Noelle McCarthy: French women do get fat - and fooled

French pharmacies, the holy grail for beauty aficionados. Picture / Thinkstock

I promised to write about French pharmacies. I see that Gwyneth has beaten me. Like every other woman on this planet, I have been bested by the goddess of Goop. She's made a list of must-haves from French chemists, including Embryolisse moisturiser , which is annoying, as I can't find it anywhere. Plus she's got two lip balms I've never even heard of. This is what makes France a great country. Its commitment to moisturisation is unequalled. With the possible exception of Norwegian fishermen, nobody in the world takes hand cream more seriously.

Not getting fat is other thing they take seriously. This is not news of course. The legend of Frenchwomen wolfing down foie gras and staying slender has been around for decades. Books have been written on the subject, enshrining the wisdom: French women don't get fat because they enjoy their food in moderation; some bread, some wine, some cheese. A little, not too much. The very essence of savoir vivre.

That's a nice idea, but it's not what I've seen. French women don't get fat because they're obsessed with not getting fat. Walk into any French pharmacy and what's in front of you? Pills, creams, body washes, tonics, teas. All devoted to one end: weight-loss.

In the past couple of months, I've spent more time in chemist shops than is strictly good for me. In every village, no matter how small, there is a pharmacy, and there has not been one that has not devoted a goodly corner at least, to the various snake oils that promise to help you drop a dress size. One place even had a display of actual measuring tapes in the window, as a motivational aid presumably. What's more, this stuff is being subscribed to. This is not a part of the shop your average French woman avoids. On the contrary, every time I've gone in, they've been right in there buying up large, loading up on fat-melting cream and skinny tea.

I don't mean to be dismissive. For all I know, women are buying this stuff because it tastes great, or it smells nice, rather than the lies being used to sell it. And we've all got the right to waste our own money: who am I to judge another woman's spending, or indeed, her weight-loss strategy.

But, coming from New Zealand, where everyone seems to know that the basic determinant of weight loss is the basic equation energy in/energy out, rather than a cream or a tea, all of this seems very weird. Nor have I seen many people out running in the mornings - or the evenings, just quietly. That's not to say that French people don't exercise. I'm sure they do, I just haven't seen any.

What I have seen, or heard rather, is a 16-year-old French girl I know, being told by her granny that she could do with losing 3kg recently. Leaving aside the weird specificity of the observation - not one kilo, not two, but three - what adult in their right mind tells a teenager she could do with losing a kilo or three? Childhood obesity is as much of an issue in France as anywhere else in the world, but for the sake of three lousy kilos can you justify giving a young girl a lifelong hang-up about her body? Not that it even needs saying, but this girl looked perfect as she was to me. What would I know, though? Maybe shaming your granddaughter about her weight is the key to having her grow up lean and soignee? They left that bit out in the books about how French women keep their figures. As with many legends, the illusion is more glamorous than the reality.

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