The Woman Standing Up to France’s Fat-Shaming
Gabrielle Deydier thought about suicide. But then she decided to write a book about the particularly cruel ways the French treat the obese. And suddenly the world took notice.
PARIS—Not long before she wrote her powerful memoir about obesity, which has since attracted so much media attention in France and around the world, Gabrielle Deydier considered committing suicide.
Broke, unemployed, and subjected to daily bouts of verbal viciousness anytime she ventured out of her tiny, 13-square-meter (140-square-foot) studio, she would throw objects out the window “to calculate how long it would take me to hit the ground if I jumped.”
Flip through the pages of her book, On Ne Naît Pas Grosse (One Is Not Born Fat) and it isn’t difficult to understand how Deydier (or anyone for that matter) could reach such a level of hopelessness.
Part research project, part memoir, On Ne Naît Pas Grosse recounts Deydier's battle with obesity—from a chubby teenager who was prescribed an ill-considered course of hormone therapy (it just made things worse) to an obese adult who is subjected to an unfathomable amount of bullying and discrimination—and the massive stigma attached to being fat in this country and especially in this city.
“In France, being fat is seen as being a failure,” Deydier, who is 38 and weighs 150 kg (330 lbs), explained to me matter-of-factly inside an airy cafe in northeastern Paris. “Obesity isn’t perceived as a disease, but as a matter of a loss of willpower or a lack of self-control.”
Many French aren’t shy about voicing these beliefs, either. She told France’s TV5 that when she ordered two croissants during a recent trip to a boulangerie, the customer behind her quipped, “One will be enough for me.”
“Paris is seen as glamorous, the capital of fashion,” she added. “And to be fat is to not be a part of that elegance.”
Say the word “Frenchwomen,” and what comes to mind? Likely the impeccably dressed, statuesque creatures that populate fashion editorials and film screens, and who, as Muriel Guiliano proclaimed in her bestselling 2005 book, “don’t get fat.” And while some French high-fashion giants, such as LVMH recently banned “unhealthily skinny” models on runways and in ad campaigns, thin is still very much in.
But despite this glamour-soaked stereotype, French women (and men) are getting fatter. Although the figures trail behind the U.S., obesity is on the rise here. According to the recent data from the Montpelier-based Ligue Contre l’Obesité, some 7 million people in the French population of 67 million are clinically obese. And in late October of last year, l’Institut de Veille Sanitaire released a study of 30,000 French subjects: Nearly 41 percent of French women over the age of 30 were found to be overweight or obese, while their male counterparts fared even worse at 56.8 percent. Basically, about half of the French adult population is now clinically overweight.
As previously reported in The Daily Beast, the rise in obesity in France is expected to continue. A 2012 state-sponsored study by ObEpi-Roche found that the number of obese people in the country had doubled in the past 15 years. And data from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), indicates that obesity rates in France are expected to jump by another 10 percent over the next decade.
Although these statistics suggest that Deydier is far from alone, it is easy to see how she could feel that way, especially in the French capital. Take a casual stroll around Paris, and you will be hard-pressed to cross paths with anyone whom you’d consider clinically obese.
“Fat people hide,” she explained, adding that leaving the house means being subjected to a daily barrage of insults. “Fat people are ridiculed in the street, at the bakery, and at the doctor’s office,” she said. “Some fat people feel guilty for being fat, as though maybe they deserve to be treated this way.”
Deydier, however, had had enough and decided to speak out.
When we met she was sporting an electric blue blouse, and her matte lipstick was the bright crimson shade that often graces the pouts of parisiennes. She is intelligent, funny, and refreshingly forthright and easy to talk to—even when touching on deeply personal subjects. She has a warm, engaging smile, and it seems to come easily to her.
While several obesity memoirs have appeared in U.S. bookstores in recent years—both the late Rebecca Moore’s 2005 Fat Girl and Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which came out in June, received wide critical praise—a book such as Deydier’s was practically unheard of in France. Deydier herself is still surprised by the attention On Ne Naît Pas Grosse has garnered since it hit French book stores four months ago.
“I didn’t think too many people would be interested in reading a book about some fat woman,” she said.
She was mistaken. Since the book’s release she has been interviewed some 60 times. Top French dailies and magazines, as well as journalists from as far away as Chile, Israel, and Finland have talked to her. She has appeared on the cover of the U.K.’s Observer magazine, on French television, and currently has publishing houses courting her for English-language rights.
One thing that makes Deydier’s book so harrowing, and it is, is that it isn’t only a depiction of the bullying she endures as an overweight woman, but also of a struggle for survival—both psychologically and literally.
Following college graduation, her classmates quickly snagged career-track jobs without too much difficulty. Deydier, on the other hand, found herself essentially unemployable, despite having sent out hundreds of resumes. French resumes have photographs of applicants, a requirement that, Deydier believes, cost her countless professional opportunities. While her friends settled into careers, Deydier was either perpetually on the job hunt, or often stuck with menial or dead-end jobs, despite her university education.
According to Jean-François Amadieu, a Paris-based sociologist who specializes in societal perceptions of physical appearance, such appearance-based hiring discrimination is a real problem in France, and obese women are among the most affected.
“There are many prejudices surrounding overweight people,” he told BMFTV last year. “They are ‘less intelligent, less dynamic, less competent, and have a weak personality.’”
