Op Ed

The French Deception

Did you know that French women are all skinny? Also sexually liberated, elfin, mysterious and sophisticated? In Paris, Chanel is slang for generic and cheese is had at every meal. Okay, fine, that last one is kind of true, but the rest are bullshit. They are modern-day myths constructed by authors and companies using the far-far-away land of Europe to sell you something you probably don’t need. While there are some distinct differences between the French way of life and American culture, it would be a mistake to assume that French society has some kind of naturally slim hive mind. In fact, I would argue that the “French women are …” fairy tale is actually a blatantly racist idea on which too many profit.

“I had no idea there were so many black people in France,” my friend Ryanne remarked as we strode through the streets of St. Michel. “How did I not know this?” It’s a remark I’ve heard from every single American women of color who has visited me here. Although you rarely hear about it, Paris is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. This reality has become a source of tension with some in the white French community and has manifested itself into a perverted notion of French nationalism. While a vast number of ethnic Arab, African, Latino, Islander, East Asian and Central Asians were born on French soil, carry French passports and were brought up speaking French, they are rarely considered to be “real French” by those with privilege. Instead, despite being born down the street, they are constantly being treated like invaders.

This same racist attitude is then echoed by the American (and occasionally European) companies selling the idealistic French standard. The popular books French Women Don’t get Fat (cookbook not included) and French Women Don’t Sleep Alone, and the Promiscuous French Doll Balconette Bra are just a few examples on how to shove the white, thin, seductive, Amelie-inspired French archetype into our collective consciousness. That’s not even touching the number of adverts that claim they’ve found some kind of super secret French method to weight loss.

Much has been made of the French being so slim, but like so many things, this tends to rely on both geography and class.For instance, you could argue that French women tend to walk a lot. That our version of the gym is running up and down the metro stairs on our way to work and back. But what about women in London, New York City, or Washington, D.C.? All of those cities have subway systems that women can no doubt run around in. We also need to consider the smaller cities in France. In Lyon or Nantes, cars are much more common methods of transportation. So with all things being generally equal, why is there such a weight disparity?

Actually it may surprise you to learn there really isn’t much of one. According to one of France’s leading researchers, 40% of French society is considered overweight by (oftentimes ridiculous) BMI measurements. By comparison, 50% of people in the United States are considered overweight by those same standards. Apparently as the French number goes up, researchers are attributing it to the rise to “˜Americanized’ fast food. After all, KFC, pizza places, and McDonald’s are everywhere.

However, I would argue that this rise may have something more to do with the same desk job atmosphere American workers suffer from, coupled with a new mix of cultures that don’t always have the same prejudices against weight as the traditional French view. For instance, in plenty of African and Arab cultures, fat is not so much an insult as a compliment to your family. Being a bit pudgy means you are well taken care of and loved. Something to be enjoyed as you age. To pretend as though this hasn’t influenced the (innately flawed) BMI panic would be an erasure of such cultures that form the country’s landscape. Furthermore the idea the the Big Mac is finally expanding waist lines in a country where multi-course meals of pates, creams, cheeses and sauces are commonplace is somewhat laughable.

Another interesting myth to tackle is that of French sexuality. The idea is that French women think very little of one night stands, are hopeless romantics and do things that prudish American women would never dream of. One might wonder where such generalizations leave the French lesbian community? This is a large and varied group that is almost always depicted as femmes with thick eyeliner and Brigitte Bardot hair, ready to kiss so boys can watch them.

In reality, almost nothing could be further from the truth. Most French women, especially in Paris, are known for being particularly hard to get and standoffish. While the language of French flirting tends to be a bit more risque than in English, when it comes down to actual sexy sex, the majority of French women I have met find one night stands to be slightly worrisome. In fact, in Paris, the tables are turned with American and English women having a reputation for being more sexually open.

The popular Americanized notion of French sexual liberation also completely disregards the large Muslim population in France. By stating that “real” French women know how to “keep their beds warm,” it others a number of French Muslim women for their sexual choices. Which is not to imply that all single French Muslim women are virgins or all believe in the same level of sexual morality. But in general, sexuality is preferably restricted to marriage or very serious relationships for the religious and to disregard this is to treat Muslims as if they do not exist in French society.

Of course, then there are the Two Week Experts that roll in and out of town. Students who come to France for a few weeks or months then run home to share their intimate knowledge what life is really like here. One of the more well known examples of this comes from Edward Pasteck’s piece, “American Guy In Paris: Freed From the Idea of ‘Consent'”. In this article Pasteck writes adoringly about women on the Champs-Elysees laughing as men grab or harass them. Why, for “them,” it’s a compliment! I have to say, as someone who actually lives in Paris full-time, this was an immediate red flag. Clearly it didn’t occur to Pasteck during his short stay in Paris, but most people wandering the Champs-Elysees are not actually Parisian. Unless they are sales clerks or showing their American friends around, actual residents of Paris avoid that place like the plague. It is the absolute last place you’d ever catch a French woman hanging about looking for a date (except, perhaps, the Eiffel Tower). While French society is fairly liberal in terms of flirting language, touching a stranger is still considered a serious show of disrespect. A nuance Pasteck clearly looked over in a rush to project his own vision of the perfect “French” sexuality into the American mainstream.

