Zoe Williams has a hilarious and perceptive opinion piece in The Guardian today, exploring the publishing phenomenon based on cultural stereotypes that would have us think that French women are beautiful, elegant creatures entirely unlike our lardy selves.
French women are creatures to be emulated. They do not get fat, according to French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano; the same author, in her next book, French Women for All Seasons, tells us that they are always happy with the season of life they are in, be it the young-filly season or the old-bag season. This is because – and I have scoured this book; I am not being facetious, this is literally her answer – they don’t get fat. What a wonderful secret they’ve unearthed – a way to come to terms with mortality that is the same as being thin. How could such a thing possibly be managed? “When being served meat, soup, vegetables, whatever at someone’s home, or even in a restaurant, French women are apt to tell the person dishing it out, ‘La moitié, s’il vous plaît’ – just give me half of that.” No! But this is too, too delicious! They have these wonderful lives, and qualities, by looking at how much everyone else is eating and just having half of it.
Astonishingly, there is a book by an entirely different author, Debra Ollivier, called Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding her Inner French Girl, which is subtitled, Why French Women Stay Chic, Love Life and Don’t Get Fat. Presumably, one of these women could have sued the other for ripping off her title, except that French Women Don’t Sue One Another Because Suing is an Ugly Thing That Leads to Wrinkles. Ollivier’s book is the same, really – just a load of bilge about how amazing their self-control is, these Frenchies – “Would you look at that, I just saw a Frenchie standing next to an ice-cream van, and she chose a Gauloise instead, what amazing willpower, I wish I were more like her, yik-yak-yik-yak.”
This actually made me laugh so much I spat about half of the chocolate I was eating at the time over my keyboard, so perhaps I won’t get fat either. I’m glad I’m not the only woman who gets pissed off about the idea that in order to be elegant, sophisticated and “feminine”, I am supposed to be wearing Chanel, smoking Gauloises, pouting a lot whilst sitting outside cafes, and not getting fat. How many women actually have the money and inclination to buy designer clothes? And since when has smoking given you anything except yellow teeth, chronic bronchitis and a greater-than-average chance of dying a hideous death? As Williams points out, “Just as a lot of subtle racism slipped in under the guise of anthropology in old-school National Geographics, so a lot of misogyny slips in under the obfuscating, colourful gauze of Studies in French Etiquette.”
Can you imagine what Simone De Beauvoir would have said about being called a girl? About being included in a book whose next chapter explains why it’s important to buy your walking shoes in Prada, because you can never be too well dressed? About being name-checked by a person who doesn’t just not know the meaning of the word existentialist, but can’t even be arsed to look it up before committing it to a paperback? Can you imagine? She would have had a cow.
French women, I’m sure, don’t think of themselves like this any more than we think of ourselves as foul-mouthed alcopop-hounds who eat a lot of fried food. But you cannot escape the implications – that somewhere, not too far from here, is a land where they never had anything as vulgar as a sexual revolution, where women are still, eternally, women, where they get their own way with their cat-like cunning, not with unattractive shouting, and what do you know? They are exactly the same as you; as successful as you, as educated as you, as well paid as you; they have come to the very same endpoint, only they are thinner. This is the most arrant misrepresentation of French feminists, for starters, who are no greater suckers for body-sculpting cream than any other variant of feminist; but it is also a traducement of the aims and ends of feminism, which was not just there so we might all get into the cabinet, but so we wouldn’t have to resemble Elle McPherson to do so, any more than Kenneth Clarke has to justify himself by looking like Russell Crowe.
What am I doing? This is where the extra 10kg come from, which make me look more like an English woman than a French woman. I am not seducing anybody. I am not making time for myself or my beauty regime. I am not internet-shopping for a pair of Tods. Would a Frenchwoman rant on like this? She would not. She would have a fag, and she would say, “Bof”.
I haven’t much to say about this article because I just agree with all of it. French women are not goddess-like bastions of slimness and sophistication to which we must all aspire, and they deserve to be celebrated for more than this anyway.