[Paleopsych] Slate: (Guiliano) French Women Do Too Get Fat - What the best seller neglects to mention. By Kate Taylor (fwd)
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French Women Do Too Get Fat - What the best seller neglects to mention.
By Kate Taylor
Posted Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005, at 3:23 PM PT
[Three NYT articles about Guiliano appended.]
Mireille Guiliano, the French-born CEO of Clicquot Inc., Veuve
Clicquot's American subsidiary, has many things to toast these days.
Besides being 58 and still weighing what she did in her 20s, she is
now a best-selling author, too. Her recently published memoir-cum-diet
book, French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for
Pleasure is currently at No. 3 on the New York Times list for
hardcover advice books. Since the book's publication, she says, she
has been inundated with offers to write a sequel, host a cooking show,
and wear various designers' dresses to the Oscars. There has even been
discussion of a movie. While it's still too soon to tell, it is
possible that Guiliano has helped launch one of the periodic turnovers
in American dietary mythology. Out with carbophobia; in with
Guiliano's book centers on the well-worn idea often called the "French
Paradox": French people, who love their cheese and foie gras and
croissants, are nonetheless thinner and have lower rates of heart
disease than we diet-obsessed Americans. Scientists used to attribute
it to red wine; the current theory is that the French "secret" lies in
no one food or ingredient, but in their traditional culture of eating.
As Guiliano tells us, the French have elaborate food rituals. They go
to the market several times a week and eat only what's in season.
Unlike Americans, who buy processed, flavorless food and therefore
need to eat a lot of it to feel gratified, the French, by eating
better-tasting food and savoring it more consciously, "fool
themselves" into being satisfied with less. That is, French women do,
since, in Guiliano's book, it is specifically the women who must
master "the useful art of self-deception"--mentally balancing the
pleasures of food against the competing desires to fit into the latest
fashions and to be attractive to French men, who she says like their
wives to be "very elegant, very thin."
Before we come under assault by the rest of the French Women empire
(the TV show, the movie) we should take this mythology--Americans,
hopelessly schizophrenic about food; French, universally blessed with
natural moderation--with a grain of Breton sea salt. The first problem
with this picture is that it may already be out of date. Guiliano grew
up and learned her eating rituals in the '50s and '60s. Today, thanks
to globalization, the French are starting to eat, and look, more like
us: According to a recent article in the Times of London, the
traditional French meal is eaten by only 20 percent of the population.
Instead, they increasingly favor the abbreviated, on-the-go meals of
Americans. The national rate of obesity is rising fast. While only 6
percent of the population was obese in 1990, today the proportion is
11.3 percent. That is still well behind the same figure for the United
States (22 percent) but on track to match our levels by 2020. The
French are not happy about it. In a parliamentary report last spring
highlighting the dramatic increase in obesity, legislators proposed
launching a new government agency to fight weight gain, to be funded
by a tax on high-calorie or high-fat foods.
Which brings us to the second way in which the American/French divide
is more complicated than Guiliano acknowledges. The French accept a
level of government paternalism that would not go over easily here.
The way that French families eat, or until recently ate, is actually a
product of state intervention, as Greg Critser pointed out in a 2003
piece in the New York Times. At the beginning of the 20^th century,
concern over France's high infant mortality rate led to a largely
state-sponsored movement called puericulture. The movement's initial
focus was on getting mothers to breastfeed; clinics were set up across
the country, and the government required factories to have areas for
nursing. But puericulture advocates also stressed that overfeeding
infants was worse than underfeeding them. For older children, they
advised regular mealtimes, modest portions, no seconds, and no snacks.
Children's own appetites and preferences were to be ignored. This is
the tradition in which Guiliano was raised, and which she proposes to
those of her readers who are parents. It is another interesting
paradox: The French ability to take pleasure in food, and to choose
food based on taste rather than dietary dogma, begins with a child's
lack of choice, and a degree of parental and state authoritarianism.
The third problem is that, while they may be admirably successful at
staying thin, French women are not necessarily more balanced in their
attitudes about food. While many people think of eating disorders like
anorexia and bulimia as an American problem, they are, as far as can
be measured (and these statistics should always be taken with some
degree of skepticism), equally prevalent in France. In the United
States, somewhere between 0.5 percent and 3.7 percent of women will be
anorexic in their lifetimes, while 1.1. percent to 4.2 percent will
suffer from bulimia. Between 2 percent and 5 percent of Americans
binge eat. Among young French women, an estimated 1 percent to 3
percent are anorexic; 5 percent are bulimic; and 11 percent have
compulsive eating behaviors. Certainly, young French women today are
as interested in eating disorders as their American counterparts.
