I just spent the last two weeks in Paris eating French food, drinking French wine, and talking about life with French women. It just doesn’t get much better than that for me!
With all the discussion about body image and 'diet culture' in the United States, I was fascinated to learn that the average French woman doesn’t have the same issues around her body image and eating that we have here in America. While French society does put pressure on women to be thin, your average (not eating disordered) French woman does not diet and is not struggling with the emotional consequences of food restricting that so many American women experience. How could this be?
As one of my French cousins explained, “We enjoy good food every day, and we move on to other pleasures in our lives; we are not obsessed with eating.”
I wanted to figure out what was going on in the minds of French women that could account for the way that many of them successfully navigate their body image and eating. We clearly could use some French eating lessons on this side of the Atlantic.
MyBodyMySelf focuses on what is going on in the minds of women around food and their bodies. It is all about the awareness of how a woman’s mental framework directs her own body image and eating behavior. Often our own thoughts and beliefs are going on below the surface, and MyBodyMySelf helps you to dive deep into these thoughts. The blog discussion helps you to understand where your thoughts could be sensibly adjusted to better serve you. We want to get past spending so much time focused on our eating and our bodies and get on with living our lives.
A friend of mine pointed out that France still has eating disorders even with their admirable eating lessons, and she is right. The entire developed world has had an increase of eating disorders in the last 60 or so years. Eating disorders, such as anorexia, are mental illnesses that use food for their emotional purposes which -- people are always surprised to learn -- aren't really about the food. The cultural pressure to be thin, the fact that food is so available, and the high incidence of dieting ('dieting' is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder) lay fertile ground for the illness to take hold. But the illness is about the woman's own history and her nature. Anorexia at its core is about an anorexic's lack of authentic self-esteem and her using control over food to fill that void. There are many ways a woman can get to that place. She needs an eating disorder specialist's care and treatment to re-emerge from there.
MyBodyMySelf's discussion is for your average women, a woman who is not suffering from an eating disorder. The average woman does, however, have her own consequences from living in the same body-obsessed, food-filled, diet culture that is a fertile environment for eating issues. Four of five women suffer from a negative body image in the U.S. We simply live at a time and in a place that is horrible for the body esteem of its women. Our culture shapes our personal body image and eating behavior.
Luckily, our deeply-held, personal beliefs are suseptible to change. MyBodyMySelf is about how to make that change. These are MyBodyMySelf’s 7 Guiding Principles for better mental health around food and your weight. Each of these principles are discussed in MyBodyMySelf blogs (highlights link to the relevant discussions):
- 1. Eat when you are hungry,
- 2. Stop eating when you are satisfied,
- 3. Choose food that makes you feel physically well,
- 4. Become aware of your emotional life, especially deprivation and guilt around eating,
- 5. Don't use food to manage life's ups and downs,
- 6. Unplug from society's messages about what your body should look like, and,
- 7. Commit to whole-body self-care, including compassion when life doesn't go as planned
These ideas are easy to understand; but as we all know, they are harder to do.
French women are taught how to eat
Most of the MyBodyMySelf’s 7 Guiding Principles are simply a natural part of eating in French culture, a culture that has focused on the pleasure of eating and social rituals of mealtime for centuries. French children are specifically taught how to eat by their parents. They learn from an early age how to look for pleasure when eating by noticing the flavors and savoring their food. Everything French children learn about how to eat is a lesson in mindful eating.
French women are taught these French eating lessons from childhood:
- Sit down to eat - never eat standing up, on the run, or in front of the TV/computer
- Eat with an eye to feeling pleasure and satisfaction from eating every day (focus on the experience of eating)
- Eat 3 meals a day at regular times (lunch is the largest meal)
- Eat slowly (French meals can go on for hours)
- Chew well and savor the taste
- Don’t snack (but if you get hungry between meals, eat something small so you don't become ravenous)
- Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Eat smaller portions of more things
- Don't eliminate foods categories from your repertoire (especially the foods you love!)
- Drink water as your beverage of choice
- Cook yourself; don’t eat prepared foods especially processed ones with artificial anything
- Focus on the quality of food
- Don’t eat anything you don’t enjoy
- You are responsible for balancing your pleasure and taking care of body
- The French meal is a time to enjoy the pleasure of socializing with others
-- adapted from Mireille Guilliano, French Women Don’t Get Fat (2010)
These guidelines lay a foundation for French children on how to be with food. This structure serves as an inoculation against some of the eating issues we suffer in the U.S. such as getting disconnected from our body cues of: hunger (Guideline No 1, above), satiation (No 2), and how foods make our bodies feel (No 3). The French eating lessons clue in on deprivation around eating by focusing on your right to pleasure in eating, thus avoiding the emotional tsunami triggered by restricting food (No 4). There is also a good amount of self-care taught to French women generation to generation about honoring their bodies and their psyches (No 7). The mindfulness behind all of these lessons make for wonderful French habits around food and eating.
