PARIS—Imagine France, and along with the montage of the clichéd baguettes, berets, and rustic villages, one is likely to conjure images of the pin-thin French femme. Polished and perfectly-coiffed, she navigates cobblestone alleys in perilous stiletto heels before settling into a sidewalk bistro where she devours a plate of steak frites, washes it down with a carafe of wine, and finishes with a chocolate soufflé and a cheese plate. The indulgent feast doesn’t add an ounce to her lithe frame, and after paying the tab, this impeccably dressed ideal of slender femininity melts into a crowd of equally chic, metabolically gifted lovelies. Cue Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
This image of the impossibly slender Frenchwoman is so pervasive in the United States that a cottage industry has mushroomed over the past decade or so based on the premise that to vanquish weight woes Americans need only take a cue from their Gallic counterparts. From Mireille Guiliano’s 2004 bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat to myriad blogs and media articles, the belief that French women are immune to the swelling waistlines that plague many of the rest of us has become ingrained in the public consciousness.
“If my fellow Americans could adopt even a fraction of the French attitude about food and life, weight would cease to be a terror, an obsession, and reveal its true nature as part of the art of living,” Guiliano writes in French Women Don’t Get Fat. “The real reason French women don’t get fat is not genetic, but cultural.”
Except it turns out that they do get fat after all.
In late October, l‘Institut de veille sanitaire released startling findings in its weekly epidemiological bulletin: In 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. In terms of clinical obesity, the ladies and gents were about equal, with about 15.6 percent of women classified as obese compared to 15.8 percent of men. Basically, about half of the French adult population is now clinically overweight. So much for the so-called French paradox.
“These figures show that obesity remains a major health problem,” Sébastien Czernichow, a researcher and a professor of nutrition at the University Paris-Descartes told Le Monde.
What’s more, the French are not only getting fatter, but the trend is expected to continue. A 2012 state-sponsored study by ObEpi-Roche found that the number of obese people in France had doubled in the past 15 years. And according to data from the Paris-based think tank Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), obesity rates in France are expected to jump by another 10 percent over the next decade.
While obesity in France is less prevalent than in the United States—nearly three quarters of American adults are overweight or obese—for a country long lauded for its svelte inhabitants the findings are nonetheless surprising. So what is going on?
Some pin the blame on globalization and the adoption of American eating habits, especially the rise of fast-food culture throughout Europe. France is McDonald’s second-largest market in the world with 1,380 outlets countrywide and €4.46 billion in sales in 2013. Ads for KFC meals are plastered around Paris metro stations, and in my own neighborhood, a Subway sandwich joint competes for foot traffic alongside traditional boulangeries and cafes. Peruse any French supermarket and you’ll find plenty of sugary snacks and pre-packaged goods stocked alongside traditional food items. Yes, la malbouffe (French for junk food) has infiltrated one of the world’s gastronomic capitals, and so great is the concern over its impact on waistlines and wallets that the government is considering a junk food tax to tackle the problem. According to the country’s treasury, obesity in France is costing the nation €20.4 billion a year—an economic impact, as The Local points out, that is similar to that of smoking and drinking alcohol.
However, the latest study indicates that other factors are at play besides a nationwide proliferation of Big Macs and fried chicken. As in the United States, there is a correlation between obesity and socioeconomic status. That is, the higher the income, the greater the likelihood of a smaller waistline. For instance, a quarter of those earning a salary of under €1,000 a month were obese, compared to just 1 in 10 of those whose salaries exceed €4,200. Moreover, the OECD reports that less-educated French women are almost three times more likely to be overweight than more educated women, while poorly educated men are 1.6 times more likely to be overweight than educated men.
“The causes are well known,” Le Monde reported last week. “First of all, the poorest communities have difficulty both accessing healthy food, which is generally more expensive, and accessing sports facilities that promote physical activity.”
The study also identified increased age as one of the biggest risk factors associated with obesity, suggesting that like many Americans, the French also struggle to shed pounds as they get older. The rate of obesity among French 60-year-olds is double the rate among those aged 30, indicating that slowing midlife metabolisms have little bearing on which side of the Atlantic you live on.
Finally, regional factors also play a role in French obesity rates, which give some validity to the myth of the slender Frenchwoman. Provided she lives in Paris, that is. Obesity prevalence in the City of Light is at just 10.7 percent—the lowest in the country. The figure is telling, especially compared to France’s north, where obesity rates top 25 percent. A significant number of higher-income residents partially explains the disparity, as does the pedestrian-friendly aspect of the city. Long strolls to the local market are a part of life. As is the fact that stairs are aplenty and elevators are scarce. Live at the top of a seven-floor walkup, and you’re bound to get some daily exercise in regardless of whether or not you want to, and the city’s cost-effective public bike system further encourages physical activity.
So is the streamlined feminine silhouette of popular imagination a complete myth, then? Well, yes and no. Take a stroll through the most sought-after neighborhoods in central Paris on any given day, and it’s not uncommon to encounter the slender, stylish ladies that Guiliano pays homage to in French Women Don’t Get Fat. And while she could have opted for bluntness, it’s safe to assume that a book called “Wealthy Parisian Women Don’t Get Fat” would have sold less copies.