Le Weekend, 6/2/23: French Bathing Suits, Fatphobia & Picasso’s Woman Sitting on the Beach ??

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June 02, 2023

Dear Frenchly Readers,

France is one of the thinnest countries in Europe, vying for that distinction with the Norwegians. Indeed the word “France” is synonymous across the globe with the phrase, “thin and glamorous women and men.” For years, people from other countries have tried to unpack not only the thin reputation of France but also the health profile of a country that eats so much butter, cream and bread, and yet has less heart disease and obesity than Americans. In America, at least 40% of our population is classified as obese. In France, that number is less than half that number, at 17%.  But even that, according to new studies in France, has French health officials worried: Between 1997 and 2020, obesity has increased and more people are not as thin as they once were. (Covid, undoubtedly, will play a further role, because in France, like everywhere, it was hard for people to manage their weight during the various stages of lockdown.)

But what about the people who are sort of in between? Not really unhealthily obese but larger than the average thin French person? Where do they fit in? And, more importantly, how do we talk about it? And, on the other end of the spectrum, how do we talk about all eating disorders, especially those that make people disturbingly thin?

Fatphobia, after all, doesn’t just affect people deemed overweight. It is also the basis for most eating disorders, and many of the thinnest people in the world suffer from internalized fatphobia, no matter what the number on the scale says. In France, one thing that complicates finding a true platform from which to discuss eating disorders, is that the culture itself prohibits severe obesity. French people tend to walk a lot, even in small villages. It’s a secular, but, historically, Catholic nation, and gluttony, or seeming gluttonous, is considered, at worst, a sin, and, at best, unseemly. And the men are thin, too, which makes any conversation that focuses on thin French women imbalanced. We need to have a nuanced conversation that doesn’t pit “fat” women (or men, for that matter), against “thin” women, but brings them together to address a common enemy, which is the scrutiny of our bodies.

I have been thinking about this lately for a few reasons: The first is that when I went to France this spring, I was not my thinnest. Now, many people think of me as thin, but I’m a little pudgy since Covid, easily twenty pounds heavier than I should be. I spend a lot of time sitting on my butt to write and edit, driving my kids around, and trying to manage a recent diagnosis of autoimmune type-1 diabetes, which sometimes requires that I feed the insulin.

So, I wondered how I’d feel a little heavier this year in France, if I’d feel weird. Strangely, I felt less aware and self-conscious of my weight than I do at home. To the contrary, I felt like I ate deliciously well and appropriately, I loved walking, I didn’t think much about how I looked; instead I thought about how happy I felt in France, how transcendent the food and wine was, how low my blood sugar was from all the walking, how free I felt…from myself.

Shortly after we got back from France, Dan and I started watching the recent season of Ted Lasso as we waited for the new episodes of Drops of God, the incredibly smart French/Japanese show on Apple TV about the wine industry. And immediately, the character of Keeley Jones, played by Juno Temple, was so shockingly thin this season, it made us uncomfortable. My first reaction was that the makers of the show should be ashamed; an intervention was needed. Thinness on screen like hers just perpetuates the dangerous ideas that fill young girls’ heads. I said this to my neighbor and her husband and they admitted that they had been saying the same thing, it made them so uncomfortable it was hard to watch.

As conversations tend to snowball, I then mentioned this to my co-editor, Cat Rickman, who is a millennial (I am Gen X) and she had a refreshing perspective: She told me about how the pop star, Ariana Grande, recently lashed back at comments on social media speculating that she has an eating disorder. The 29-year-old Grande said on TikTok, “I think we should be gentler and less comfortable commenting on people’s bodies no matter what. If you think you’re saying something good or well-intentioned, whatever it is—healthy, unhealthy, big, small, this, that, sexy, not sexy—we just shouldn’t. We should really work toward not doing that as much.”

That is true. We shouldn’t. And we don’t always know what is going on. But then how do we talk about it?

Anne-Fleur Andrle is a terrific writer. She is French and writes as seamlessly in English as she does in French for us at Frenchly. To address some of this discussion for us on bodies and fatphobia as we move into summer and bathing suit weathershe has written an incredibly honest and open piece about her own struggles with being plus-sized in France, told through the lens of a new book that has just come out called Plus Size in Paris. Anne-Fleur tells us that this book is the refreshing antidote to the unrealistically and toxically thin Emily in Paris stereotype.

Furthermore, Cat and I have talked a bit about focusing on some of these questions this month. We are going to jump in next week with a terrific review from Cat of a new show in New York of Picasso’s work. What better foundation from which to discuss all kinds of issues than Picasso’s paintings?

When I was in Lyon at the Musee des Beaux-Arts this spring, I found myself standing in front of a 1937 painting of Picasso’s called, “Woman Sitting on the Beach.” I loved the painting.  And I don’t love Picasso! But suddenly the folds in the woman’s stomach, her body and how she sat, the way she was protective of herself, yet still uninhibited. I just didn’t get it before, when I was thinner and younger , but not necessarily cooler. I got it now. And I felt, oddly, though I am loathe to give Picasso this compliment, seen in that painting and ok with myself.

I am hoping the more we validate each other in all kinds of ways, the more we can discuss anything. Isn’t that the (new, 2023) goal in life?

À cuisiner, regarder et lire çe weekend:

Speaking of eating disorders and bingeing, The New York Times reported yesterday that binge eating is an eating disorder that is the most common in the U.S. and also the least understood and the most rarely discussed. Here’s that article, here.

I may find it hard to NOT binge eat this Nigerian Jollof Rice, which my older son likes to cook and has promised to make us this weekend because we are all craving it. It’s addictive!

If you aren’t bingeing rice or the new season of The Parisian Agency, the reality show about a French family that sells real estate, you might be waiting for the final episode of Drops of God tonight. I’ll be watching that with you.

On Saturday, see if you can find this new movie, Rise, which Andrea Meyer writes about in her interview with the director Cédric Klapisch. It looks amazing; it is about dancers and dance and the stills are beautiful. Or Persian Lessons; Andrea’s review will be  on our site later today.

Cat Rickman has a new episode of her podcast, “Expat Horror Stories.” This week’s episode is Pride-themed. Listen in!

And you don’t need to stray from Frenchly for amazing reads this weekend: Secret gardens in Paris; a review of a French book that’s now in English and became an overnight bestseller; a letter from a reporter we sent to Cannes; beach towns in France, and more! Check us out at Frenchly.us. 

Stay true!

À bientôt,

Caitlin.

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