Women pressurised to be slim in France

French women are among Europe’s lightest but there is still pressure on them to be slimmer, says sociologist Thibaut de Saint Pol.

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While they are on average classed by doctors as having a ‘normal’, healthy weight, their idea of an ‘ideal’ weight is much lower, studies show.

Dr de Saint Pol, an expert on social aspects of obesity from the Ecole Normale Supérieur de Paris-Saclay, said: “All countries have certain body shape norms but in France the most notable thing is this very slim ideal for women. France is one of the countries with the biggest weight difference between women and men and you see that a woman who, in France, finds herself too fat, if she moves to the UK it’s likely that comparing herself to the people there, she feels less fat.”

Slimness is like having an extra qualification for women here, he said. “The slimmer you are the more you’ll earn and be promoted.”

This leads to women having unattainable goals. “When men join a gym they hope to become more muscular, or regain the body they had at 20 but women are hoping for an imaginary body they never had.”

French anti-obesity campaigns have also added to negative ideas by promoting responsibility for our bodies, which sometimes leads to making people feel guilty, said Dr de Saint Pol. “It is true that for health, it is better not to be obese, but while obesity rose in the 1990s, it has stayed relatively low in France compared to Anglo-Saxon countries, or Portugal, Greece or Germany.

“For a long time it was around 10% and it has risen to 15% but the figures hide social inequalities. It has only risen among the poorest.” A generalised rise is limited due to pressure related to image. “Appearance has always played a big role in who you are perceived to be in French society.

“A 100 years ago it worked in reverse. In Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris, fat people are the rich and powerful and the lower you go in society the skinnier you are. If you were skinny, it was due to illness or poverty. Now the thinner you are, the richer you are thought to be.”

Dr de Saint Pol said upbringing plays a big part. “In working class homes good food is food that ‘sticks to your ribs’ and to please your kids and friends you fill up their plates. In wealthier homes children learn to eat small portions.

“Also in the countryside and with the working class, slimness isn’t necessarily especially prized, though it’s changed a bit due to magazines. Historically, culturally, being a bit overweight is acceptable and the pressure is less”.

He added that part of the problem is the widespread view that being overweight is your ‘fault’ due to poor eating choices or not exercising, whereas in fact many factors come into play, social but also, for example, hormonal. In the past heavier people internalised the discrimination and suffered low self-esteem but there is now more awareness of it, including practicalities such as clothes and seat sizes. The association Allegro Fortissimo is active in this area, said Dr de Saint Pol.