I know it’s romantic to idealize a faraway land where things are chic and streamlined and full of  secrets. But the reality is that French life is just like life anywhere. You have humans of all ages, sizes and colors going about their daily lives. Rushing off to unsexy dentist appointments and not at all glamorous metro conductor jobs. There is still plenty of beauty in the city. Indeed, if anything could be said about French culture it would be their ability to take average tasks and raise it to a level of art form. Baking bread? That’s not something you can just “do.” No, you must apprentice, learn, and then if you get really good one day you can be trusted to provide the stuff. Coffee? Macaroons? Clothes? Jewelry? Architecture? Hairstylist? All of these carry an expectation of expertise. You must strive to be the best in your field. Furthermore, France is a place that still holds a significant amount of respect for artists. Tell somebody you paint, sculpt or write and they take your passion seriously. There is very little eye rolling thanks to a number of world-renowned artists who consider Paris their home. The city is, above almost all things, an international cultural center, where people congregate from all corners of the globe, sharing ideas.

In that regard, the women of France cannot be seen as some monolithic block that only comprise a specific ideal. From scientists, artists, athletes and feminists, France has seen a number of varied and amazing women. To focus on the straight, skinny, sexually active white woman as an ideal “French” standard is to disregard the numerous contributions that French women have made to society. Sure, such simplistic ideas may sell books, or popularize insufferable movie characters, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. The role of a French woman may have taken on a myriad of forms throughout the years. Luckily, it has never been the ridiculously one-dimensional existence being sold at a supermarche near you.

By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

6 replies on “The French Deception”

This article was written perfectly. I’ve been in the north of France since September working as an au pair. I came here as soon as I finished university hoping to become Amelie Poulain-ized. What I learned was really exactly what you told me. French women are beginning to look strikingly similar to American ones! And they’re just as diverse too. Funny that Chanel and Brigit Bardot and probably equally mystical and enigmatic to the French as they are to Americans. Thank you so much for writing this.

Thanks so much for writing this – while I never assumed that French women adhered to a reductive stereotype, it was still really interesting to read about the realities of French/Parisian society.

It’s kind of like how, when I came back from a trip to Ireland, people were surprised to see in my photos that the country isn’t all thatched-roof cottages and knit sweaters.

This is a great piece, Olivia! I work in a multinational office here in Paris, so most of my experience with the Parisians comes second- and third-hand, but I love your point that Paris is just like any other big, multicultural city, with a diverse range of denizens who do a diverse range of things.

If I can, a few stereotypes that I’ve found to be totally untrue:

– ‘Nasty waiters’. They’re honestly no nastier than anywhere else. OK, they’re not American-level, always asking if everything is all right, but they’re no more or less attentive than British waiters or other Europeans. In fact, I’ve had some of the best service of my life here.

– ‘Sexually available women’. Like you, I’ve found that my (mostly straight and white) French female friends are actually quite prudish in their own way, compared to Americans and Brits. Many of them have what we would see as quite old-fashioned approaches to romance and sex.

– ‘French people don’t work’. This is especially weird. Parisians work ALL the time. They work really long hours; as you know yourself, rush hour doesn’t even get going until 8pm. True, holidays and weekends seem to be pretty sacrosanct, and at least in my office more breaks are taken throughout the day, but the long hours were a big shock to an Irishwoman used to clocking out at 5.30 or 6.

My stereotype about French women, including the stateside ex-pats: they wear great shoes and keep them in fantastic condition.

Ah France, I’ve only encountered les parisiennes, which is like saying you’ve met New Yorkers and they represent Americans.

I love the film “An American in Paris” because it’s so american.

Mon dieu, nothing of substance to add. Tres bien fait, Olivia (ugh must learn to do accents).

My experience with a French lady: My host mom in France (Avignon, down South) was super awesome in that she had a super awesome history. (Not because she made delicious dinners, because goddamn the woman was on a health kick. No enticing French cuisine for me, no siree. It was all boiled hunks of beef and boiled cabbage.)

Anyway, ma mere d’acceuil was a pied-noire in Algeria. Her father was a banker there and when the War of Independence broke out, he was all, “Yeah, I think we’ll just hang out here.” And she survived the war, as a white, native French girl as the people of Algeria threw off their white oppressors.

And then she moved to the Caribbean and had some kids, moved to Paris, had another kid, moved to Avignon and became a host mother to some Americans.

Anyway, she was pretty bombass. Except for the food.

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