The great American Vacuum
There is no American counterpart to the framework French children learn around eating. In American culture, there are few if any cultural eating rules. There is little mealtime structure today; often kids eat quickly and get on to other activities. Most parents don’t teach children how to eat. We give them little, if any, information on what to eat, portion sizes, or nutrition.
We don’t focus on the experience of eating as the French do. When American parents do give some instruction around eating, it is often a strict, colorless reciting of vitamin requirements with no fun to be found: “You need to get 4 servings of green vegetables, and 50 grams of protein per day.” We certainly don’t show kids what 'enjoying' a meal looks like as the French do. We don't often show them the delight in trying new flavors and textures. We don't often show them the pleasure of a meal's social experience interacting with others, as French children learn early on.
You can snack all day in most American homes. In the last 50 or so years, there has been a focus on easily prepared, processed food. And, most American families eat out all the time. Often there is little or no cooking going on at home, just grabbing quick and easy food at mealtimes. The American way to eat has an absence of structure around eating. This absence of structure is what I call the “American Vacuum.”
French Eating Lessons vs. The American Vacuum
The American Vacuum leaves fertile ground for some of the current, extreme behavior some women experience around eating in the U.S. Without any eating intentions or structure in place, it is easy for a peculiar diet or food limitation to sound appealing to a young girl, like when she eliminates all sugar or gluten from her diet. This harsh restricting doesn’t clash with specific norms around eating for an American teenager like it would for her French counterpart.
Some of the bizarre dieting behaviors girls see in high school and college such as binging, dieting, and throwing up the food you just ate, don’t run up against the same common-sense intuition that has been taught to French children. These behaviors would feel odd to a French girl since these behaviors conflict with everything she has been taught about how to be around food. American girls are ripe to give it a try because there is nothing to conflict with the absence of structure they have around food.
To make matters worse here in the U.S., most of our young girls’ mothers have their own eating issues. An American mom could be constantly dieting, strictly limiting certain foods, obsessed with her scale (and other numbers), eating to soothe emotions, or locking herself into an unrealistic idea of what she is "suppose to" look like. The disordered eating epidemic in the U.S. has been getting worse in the last 60 years or so years because of our diet culture, leaving today’s American girls with few mentally healthy eating role models. In France, French mothers have been taught to eat the same way they teach their children, so there are many mentally healthy women to be role models for young, French girls.
French women don't diet
French women don't go on diets because, as Mireille Guilliano author of the New York Times bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat (2010) explains, French women “avoid anything that demands too much effort for too little pleasure.” French women see the deprivation from a diet as “no way to live.” Mireille thinks American dieting stems from ours being a “country of extremes and denial.” She implies that somehow we Americans enjoy denying ourselves or feel that we need to earn our pleasures.
French women are smart to avoid the dieting trap we've fallen into in the U.S. in the last 60 years. Happily, there is a movement afoot changing all that; dieting is developing quite a bad rap in the recent years. Dieting is now considered a "risk factor" for developing and eating disorder by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). And, it is now well accepted that the deprivation and guilt around food that dieters experience are at the core of most of the eating issues women have in the U.S. (NEDA website).
Taking responsibility for self-care
French women take responsibility for their own care. A French woman learns that “as an adult, she is the keeper of her own equilibrium” so she doesn’t need to resort to external diet plans to give her instruction. She regulates herself as she has seen her mother do. She feels entitled to take her own needs for pleasure and sustenance into consideration, again, as she has seen her mother do. She celebrates her hunger and cravings and feels empowered to feed them.
This week's TIME magazine feature article agreed with Mireille’s message of taking individual responsibility for one’s own eating. The TIME article highlights the idea that a diet which works for one person isn’t necessarily the answer for another person. There is no one size fits all answer for eating. Each person needs to account for her own psychology and behavior in figuring out her own way to eat.
The TIME article joins the overwhelming recommendation from most psychologically-minded eating experts. This is to listen to your own body and mind, and consider what works for you.
- Mireille Guilliano, French Women Don’t Get Fat (2010).
- Mireille's blog, French Women Don't Get Fat.
- National Association of Eating Disorder's (NEDA) website.
"The real reason French women don't get fat is not genetic, but cultural, if the French subjected themselves to the American extremes of eating [large portions] and dieting, the obesity problem in the France would be much worse than what has struck America." --Mireille Guiliano