While Guiliano enjoys her publishing success here, a quite different
book is in the spotlight in France: a memoir of bulimia called
Thornytorinx. (The title is an anatomical name for the digestive
tract.) The book has been favorably covered by the French press, and
its author, a 25-year-old actress named Camille de Peretti, appeared
last weekend on one of France's most popular talk shows.
That the incidence of eating disorders in France roughly equals that
here suggests that anorexia and bulimia do not require a widespread,
openly discussed culture of calorie- or carb-counting and devotion to
the gym. They may take slightly different forms, depending on the
prevailing national habits, but eating disorders arise wherever
thinness is deeply valued and admired.
French women do not care less than American women about being thin; if
anything, they may care more. And while much of Guiliano's advice
seems sensible, there is also an opening for extremism in her
suggestions* that we savor our food and refuse to eat anything
that isn't of the highest quality and taste. When she met the New York
Times' Elaine Sciolino for coffee in Paris, Guiliano took one bite of
her croissant, declared it "disgusting," and left the rest on her
plate, thereby demonstrating a lesson from her book: "Life is too
short to drink bad wine and to eat bad food." Sounds nice enough, but
sticking to this philosophy in all circumstances would be remarkably
neurotic. What if you're hungry? The scene calls to mind a certain
type of weight-obsessed woman, the kind who uses the excuse of a
refined palate to mask her suspicion of food (and to justify how
little she eats).
The essence of Guiliano's book is the claim that women can trick
themselves into experiencing what is actually self-denial as a kind of
pleasure. She never questions that most women, if they wish to be
attractively thin, will have to play some mental games. But such games
are, as Guiliano acknowledges, something that the French generally
value. They think of themselves as an old culture, skilled in the arts
of irony, hypocrisy, and nuance. We Americans may be innocent,
artless, and nuance-allergic, but we are sharp enough to recognize
that French women's advantage over us is simply that they are
thinner--not that they have better, saner, less complicated attitudes
about food. "The useful art of self-deception"? Let 'em have it.
Correction, Feb. 25, 2005: This piece originally used the word
"imprecations" incorrectly, to mean "suggestions." An imprecation is a
curse. Slate regrets the error. (Return to corrected sentence.)
Kate Taylor is an assistant at The New Yorker.
The New York Times > Magazine > Domains: A Gourmet's Minimalist Flat
March 13, 2005
Interview by EDWARD LEWINE
Mireille Guiliano, 58, author of "French Women Don't Get Fat" and
C.E.O. and president of Clicquot Inc., and her husband, Edward, 54,
have lived in a 2,500-square-foot apartment in the West Village for 15
Morning routine: I awake about 6:30 a.m., and the first thing I do is
have a glass of water. Then I go for a walk, or do some yoga,
stretching and meditation. My husband makes me breakfast, something
different every day because I hate boredom. It could be scrambled
eggs, oatmeal, cereal or half a grapefruit and a piece of cheese. I
walk out the door anytime between 7:30 and 9 a.m.
Evening routine: Most nights I entertain. I used to go straight from
work, but after I reached 50 I decided that I should take better care
of myself. So I come home, and stretch or go out on the terrace and
look at the sunset or listen to music. Then I go to dinner. These are
long meals with clients, and they end about 11:30. I never go straight
to bed after that. I am a night person.
How she divides her time: I often think of the line from Woody Allen.
He said, ''When I am in New York, I want to be in Europe, and when I
am in Europe, I want to be in New York.'' I'm blessed to have an
apartment in Paris and New York, although I only spend a week every
two months in France.
Item a woman most needs in Paris: A tiny umbrella to put in her bag.
It can rain any time there.
Item a woman most needs in New York: A bag big enough to hold a lot of
stuff. You are always multitasking. You need your glasses and lenses;
you go to a cocktail party and need business cards. In Paris people
don't exchange cards; they just say, ''Call me tomorrow.''
At age 5, what she wanted to be: An actress. I would always be in the
school plays. I was a mother, a rabbit, a flower. To this day I could
go to a movie or play every night.
Historical person she'd like to meet: Frederic Chopin. He was a
Romantic. And he hung out with George Sand. Not bad.
Best recent gift she received: A beautiful Valentine's Day card with a
love poem by my husband in it. I don't want jewelry. I want flowers or
a book or a poem. I'd like to have a poem every time, but inspiration
doesn't always strike.
Favorite spot in house: I love my kitchen. For Manhattan, I have a
rather decent-size kitchen, and it has an opening that gives out to
the dining room, which has a window with a view of the city and in the
distance the Statue of Liberty.
