Is there any culture on earth whose food culture we fetishize as abjectly as we do the French? Like, oooooooh my god! The French! Did you know that in France, veal calves weep with pride and moo "La Marseillaise" as they're being slaughtered? Did you know that in France, they're so committed to freshness that they bury their heads in the dirt and chew on the roots of still-growing radishes? (Over there, mud is known as "nature's ketchup.") Did you know that French women eat nothing but chocolate sandwiches and lard tarts but they never get fat because the lard is so fresh? And also because they're better than us? Fact: the only thing that Americans are better at than the French is being fat (also, war). We're #1!!! Woooooooo!!! ...For now.
Though France still has the highest percentage of underweight people in all of Western Europe, obesity rates have been noticeably creeping up. In 1997, France's obesity rate was 8.5%; today it's 14.5%. Because in reality, of course, while there's plenty of fresh and dazzling French cuisine, lots of French people eat garbage just like we do (or worse). They eat fried processed cheese sandwiches. They eat Nutella for breakfast. They eat fucking foie gras out of a can. The difference, it seems, is that French people traditionally eat smaller portions, walk more, and don't snack. But now, suddenly, they're getting fatter, which means everyone's all, "SACRE BLEU!" and sitting very still weeping on wrought-iron balconies and stuff. Enter Jenny Craig.
Susan Dominus in the New York Times today has a lengthy (but worth it) exploration of the Jenny Craig program's efforts to infiltrate France. Weight Watchers, with its emphasis on portion control rather than pre-packaged meals, seems like a more logical option for a culture so focused on the artistry and community of food, but our plucky gal Jenny is giving it a go nonetheless. And the cultural hurdles she's up against are complex and fascinating.
Dominus spends an afternoon with Valérie Bignon, director of corporate communications for Nestlé France (which owns Jenny Craig), who, as far as I can tell, is literally a baguette in a hat riding a cigarette-smoking poodle (and also the poodle is kind of racist). This woman is in a strange bind—you can tell she's extremely scornful of American food culture, snootily harping on the fact that French women don't need to diet because they know how to daintily subsist on half a dinner roll, and yet her job is to push an American diet plan on French consumers. You can almost taste the scorn she has for her own product. Bignon's task is to appeal to French women's desperation to remain thin in a nation of thin people (and make it look effortless), while allowing them to maintain their sense of culinary superiority. Not so easy when you're peddling boeuf bourguignon-flavored glop.
"You know what I find totally crazy?" Bignon asked, momentarily sidetracked. "Le Self. You know this system? It's American. You take a plate, there's a line, you take some salad..." She was referring to what we call self-serve, an option so neutral to me that Bignon might as well have been decrying the rise of the photocopy machine. "In school cafeterias, there used to be a gentleman who made the meal and a madame who served it, and everyone ate together at the table, as they do at home," she said. "But Americans hit on this system that is fast, it's cheap, you take what you want—and now it's everywhere in France!" she said. "I am anti-Self. It's bad for rapport, and it's bad for health—it's too individualistic."
Okay, so fatness is an American problem, caused by fat American habits fattily infiltrating France. We get it. But then why would any self-respecting French person turn to an American solution like Jenny Craig (when we OBVIOUSLY haven't cracked the weight loss conundrum)? If French food traditions are so much healthier, wouldn't the best solution to this "American problem" be to just get Frenchier? Jenny Craig is an entirely individualized system that's about as removed from fresh, communal dining as you can get—it's pre-packaged, microwaveable, astronaut meals for one. That sounds like a tough sell.
Or maybe not. I wonder if, in a culture so obsessed with thinness and so scornful of dieting ("It is not looked upon highly, in France, to be on a diet," Bignon says), women might find the mindless ease of Jenny Craig to be a relief. I know that if I was expected to linger over a three-hour family cheese feed every night, and limit myself to just a few dainty bites for fear that my expanding ass-fat would squash the pride of my entire nation, I'd get exhausted pretty quick.
And the French are, Dominus writes, pretty hilariously grumpy about weight loss:
During the presentation at Jenny Craig headquarters, a phrase appeared on the screen, an internal message for the diet counselors: "Keep a positive mind-set!" The sentiment did not strike me as terribly French, and Moreau assured me it was not. "The French are the most pessimistic people in the world," he said, citing a Gallup poll that was much discussed in France. The American Jenny Craig Web site urges dieters to "See What Success Tastes Like" and encourages them to "Feel Like New. Feel Like You." The French Web site is devoid of self-esteem-boosting sentiment, its motto more logic-based, almost Cartesian in construct: "I did the Jenny Craig solution. It works!" Mariah Carey tells them. "Why not you?"
Either way, it's equal parts depressing and perversely satisfying to imagine the French finally caving to our shitty microwaveable dinners. Or, here's a thought: maybe the French haven't learned to enjoy TV dinners before this because their TV shows suck so bad. (Seriously, it's all weird shit like, "Jean-Carlo and the Jew!" Hoh-hoh-hohhh, ze Jew fell down ze well again! Non, we are totallee not raceest! Look, zees talking donkey ees wearing a dress!) In America, I know I can stay home alone with my stupid Lean Cuisine frenchbread pepperoni pizza (seriously, are those things better than actual pizza?) and feel completely spiritually fulfilled because Game of Thrones is on. What do the French have to entertain them while they eat their cardboard diet food—the pleasure of each other's company? Boooooooo. Moral of the story: everyone's fat and no one knows what to do. C'est la vie.
Image via mikeledray/Shutterstock.