I've always been interested in the juggernaut that is the diet industry, but I never thought I'd find so much of it in France.
I'm an American writer - I was interviewed for my first book on Sassy magazine the first day Jezebel went live and have another book on the ‘90s coming out this winter - and earlier this year, I swapped my Brooklyn apartment for one in Paris for three months so I can write, practice my French, and eat a lot of cheese.
It's la rentrée here in France, which is a kind of nationwide back to school season, where adults and children alike are encouraged to get back to business after taking all of August off. (One month of vacation! I dare to dream!) This return to real life translates into a lot of ads and articles about losing weight. Much of it is aimed at women, but no one gets to escape it. President Sarkozy has lost around 15 pounds-supposedly living on cottage cheese, fish, and mineral water-since marrying Carla Bruni and a Times of London article today says that he has asked would-be cabinet members to diet if they really want the job.
I should take a moment here to admit that I am something of a diet veteran. I grew up in a household where both of my parents experimented heavily with fad diets and the family obsession with weight loss extended down to me-I was signed up for Weight Watchers by third grade and sent to fat camp by fifth. I think I turned out okay, though; these days I like to think I have a fairly healthy relationship to food and my body-I've written a lot about body image and pop culture-though a guilty pleasure is my subscription to Shape magazine.
Being in France has made me realize that I hold some incredibly naïve assumptions about French women and weight that can probably be traced to too much exposure to Vogue Paris, Garance Doré, the GOOP newsletter, and the career of Juliette Binoche. In my mind, French women eat Camembert and Nutella and still look cute in leather leggings. In Mireille Guiliano's bestselling French Women Don't Get Fat, she claims that French women don't exercise that much, eat three-course meals, and don't, you know, get fat, which was apparently groundbreaking enough information to make it a bestseller. American women, on the other hand, are told to put down the pints of Chubby Hubby and learn to be a little more French.
But French women might not be as zen about their weight as I had thought. According to a study that came out last spring, France has a low ideal weight and that "by far the highest proportion of clinically underweight women in Europe, but only half of them think they are too thin."
As fascinated as I am by the American diet industry, I find its existence pretty exhausting. It promises happiness if we could just have enough willpower to overrun our genetic destinies and white-knuckle our way to a "goal weight." (Whatever that is.) It's a false promise, and one that I feel frustrated to see sold abroad.
I'm not looking for tips on how the French lose weight but rather how their weight loss industry is different from-and if it's as pernicious as-our own. So I spent the last few days reading piles of French women's magazines, talking to French girlfriends, and visiting pharmacies and dieticians in the name of greater cultural understanding. Allons-y mes chéries!
Although it seems like there's an L.A. Fitness or Curves on every other corner of almost every midsize American city, in France gyms are considered a luxury and are way more expensive than at home in the US. And besides, working up a sweat is considered a little suspect here, as anyone who has gotten stared at while jogging down Parisian sidewalks will tell you. Grazia magazine even recently ran a story on how exercise will make you gain weight. Exercise is something you do because you like the way it makes you feel, which is how it should be, right? Prima magazine gets bonus points for the sheer breadth of things it considers exercise-they suggest trying darts.
"Yeah, but jogging and American-style exercise is on the rise," my French friend Jude tells me, noting that she has even started to lift weights at home a couple times a week. Of course, she's telling this to me while smoking, drinking a café crème, and eating chocolate covered almonds, so even if exercise is in, deprivation still isn't.
We all know by now that we're supposed to drink eight ounces of water a day, but in France, there's a popular brand of water called Contrex marketed towards women for losing weight.
It comes in a curvy, hourglass shaped bottle (hmm, just what is that supposed to resemble?) with a pink cap and "my diet partner!" written in script on the label. It has more calcium and magnesium than tap water but the real allure for women, as Jude explains to me, is that it's supposed to make you pee more frequently, therefore losing water weight. Contrex's parent company is Nestle and it's proved so popular that Coca Cola has introduced its own version to the market.
There is of course no such thing as water that will magically make anyone lose weight. It will, however, magically make you lose a lot of money: the recommended program includes drinking a couple of bottles a day.
Just as at home, Alli is advertised in every magazine and pharmacy here. Here's what I think about diet pills: Gross, gross, and gross. But in France, diet pills - particularly the Oenobiol line - appear to be ubiquitous, far more so than at home, stacked in the windows of pharmacies or talked about in magazine articles. Top Santé even has a story on which pill is right for you: diuretics, so-called "fat burners," or appetite suppressants.
But I guess it goes with the whole idea that deprivation isn't very French: it's about taking a pill to change your body, not changing your habits.
From Photoshopping celebrities beyond recognition to surmising whether an actress's tummy fat is an unannounced pregnancy, most American magazines aren't exactly bastions of body-friendliness. And when it comes to diets, a typical US Weekly spread might gloss over the meals (salad! fish and vegetables!) in favor of talking about the Kardashian-like body it can help you achieve. My friend Aurélie tells me that women's magazines in France "emphasize the necessity of not feeling guilty about eating well – the idea being that pleasure and food are important if one wants to succeed in losing weight." I guess that's why there's a diet version of Little Schoolboy cookies here? (Full disclosure: I bought a box and ate it in one sitting.)
Fad diets are just as integral part of women's magazines here as there are in America. There's a grape diet, a celery diet and even a diet that is said to be chic in the United States… the apple diet! There are also many detoxes (using leek or cabbage soups) and microdiets where you cut back for a couple days.
I did come across one familiar ad while reading magazines. Weight Watchers, complete with the familiar rubric of before-and-after success stories (um, albeit in kilos) is in full effect here. But don't Weight Watchers recipes look a little more decadent in French?
Here's a universal truth: If you're a woman, you're going to be told to diet for a variety of reasons, chief among them that there's a ton of money to be made off of it. I should have known better than to think there was any kind of diet industry-free Shangri-La. (Though if you do know of one, I would love to take my next vacation there.)
Earlier: How Sassy Changed My Life