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The French Enigma: How Do French Women Stay So Slim?

In Paris, there are some things that you just expect to see; the Eiffel Tower, the River Seine, old men wearing berets.  Amidst the sights, one thing you can’t help but notice is the number of slim women walking around. Is it something in the water? Is it floating in the air?

I lived in Paris for 18 years and thought I had it all figured out.  When I moved back to the States, my friends didn’t ask me, ‘Who’s the hottest French designer?’ or ‘Where’s the best shopping district?’

 Non! The question on everyone’s mind was, ‘How do French women stay so slim?’

We American ex-pats in Paris had our own theories.  While we begrudgingly acknowledged their great figures, we would smirk and whisper amongst ourselves, “Oh, they probably smoke 3 packs of cigarettes a day.” Statistics prove that 137% of all French women smoke.  Of course, if cigarette smoking was not punishable by law in this country, I might give up my M&M’s for Marlboros, too.

But face it, they are obviously doing something that we are not.

Could it be diet alone?  They do eat, you ask, don’t they?  Sure they do, just not as much or as often as we do.  Peek at the Frenchwoman’s lunch plate and you’ll be surprised to find that it is full, just not with the gargantuan sized portions that we Americans enjoy.

Doggy bags from restaurants don’t exist in their culture, not only because Fifi usually dines alongside Madame, but because Madame doesn’t waste one morsel placed before her.  The three-course lunch is not a thing of the past.  In fact, a good lunch is vital to staying in shape, along with a hearty breakfast and a small dinner.  And wine?  Wine not? A glass of red is not only beneficial to the heart, French women swear by the rosy glow that it brings to their cheeks.

What’s missing from the Frenchwoman’s diet is an abundance of junk food and mindless snacking.  If Yvette indulges in mousse au chocolat for dessert, she’ll do it with delight.  Meanwhile, across the pond, Betty Sue will devour a box and a half of Snackwells before feeling the slightest sensation of satiety and experience tremendous guilt, to boot.

Mealtime, for the French, is a sacred moment.  Conversation and debate are as much a part of the meal as the cheese and dessert course.  Food is to be savored, appreciated.   Let’s overlook the fact that the French do dig a Big Mac every now and then.  But as a general rule, to lunch is to linger as dinner is to dine.

Attitude is everything.  Remark the way French women preen.  On any beach in the south of France, women are proud to parade topless (and bronze themselves to a pre-cancerous crisp, but that’s a whole other story). I recall attending classes at my Parisian gym and marveling at how the women gazed adoringly at themselves in the mirror. In the locker room they had no qualms about strutting and chatting au naturel.  Goodness knows an American woman must have invented the put your bra-and-panty-on-while-still-wearing-a-towel technique perfected at every LA Fitness and 8th grade gym class across the United States.

Philosophies concerning dieting are different, too.  La Francaise practices her ‘regime’ in private.  We Americans tell all.  The French woman makes you think her sveltesse is innate.  The American will groan to anyone within earshot about how she couldn’t possibly partake of the Chef’s salad for lunch what with consuming 300 calories on a bagel at breakfast and spending only 200 on the Elliptical this afternoon.  We diet and exercise in the American way, loud and proud.  Our Gallic counterparts couldn’t be more discreet.  The only indication we might have that dieting is in effect is when Josette refuses a second helping from her hostess, gently patting her flat stomach while whispering, ‘One must pay attention to one’s ligne’.

Exercise is another quiet concept.  Nobody whooped or wailed at the exercise classes I took part in.  At my gym, you needed only to peruse the class schedule to see that stretching was the big hit, with hush-hush calisthenics coming in a close second.  More energy was spent on massages and saunas then on stepping or spinning.

To their credit, I must admit that Parisiennes do walk everywhere. They accompany les enfants to school in the morning, march off to work, back to school, then home again at the end of the day. They trot faithful Fifi when ‘la nature’ calls.  And they run, panting, to the neighborhood tabac to buy their cigarettes.  Think of all those calories melting away by simply placing one leg in front of the other. Of course, if you had legs like theirs, you’d walk everywhere to show them off, too.

Covert exercising and dieting aside, French women are faithful consumers of the countless slimming aids for sale at their neighborhood pharmacie. There are pills and potions, creams and lotions, all promising firmness and joy.  There’s a lot of talk, too, about elimination.  A few years back there was a popular jingle for Vittel mineral water: ‘Il faut eliminer!” Roughly translated, “You must eliminate!” Gee, thanks for sharing.  You’ll notice that the Frenchwoman is never far from her water bottle, nor the water closet, come to think of it.

The American author Richard Reeves once wrote, ‘The French are different than you and me.” Tres true.  After years of trying to emulate what kept Suzette slim, I gave up.  As often as I have attempted their routines and Bordeaux laced regimes, I still remain amply American and they, in turn, firmly French.  And slim.

But are they happy?