French Women Don’t Get Fat is both a truism and the eponymous title of Mireille Guiliano’s lifestyle tome, which catapulted to number one on The New York Times bestseller list, has been translated into 40 languages, and sold over three million copies worldwide. Her book is but one of innumerable examples of a global fascination with the French woman’s way. How she embodies a deeply feminine essence, ages regally while maintaining an ageless luminosity, and upholds an unassailable fashion sensibility is a subject worth probing. This week’s Sex by Numbers offers a topical exploration of six signature elements that distinguish French women and their je ne sais quoi.
Don’t get fat. Given America’s hyper-sensitivity to identity politics, a statement of this sort could engender censure as a fat-phobic epithet. French women, however, are leagues apart from their American female counterparts, especially in their utter unfamiliarity with the concept of dieting to shed chubbiness. A Parisian woman has never had to learn how to lose weight, because she would never allow herself to gain even one kilo in the first place. Attribute it to the French Paradox lifestyle and the city girl’s penchant for strutting down the sidewalk in heels for hours on end as she attends to her daily errands.
Feasts and fêtes. French women eat well and drink well. Whereas in the United States, AA meetings and DARE programs school us that if you drink every day, then you must be an alcoholic. France, apparently, is full of them, but not in their own estimation. They instead regard spirits as another food group, pairing eating and drinking with one another as a daily ritual, rather than consuming to excess on a weekend binger. Wine has as much a place on the kitchen table as the water carafe and salt-and-pepper shakers. This aspect of integration and balance is key. Take as another example crème brûlée and crêpes. These decadent dishes are richest and most pleasure providing for the first three bites, ones that French women appreciate slowly and with intention. French women share a single dessert with their companion or dining party, and have learned since they were little girls to hone their sensory organs to relish in the physical now. And, once pleasured, they put down their forks.
Simulate the catwalk. Parisian women are proud of their city, a veritable playground of wondrous architecture, luscious gardens, and a feast of fashion. At every turn, women are dressed to the nines. Their makeup is never garish, but rather minimal and effective. Their hair is coiffed and styled. Their clothes – blazers, cigarette pants, scarves tied at the throat, all manner of stripes, backless crocheted tops, full-length skirts – are a product of rigorous cultural styling and thoroughgoing care. These ladies never leave the house without paying attention to their belts and earrings, and their commitment to putting their best self forward, as healthy, sensual, active creatures.
Haute on foot. Whereas sports and physical wellness are often propped-up as a hallmark of weight loss in American culture, French women wouldn’t be caught dead at the gym. Elliptical machines and kickboxing? Non, merci. They might do yoga a few times a week or take a dip in the Riviera during the summer, but their primary mode of physical activity is stalking the promenade dressed to make your jaw drop. From the bakery for a baguette, to the vegetable market for produce for the evening’s dinner, to a post-prandial stroll with their children and husband in tow, these ladies have gams and slim hips that testify to a lifestyle that celebrates bipedal motion.
Prioritize beauty. The French woman’s maxim – minimal effort and maximal pleasure – encompasses tending to her body. Upkeep comes once a week (think every Sunday evening). On this day, she ritualizes the maintenance of the small, womanly things that keep her mod: spending an hour with an oil treatment on her hair, wearing a clay face mask, entertaining a pedicure, and otherwise addressing one’s corporeal self for a few moments before resuming life.
Savor the good life. The cliche exists for a reason. French women drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, sip espresso mid-afternoon, eat dessert with every dinner, and generally approach day to day life with ease and joy. Every occasion, no matter how quotidian, warrants celebration of existence. French femmes savor the sweetness of the moment, extracting the breadth and depth of experiences with their children, friends, lovers, and family. It is this continual commitment to the good life, a constancy of pleasure, that permits the aforementioned indulgences that Americans might regard as taboo. When self-restraint and moderation provide the context for seeking enjoyment, happiness and satiety are the beating heart of a long and beautiful life, inside and out.