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The Myth of the Fabulously Thin French Woman

I’m back from an extended summer break and better than ever. But you know what never went away? Good old starvation body ideals. Mh, the smell of double standards, desperation and pretending everything’s fine, how I’ve missed it.

I may or may not have mentioned (about a hundred times) that I spent a semester in Canada and one in France. Among many other things, I got an insight into how French women are seen in Northern America, as well as how people actually live in France. The image – and also ideal – of the stylish, thin, natural French woman is one where beauty standards, French stereotypes and overall sexism make for a rather curious mixture.

Before I continue, I would like to note that this is an article about cultural ideas and average statistics that you will naturally find exceptions to. Still, trends are observable.

Oh, Paris! All the pastries and the cheese in the world are just around the corner. Add the elegant women in chique coats and tousled hair in the streets – it’s a dream come true. According to popular American understanding, they can eat all of those specialties and still remain a size 0-2. The particularly interesting detail: there are actually many French women who further strengthen this stereotype – see Caroline de Maigret, who (co-)wrote a book called “How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are” and seemingly manages to never work out while simultaneously being a successful model. Sure, the videos she makes with Vogue are humorous – but there is something aspirational about them. Wouldn’t all women love croissants, high fashion and a model body to go with it? If you’re French it can be so easy!

Never mind that French women have a severely unhealthy body image and think they’re “fat” despite having the lowest average BMI in all of Europe. Turns out the maintenance of the ideal comes at a high cost. This cannot be pinned purely on fashion; there are simply too many women affected by it. Plus, France has actually enforced regulations to make sure that models are healthy (you can read up on this here, but *trigger warning: images of very thin young women*).

This obsession with thinness is placed in a bigger context when general beauty ideals are considered. Overall, “effortlessness” seems to be the mot d’ordre for French beauty. This does not mean that attaining said beauty is actually effortless. In interviews like this one, it becomes clear that the interviewees (all young Parisian women) like to think of their appearances as such, but for some of them it couldn’t be further from the truth. After all, “just” eyebrows, powder, mascara, blush and lipstick could also be called “almost a full face of makeup”, but saying that wouldn’t go well with the clichรฉ. The women in the video who wear makeup might wear different makeup than Americans do, but they’re not all simply wearing less.

This cocktail of extremely rigid beauty standards and pretenses of not caring about them leads to scary consequences. On average, French women think a body is ideal that is almost in the category “underweight” (this study is by the French Institute for Demographic Studies and therefore in French). And let’s remember, this is the average. That means that there is a sizeable population of French women whose ideal body would be definitely underweight.

So next time we come across another manual on how to eat “like a French woman” without “getting fat”, let’s remember that it’s probably not a good idea to live like that. We all deserve better than to restrict away more and more inches of ourselves in the name of a “natural” and “effortless” look. Americans, Brits, the French and everyone else included.

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