Greatest misconception about French women: That they are perfect. We
are all frail and have our weaknesses. We are all supposed to be
stylish and elegant, and I know plenty of French women who are
neither, and for those that do try to live up to the myth, it isn't
Aspect of house that most reflects her taste: I cannot live without
flowers everywhere. I grew up having a big garden, the size of a city
block, in Rombas.
Item she can't toss: None. When you live in an apartment, you learn to
part with things. I give them to the Salvation Army.
Always in the fridge: Yogurt, bread, veggies, cheese, fruit. I keep
Champagne in the fridge for people who pop in.
Does she allow smoking in house? No. We have a huge terrace, so if
people want to smoke, they go there.
Must-have gadget: My yogurt maker. In the U.S., too many yogurts are
filled with corn syrup, preservatives, artificial this and that. To
me, this is poison.
Her sanctuary: We have a little room we call the orchid room. It is a
pleasant, Zen room. The only thing hanging in it is an American
painting called ''Adirondack Chairs,'' by an artist named Paul
Jacobsen. It reminds me of what I love about America and of my student
years in New England: sitting beside a lake in a good chair.
Hobby: My husband and I are bookworms. In the living room there are
floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that are doubled. You can roll back one
set of shelves to reveal another. Most of the books there are American
and English literature. In the kitchen, cookbooks; in my office,
Collections: We have four photographs made by Lewis Carroll. My
husband found them some 25 years ago.
Walking shoes for a lady: I find it so unattractive when women wear
sneakers with their business suits. I wear a nice pair of loafers or
low-heeled pumps, and that's that.
Family photos hanging in home: No. No. That is something that is so
American, and I don't understand. I have a few pictures of friends,
and I keep them in my agenda. That is the French way. We are more
private. Also my husband and I have no children.
Television shows: I love cooking shows to relax, not to make the
Travel routine: I eat a few hours before takeoff, because I do not eat
plane food. I rarely bring food on the plane either.
Topic she won't bring up at party: Real estate is the most boring
subject. There is more to life than real estate, sorry.
What is always with her: A little bottle of water.
Best book she read recently: It is called ''True Pleasures: A Memoir
of Women in Paris.'' Actually it was written by an Australian named
Lucinda Holdforth. I connect to it because she talks about great women
in Paris like Colette, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, but also because
she visits the neighborhood where I live there.
What she drives: We have a BMW, but I don't like cars, or boats, or
planes, or anything with an engine. We had a bike, but it was stolen.
A real New York story.
Next big purchase: None. We are minimalists.
Item of clothing she can't live without: This is very French, but my
scarves. They are great to have when you travel. I can make four
different outfits out of a pair of black pants with different scarves.
I like Hermes, but my favorites are from a tiny store in Paris.
Household chore she should do and does: My mother always said, ''When
you leave the house make sure your bed is done and the place doesn't
look like Hiroshima, because you never know what can happen.'' My
mother was a working woman, but she always taught us to take care of
our rooms, as opposed to so many American kids who throw things on the
Why don't French women get fat? Because they eat with their heads and
all five senses. And they have learned to manage and gratify their
The New York Times > Readers' Opinions > 10 Questions for . . .: Mireille
February 15, 2005
10 QUESTIONS FOR . . .
The author of the best seller "French Women Don't Get Fat"
answered questions from readers.
Q. 1. I am a thin French woman despite the fact that I have been
living for many years in this Bible Belt small city, where most women
are indeed extremely overweight. But my slenderness is not due to a
conscious choice. I simply don't like food, particularly French food,
which makes me nauseous: too creamy, oily, sauce-oriented, etc.
My question: what would you suggest for me to do in order to actually
LOVE food? I do eat some because I need it to survive. I tend to find
Mediterranean ways of cooking in the Midi of France, as well as simple
Chinese or Japanese fare, less objectionable, somewhat tastier and
less fatty. But I do not take any real pleasure in it, neither in
preparing food nor in eating it. What would you suggest, particularly
in terms of FOOD PREPARATION pleasure?
- Cleo, College Station, Tex.
A. I like to believe, Cleo, that everyone has latent gastronomic
pleasures just waiting to be awakened and when they are, life only
gets better. While my whole book is really the answer to your
question, I will share a few big and related thoughts. You are
obviously very sensitive; that can be made into a plus rather than a
minus. Begin by slowly discovering some taste preferences and then
cultivating pleasure in those. For instance, some people adore basil
as a seasoning, others find it overwhelming. Try sniffing several
alternatives: rosemary, sage, thyme. If rosemary, say, is appealing,
at the level of fragrance, chances are you will like it in food (since
much of taste is smell). If so, try the simplest preparation you can
with a sprig of rosemary on a piece of fish or chicken, whatever seems
more appealing, brushed with a bit of oil (grape-seed oil for instance
is very nutritious and without flavor of its own) and seasoned with a
bit of salt, perhaps a little squeeze of (fresh!) lemon. When you eat,
concentrate on the new flavor, as well as the texture and the
appearance of your menu portion.
