I 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 the average American woman has. While French society does put pressure on women to be thin, your average (not eating disordered) French woman does not hate her body, does not diet, and is not struggling with the same obsession and anxiety around food that most American women experience.
As my French cousin Martine 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.
French children are taught how to eat
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 learning to taste and savor their food. Everything French children learn about how to eat, could be considered the basics of Intuitive Eating -- how people ate forever before diet culture interferred with our intuition around food.
These are highlights of French Eating Lessons according to Mireille Guilliano in her 2010 bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat :
- 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
- Eat 3 meals a day at regular times
- Eat slowly -- French meals can go on for hours
- Chew well and savor the taste
- Snacking is not big in France, but they watch their hunger in between meals and they learn to eat something small so they won't be ravenous when they arrive at the table for a meal
- 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
- Focus on the quality of food and the fun of preparing it
- Don’t eat anything you don’t enjoy
- You are responsible for balancing your pleasure and nourishing your body well
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, satiation, and how foods make our bodies feel. The French eating lessons clue in on deprivation around eating by focusing on your right to pleasure in eating, thus avoiding the anxiety triggered by dieting. There is also a good amount of whole-self care taught to French women generation to generation about honoring their bodies and their psyches. 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 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 show them the pleasure of a meal's social experience interacting with friends and family, as French children learn early on.
You can snack all day in most American homes. In the last 50 or so years, U.S. homes have been filled with easily prepared, processed food. Most American families eat out all the time. Often there is little or no cooking going on for meals in U.S. families, just grabbing quick, easy food at mealtimes. The American way to eat has an absence of structure around eating, the Great American Vacuum.
French Eating Lessons vs. Great American Vacuum
The Great 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 to sound appealing to a young girl, like when she eliminates all sugar or gluten from her diet. Weird food restricting or behavior 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 -- vacuum -- they have around food.
To make matters worse, here in the U.S., most 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 50 years or so years because of our diet culture, leaving today’s American girls with few healthy eating role models. In France, French mothers have been taught to eat the same way they teach their children, so there are many 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 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 50 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..
Taking responsibility for whole-self care
French women take responsibility for their own care. According to Mireille Guilliano, 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 body's needs for nourishment and pleasure into consideration, again, as she has seen her mother do. She celebrates her hunger and cravings and feels empowered to feed them.
A recent TIME magazing cover feature 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: to listen to your own body and mind, and consider what works for you.
A friend of mine pointed out that France still has eating disorders even with their all their admirable Eating Lessons, and she is right. The entire developed world has had an increase of eating disorders in the last 50 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) all increase our mindshare around food laying fertile ground for the illness to take hold.
"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."
- Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Body Respect, 2014.
- Paul Campos, The Diet Myth, 2005.
- Carolyn Costin, Your Dieting Daughter, 2013 (2nd edition).
- Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb, 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder Workbook, 2017.
- Renee Engeln, Beauty Sick, 2017.
- Mireille Guilliano, French Women Don’t Get Fat (2010).
- Mireille Guilliano's blog, French Women Don't Get Fat.
- Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, 2014 (2nd edition).
- Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue, 2006 (2nd edition).
- Rachel Simmons, Enough As She Is, 2018.
- Julia V. Taylor, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, 2014.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works, 2012 (3rd edition). I boil down some of the essence of this book to 8 steps in My Body, Myself Post-its.
- Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch,Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, 2017.
Favorite Podcast: Cristy Harrison's FoodPscyhe.
Favorite Blogger: Isabel Foxen Duke, Stop Fighting Food. If you are interested, google Isabel on YouTube; she does lots of interviews with host of different podcasts.