06.20.10

Better Dead Than Fat

French men are giving up cigarettes but French women continue to light up, citing fear of weight gain. Eric Pape on the vice that experts say will soon be the No. 1 killer of women in France.

“Better dead than fat” or “plutôt mourir qu'être grosse” could be the motto of a growing number of French women.

French men may be putting away their smokes and increasingly avoiding lung cancer, but more women smokers are dying from it in France today than ever before.

The desire to remain slender, many say, is what keeps them puffing.

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Take Dorothée Rascle, an attractive Parisian singer whose long red hair has been tinged with smoke since she was a teenager. “I am on stage and my weight matters,” says the thirtysomething performer, who has no intention of giving up. “If I stopped smoking, the first thing I’d think about would be weight gain,” she says. “If you work on stage, you have to look cool—and not be enormous.”

Rascle, who is well aware of cancer dangers, is hardly alone. “The top concern of many women who contemplate giving up smoking: don’t fatten up,” says Christelle Touré, a project manager at France’s national anti-tobacco committee.

The trend has authorities worried, and in recent weeks, anti-smoking campaigns targeted at women have flooded French television and French-language websites.

One prominent anti-tobacco website addresses concerns about weight gain associated with giving up smoking ahead of its impact on early menopause, loss of fertility and an array of deadly cancers.

“If I stop smoking, will I gain weight?” asks another advert, which has been given great play in various French media since Anti-Tobacco Day on May 31. The online advert leads to a website that doesn't try to refute that many smokers add a few pounds, at least initially, when they stop smoking. But the site offers tips to help smokers gain less weight.

Yet, the mythology of slimming cigarettes still runs deep in France, and the stigma of fat is apparently more powerful than the death-glow of cigarettes. (A recent French survey highlighting that pudgy ladies have less sex certainly didn’t help.)

French anti-smoking consultant Mathieu Daveaulli argues that cynical cigarette companies devised a devious plan to feminize cigarettes and brought it to France just after women won the right to vote in the 1940s. “Fifty years ago, a woman who smoked was seen as very vulgar, like a man,” says Daveaulli. “You didn’t see a woman smoking in the street unless she was a whore.”

In their advertising, cigarette makers exploited the emancipation of women by marketing cigarettes as both liberating and slimming, and Daveaulli argues that this, in part, has lead to a growing equality in smoking and death rates between French men and women many decades later.

Céline Curiol, an old friend of Rascle, felt liberated when she took up smoking after she moved from her parent’s home in Lyon to Paris for her university studies. After all, she was making her own decisions. “It didn't seem suicidal because I always thought I would stop easily,” she explains.

Now a successful and attention-grabbing thirtysomething novelist, who has been translated into English, Curiol has repeatedly tried—and failed—to stop. She is convinced, to her chagrin, that smoking helps her to write. And when she tried to stop in the past, another concern flitted through her mind: She might start eating too much chocolate.

Experts say that female smokers, regardless of why they started, find all manner of justification not to stop. The real reason, of course, is that they are simply hooked on the nicotine—just like their still-smoking male counterparts.

In 1950, 66 percent of all French men smoked. Today, that has fallen to 33 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of fumeuses has risen from 20 percent to 26.5 percent, and some experts fear that the rate of women smokers will (with some fluctuations, especially when cigarette taxes spike) merge with the male level.

As smoking rates among women have gone up, so have tobacco-related deaths. From the mid-1980s until 1999, tobacco-induced mortality among French women in their 40s quadrupled, and they have continued to rise since then. Researchers forecast that tobacco-related cancers will become the top cause of death for French women within 15 years.

Bringing down the death rate for smoking French women will surely require bringing more clarity to the legend of the slimming Slims. Generally speaking, medical experts here believe that the average smoker tends to gain between about 4.5 and nine pounds within the year that they stop, although they might lose some or all of that weight later on. About one-third of people do not gain any weight, and education is pushing women to make conscious efforts to be healthy when they give up smoking.

For all of the women who use food fears as another excuse to not stop, the cruel irony is that many long-term female smokers tend to ultimately gain weight as a result of their habit. And rather than being a lingerie-friendly curviness that might make them seem more tantalizingly French, Touré says that the common stomach fat associated with it tends to be, well, “a bit manly.”

Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles from five continents. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape