Women’s Weight Worries, French Style


A recent report from France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies, as reported in The Guardian, reveals French women may pay a high price for having the lowest average body mass index (BMI) among women in western Europe.

They worry more about their weight than their western European counterparts.  Plus, their “ideal” weight is lower, and they value being underweight more.

Indeed, more women in France qualify as underweight, and only half of them recognize that.  This while they tend to consider themselves fatter than they are.

Surely influenced by the fashion industry, the Frenchwoman drive for thinness is also aggravated by “pharmacy windows…crammed with miracle slimming formulas to kick-start the pre-summer dieting season and women’s magazines…full of bikini weight-loss plans.”

Not to say the rest of western Europe is balanced about body image.  Almost half of people there say they’re unhappy with their weight, and more women than men consider themselves overweight, a worry that stays with them throughout their lives.

Sounds disturbingly familiar to those of us in the U.S.  And it begs the question: How do we marry this information with the theory that French women don’t need to worry about getting unhealthily fat because of their wonderful style of eating that’s all about eating what we want — without guilt, in a way that supports well-being?

Unfortunately, it’s another example of the impact of unrealistic images of women’s bodies.

I have nothing more to say about that.

But I will say that the French style of eating — and of any culture that values quality in food and the environment in which we eat it — still serves as a useful model of how we can eat what we want and achieve health and healthy weight goals, provided we focus on well-being as our goal rather than the way we look in clothes or a number on a scale.

Eating what we want in a way that supports our health and well-being is a concept that eludes many of us.  We share many ways to go about it on our website.  Do you have any tips that work for you?

5 responses to “Women’s Weight Worries, French Style”

  1. Gina says:

    Wow, I never knew that about French women. Either way, i guess it makes sense, I mean, how could that one sector of the world be free of the “I must be thin” thought, and free of any body image problems? It’s sad to say, but I think most women have those issues. Reading blogs and hearing from bloggers is what helps me feel better about any issues I might have. Also, learning about nutrition and health helps me stay focused on the health side, rather than the body image effect of food.

  2. Sagan says:

    Doesn’t surprise me. I think when people talk about how we should strive for the French style of living or the Mediterranean diet etc, they’re referring to the traditional way it was years ago… these days, unfortunately, North America has managed to press the obesity trend as well as the body image woes on Europe and much of the rest of the world.

    Sagan’s last blog post..Maintaining a Healthy and Realistic Attitude toward Body Image during the Summer Months

  3. I could write a book about my response — and just maybe I will!

    Having lived in France for over 5 years, I living with (and married to) a Frenchman for 10 years, and having recently returned from 3 weeks in France — here are my thoughts:

    Overall (ie, in general) I find French woman are much more comfortable with their bodies than American women are. From my personal experience, French women don’t obsess over their bodies as much as we do. If they eat a bit too much, or if their pants are getting a bit tight, they cut down a bit on their food intake & try to get a bit more exercise. They don’t go on extreme measures to lose weight fast. They understand it takes some time and a few adjustments in one’s lifestyle.

    In addition, they’re NOT constantly worrying about every single calorie they put into their mouth — at least not verbally. I have yet to hear a French woman talk about how the piece of cake will make them “fat” or “go right to their hips.” Nor have I ever hear a Frenchwoman ask “does this (piece of clothing) make me look fat?” Never. (Of course this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist…)

    You also don’t find tons of “low fat”, “fat free”, “zero fat” items in the grocery store. If they want some chocolate they’re going to have it….no substituting “fake” low-fat, sugar-free, weight watchers-style chocolate for them.

    It is true that in France, being overweight is looked upon as not socially acceptable. Though we think that’s the case in the U.S., I beg to differ. With over 66% of the American population overweight or obese, we look at being overweight differently. We accept it much more here.

    Again, from my personal experience (and I have many female French friends) I find their attitude towards food is much healthier than us Americans.

    All that said, they are exposed to many (if not all) of the same images of thin women on TV, in magazines, and in the media in general– so it’s no surprise that some do have body image issues. And as you mentioned, “Almost half of people there (in ALL of Europe) say they’re unhappy with their weight, and more women than men consider themselves overweight” it just goes to show that no one is immune to it all.

    Overall — no one is perfect, but the French definitely have a much better attitude towards themselves, their bodies, and with food than Americans do….at least from my point of view.

    Dinneen – Eat Without Guilt’s last blog post..Interview with Dara Chadwick, author of “You’d Be So Pretty If…”

  4. I have only an anecdotal response since I have never been to France and know very few French people. But a relative (by marriage) of ours is from France and I have never met a more weight-and-food conscious individual. She is utterly disgusted by anybody who is overweight and I think she even considers normal-weight people fairly objectionable. She is in the underweight category of BMI and has taught her 9 year old daughter how to eat salads with no dressing. She won’t use cough drops that have “unnecessary calories.” She speaks with disdain about “you fat Americans.” Of course she is only one of millions but whenever I think of French women she is the first one to come to mind. I know, I know, it’s just one person!! But the idea of being overweight as socially unacceptable really rang a bell when I thought of her.

    Foodie McBody’s last blog post..Travel, Please Don’t Bite Me

  5. Marsha says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments! You all bring up some good points.

    Bottom line for me is that I fear all the body image “stuff” is getting worse for many folks, and it’s exacerbated by the continued poor diets that many of us have as a result of weight worries or just not taking enough time to feed ourselves well. Kind of like the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?

    Sagan makes an important point about the traditional style of eating disappearing in some countries. That will surely create even more problems.

About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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