

Smoking without obesity, by the way, is an excellent way to keep a nation's health care and pension costs under control. Of course, not all smokers get emphysema or cancer, and people usually don't get sick from it until their productive working years are done. Lung cancer especially generally kills people quickly. The trouble in the U.S. is that smoking aggravates existing cardiopulmonary problems caused by overeating and under-exercising, even in people who wouldn't have been getting a purely smoking-related disease like lung cancer. So instead of obligingly dropping dead at 65, people start needing expensive medication and procedures around 50.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That could be - the more homogeneous, the stricter. But Germany's awfully homogeneous, and people there are not so thin. Meanwhile, France is homogeneous in a different way than Japan is - there are many, many non-ethnic French, but they're expected to fully assimilate to French culture.

But the broader point here is right, that a strict food culture almost has to exist as part of a strict culture, period. Can there be one without the other?

Anyway, I've heard variants of the smoking-is-better-because-it-saves-on-health-care-costs before, and while yours is a bit more specific (separating out the smokers who are and are not fat/eating badly), it shares with the others the fact that it's glaringly unethical, not to mention impractical, to suggest that the population voluntary off itself conveniently just as it becomes eligible for retirement benefits. (Some will live longer, but also some not as long, and dying at 45 isn't so great.) There really aren't options other than discouraging smoking as well as obesity, or at the very least a libertarian approach that lets people do what they want but won't subsidize health care.

But to return to the point I was making in this post, much of the commentary on French women and their weight suggests that a post-lunch cigarette is the difference between needing a motor-scooter to get around an amusement park and taking a size 0 at Chanel. Americans like the idea that there's a French paradox, that if you somehow attain French-ness, you can indulge your every whim and live into a slender old age, but the boring reality is, well, preemptive fat-shaming and food-rules.

And I suspect - purely anecdotal, but based on having lived in both countries - the French admit to smoking more than do Americans, but do so at comparable rates. French teens who smoke are fairly out-in-the-open about it, even the UMC ones, whereas their American equivalents are more afraid of being found out by their parents, probably less likely to tell the truth on surveys, etc.

PG said...

Anyway, I've heard variants of the smoking-is-better-because-it-saves-on-health-care-costs before, and while yours is a bit more specific (separating out the smokers who are and are not fat/eating badly), it shares with the others the fact that it's glaringly unethical, not to mention impractical, to suggest that the population voluntary off itself conveniently just as it becomes eligible for retirement benefits.

Well, yes, I think the only people who suggested that it's a good idea for a population to smoke more are the American cigarette companies that went into Eastern Europe post-Communism and suggested that it would be good for their pension systems to encourage smoking. And more recently, Phillip Morris's report in Czech Republic.

Kip Viscusi was arguing that it was unjust for the American federal and state governments to extract a settlement from the tobacco companies to repay the governments' costs, because Viscusi theorized that governments had actually saved money on pensions due to people's dying of smoking-related ailments. "The basic elements of the financial accounting added to the improbable prospects of the litigation. To be sure, smokers do incur higher medical costs -- about five cents per pack in Massachusetts in the mid-1990s. Yet, because smokers have a shorter life expectancy than nonsmokers, smokers incur a cost of 11 cents per pack less in nursing home costs and nine cents per pack less in pension costs. On balance, smokers incur about 14 cents less per pack in costs paid by Massachusetts, while contributing an additional 51 cents per pack in excise taxes."

And I was just thinking that perhaps smoking in France, Japan etc. is not perceived as a harm to others, despite their socialized medicine, because it actually reduces the burden on the social safety net. But in any case, my theory was that homogeneous societies such as those are fundamentally not basing their norms on an obvious harm to other people (public smoking, drunk driving), but on harm to an order (if food is cultural, familial, social rather than individual). In short, they are conservative while heterogeneous societies are liberal. I am not sure if German society is as homogeneous, given that a single German nation is a relatively recent creation (Bismarck until WWII, and then again since the fall of the Wall). In particular, Japan and France historically seem to have had much stronger elites tasked with defining language and other aspects of culture.

I don't know where the most reliable information about smoking rates comes from. For adults, probably from aggregating information given to medical professionals, although even there people might lie if their medical problem is definitely unrelated to smoking and they don't want to be scolded. Is "do you smoke? do you drink?" something that shows up on standard medical forms outside the U.S.? I think they do in New Zealand but that's all the experience I've had with foreign doctoring. Anyway, the French population as a whole certainly seems to exercise its right to smoke in more public places where I'd encounter them than Americans do, which presumably is part of measuring the strength of norms: do they only affect what you do where you can be seen, or do they creep into your soul and keep you from doing things even when no one would know?