When Deydier did manage to find employment, she was subjected to constant bullying. She has never had a job, she said, where she wasn’t harassed because of her size.
“I don’t work with fat people,” her supervisor at a school for special needs children told her on her first day, before referring to her as “handicapped” in front of the class.
Hearing these stories is shocking, not because the obese don’t face bullying in the U.S., but because the abuse is so pervasive—extending far beyond nasty comments in the street or on the metro:
There is a dentist who complains that she could damage his chair, a gynecologist who wants to know how he will be able to see anything “under all that fat,” and humiliations at her most recent workplace that would likely result in a substantial discrimination lawsuit had they occurred in the U.S. Although a law was passed in 2001 making appearance-based job discrimination illegal in France, Deydier said it is rarely enforced.
Indeed, over the months Deydier’s complaints to higher-ups were ignored. The situation became so unbearable, she said, that she finally asked her doctor to sign a medical leave request for the remainder of her employment contract. Her doctor agreed. Her contract wasn’t renewed, and she fell into a severe depression.
Shut away in her tiny apartment, she would slip out to buy groceries late at night just before her local market closed, and spend evenings inside in front of the television. Unable to pay her rent, she knew it was a matter of time before she would have to move out, leaving her jobless and homeless. It was during this time that she began staring at the pavement below and thinking of dying.
She wrote a book instead. Her motivation for writing it was two-fold, she said. In addition to telling her story, she wanted to speak out about what she refers to as “grossophobie” (fat-phobia) in France, which she defines as “a systemic discrimination based on a person’s weight.”
In the book, she shares her own battle, which began in her teens, and continued through adulthood: the endless series of medical visits, the fruitless dieting, and the skinny mother who, upon noticing that her teenage daughter had gained weight during a series of hormone treatments, points out her double chin and accuses her of “eating in secret.” At one point she considers gastric bypass surgery, but decides against it after discovering the potentially dangerous side effects associated with the procedure.
The book is insightful, heartbreaking, and sometimes quite funny, especially when she skewers American reality shows like Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition for its “modern-day freak show” quality.
“Obesity is a strange state,” Deydier writes. “Unstable, generally unwanted, and often perceived as being reversible.”
The book also looks at scientific studies on obesity in this country, which, reveal parallels with American obesity research. For instance, as in the U.S., there is a correlation between obesity and socioeconomic status. That is, the lower the income, the greater the likelihood of a larger waistline. Deydier herself grew up poor, and points out how anti-fat bias in the workplace is keeping the overweight on the lower end of the economic spectrum.
Globalization has also brought with it an adoption of American eating habits, especially the rise of fast-food culture throughout Europe. As we’ve reported previously, France is McDonald’s second-largest market in the world with 1,380 outlets countrywide and €4.46 billion ($5.17 billion) in sales in 2013. Sugary snacks and pre-packaged goods are stocked alongside traditional food items at French supermarkets, and ads for KFC meals are plastered around metro stations. La malbouffe (French for junk food) has infiltrated one of the world’s gastronomic capitals.
“We live in a schizophrenic society,” Deydier writes in On Ne Naît Pas Grosse. “It’s becoming easier and easier to get fat, but the obese are outcasts.”
So great is the concern over junk food’s impact on the nation’s health, that the government has stepped in. Just today, Le Monde reported that the French National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a revised tax on soda and other sugary drinks. The new sliding scale tax will be slapped on drinks that contain one gram of sugar per 100 ml. For a bit of perspective, there are 10.6 grams of sugar per 100 ml in Coke Classic, and 330 ml in a typical can. That works out to about seven teaspoons a Coke.
A pricier can of Coke as an obesity deterrent seems farfetched, but it does suggest that the country is starting to pay attention. Attitudes toward beauty standards also may be shifting slightly, as the global proliferation of the internet and of social media platforms like Instagram, may, as one French beauty insider told me, offer up concepts of beauty that are more diverse.
“France is a country of dinosaurs,” said Julie Levoyer, the beauty director at the French edition of Stylist magazine. “The whole concept of body positivity hasn’t caught on here yet the way it has in the States, but the internet has represented a dematerialization of borders, so France is no longer in a bubble and will be obligated to think about it.”
Deydier, in the meantime, is gearing up to direct a documentary film that will tackle similar subject matter. She is also working on her first novel. Media interest in her book has shown no sign of slowing down, and she has also received numerous letters from readers for whom her story has served as a wake-up call.
“One man wrote to me and told me he had worked as a school administrator, and had treated the fat students badly,” she said, as she wiped away tears. It was the only time during the interview that she cried. “He asked me to forgive him, as though I was a priest. It is hard to read these kinds of messages.”
She has received criticism too, some surprisingly, from formerly overweight readers or from those who have had gastric bypass operations, which, she explained are a taboo subject in France.
One comment in response to a Le Monde article about her book denounced “making obesity acceptable.”
“It should remain unacceptable,” the comment read. “Because the behavior of adults puts the health of millions of children at risk.”
She insisted that her goal was never to normalize obesity or create any kind of “fat pride” movement in the country. She just wanted to tell her story.
Could attitudes change in France, I asked her. Could this book encourage a revolution of sorts?
“Maybe not a revolution,” she said. “But it could make people think about how they treat others.”