Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Culture versus Gender

I'd like to thank Friend of the Bear and JustJulieBean for their comments regarding French women in my Quality? Quality! post.

I'm not quibbling with the statement that French women can be quite obsessed with weight. But that was not what I was trying to get at in my previous post.

In my Quality post I was talking about how we "tamper" with food. We make food-like substances that stay "fresh" for years. We take fat calories out and substitute sugar or edible-oil products. We fear real food and turn to franken-foods in the hopes that these pseudo-foods will help us lose weight. We eat fast food because we fear real food or we look down on food as a waste of time. Eating is something to be gotten out of the way so that we can get back to work. We eat fast food because it is cheap and thus we can save money. It is only since our society has suddenly discovered the "obesity epidemic" that the mainstream press and ordinary people are beginning to question the wisdom of TV dinners or the many fast food joints that dot the landscape. This is a cultural issue and so far, the French (and other cultures too) have been somewhat more successful in fighting the disappearance of real food than have the countries of the English-speaking world.

However, we cannot overlook gender in the food equation. Obsession with weight is, for the most part, something that women live with much more than men. Generally, a man can live quite happily with 20-30-4o pounds too much. It's perhaps only when they get into the really obese category that some men start to realize they might be a "bit" too heavy.

Women, on the other hand, freak out about 5 pounds and feel totally defeated if they don't measure up to the airbrushed standards that typify our magazines.

And these feelings of not living up to a certain standard of beauty (or a BMI number, or a clothing size) cut across cultural lines. These are gender issues.
I do agree that, from my experience, French women are quite concerned about weight and appearance in general. And they're not afraid to say exactly what they think of you! When I was in Paris in the 80s--at a time when I probably weighed a good 10-15 pounds less than I weigh today (remember this is a huge amount of weight when you're only 4'10")--I went for a facial and the esthetician had no compunctions whatsoever about telling me that I had blotchy skin (here, we call it rosy cheeks) and could stand to lose some weight.

Here's another story about French women: An acquaintance of mine (who by the way speaks fluent, continental French) went to France once and has vowed never to go back. The one time she went to Paris on vacation she was in her twenties. At the time, she was rather "round". Now, she's quite overweight (or at least when I last saw her a few years ago). She walked into a women's clothing store in Paris to look for a dress to wear to a party for her brother's fiance. The saleslady looked her up and down and then said, "We don't have anything here for women like you."

I told a French colleague of mine the dress story and her reaction was that the saleslady had said the right thing. Why let the woman wander around the store when there was nothing there for her? BTW, this colleague is super-thin.

So there is no contradiction between saying that the French have a much healthier attitude towards food and saying that French women are obsessed over their weight. One is a cultural issue while the other has to do with gender.


  1. I totally agree with anne h. Insightful post as usual. I feel somehow mentally charged now thinking about all the really great points you have just brought up.
    On the thought of 'fake food' have you seen or read "Food Inc."?

  2. I know these awards are silly - but they sure are fun...
    I left one for you at my blog today!

  3. "Obsession with weight is, for the most part, something that women live with much more than men."

    The joke in my house is that a woman goes on a diet when her waistband gets snug. A man goes on a diet when he can't fit in his car.