Even if you're not big on cooking, preparing food with our own hands
prevents our being joyless alienation from what we are eating. Chop
everything by hand (no machines). One of the great things about
cooking is the relatively instant gratification you get from
completing a task then enjoying it by eating. Don't you feel good
about checking off little or not-so-little projects? Cleaning a
closet. Getting past those income tax returns? Buying clothes for a
special event? If you can learn to take pride in shopping and cooking,
there are inner rewards there as well ... at least that's how I look
at it and feel.
Finally, I invite you to be bold and open minded in your approach to
new foods. Some are acquired tastes. Think about sushi. Who would have
thought raw fish would become a passion for people around the globe?
You appear to like it. Some people still can't quite get up the
courage to try. And no one says you have to like French food or any
other cuisine. Certainly there are some that I like a lot less than
others. As far as French fare goes, it is a lot different today than
the stereotypical rich, creamy sauces of a generation ago. Since the
1970's it has evolved to be lighter and leaner and more Asian
influenced, but that doesn't mean some of the bistro classic comfort
foods don't have a delicious place now and again. And you don't have
to go to Paris to experience the best (but, hey, go for it if you
can); there are a host of wonderful French-American restaurants in the
U.S., notably in New York and a few other major cities. Treat yourself
to the best and see if you like it. At home, another tip would be to
start tasting things you have never tasted before: a new vegetable or
perhaps a cheese. Anyway, I'm glad you want to discover your
gastronomic pleasures. Who knows? Good luck and bon appetit.
Q. 2. I lived in Chalons sur Marne from August 1958 to the beginning
of 1961. We could take the time to cook things slowly and enjoy them.
How do you find the time to make the meals you write about? After
working, commuting home, shopping and getting home I'm just too tired
to think of cooking. Please, I want to change but don't see how.
- Thilde Peterson, Henderson, Nev.
A. I certainly understand this time dilemma: the belief or reality of
too much to do in this life and too little time. And life's exigencies
seemingly take away all discretionary moments. Still, it is really all
a question of prioritizing and planning. In order to find the time,
you have to commit yourself to finding it, convincing yourself that
nothing is more basic to a happy and civilized life than a civilized
relation to food. You owe this to yourself and your loved ones. You
gotta eat, after all, why not make the best of it. Certainly in my
professional life, I have to prioritize constantly and am amazed by
the time-consuming demands that just are not important. They are the
first to go to free up time for what's important for business or me
Can you find 30 minutes a night for cooking? 60 minutes? That's all
you need. Shopping is another task, but that can be managed
efficiently with a little planning. Most people in this country are
extremely busy - or at least have convinced themselves they are by
filling up the hours with all sorts of things - but quality of life
revolves around the things we enjoy doing, not the things we have to
do. And what's the point of getting everything on your list done
without quality of life? Of course the workweek limits those of us who
work outside the home. During the week, my preparations are much less
elaborate than they are during the weekend. But there are many simple
and delicious things one can make if one lets go the notion that
cooking is a big job, with a big clean up afterwards. (My book has
lots of no fuss recipes. I made that a priority. ) And home cooking
makes excellent leftovers, so why not commit to cooking three or four
nights a week and spend seven civilized nights. Life improvement
Q. 3. Do you think there is societal pressure or other inherent stress
that causes some American women to binge eat? Or that perhaps looking
around they feel safety in numbers?
- bobbean, upstate New York
A. Important topic and practice. I wouldn't say there is a societal
pressure to binge. Nobody admires a glutton or takes refuge in group
solidarity from the pain of feeling fat.
But stress in our lifestyle definitely drives bingeing. It's almost as
if we displace our anxiety by trying to devour it. Food becomes a
substitute for emotional comfort. But bingeing is not a pleasure, it's
a release, just as drinking too much is a release, and both are
unhealthy. Like any other good thing, food can be abused, and
certainly it's the most readily available thing to abuse. I know first
hand, that a piece of chocolate can be a great pacifier, but can lead
to a second and a third and then the box or bar is gone. That's
bingeing, and you don't feel good about it afterwards, either. Again,
know your own demon offenders and, as I explain in the book, learn to
trick your mind into compensating in other healthy ways.
Q. 4. Do you believe [the argument in your book] represents all French
women or French women from certain types of areas, i.e. suburban vs.
rural French women?
- Sara Hinderer, Cleveland
A. Perhaps people have been taking my title far too literally. It's
meant as a provocation and a broadly true observation. There are
obviously some fat French women, though admittedly fewer in urban
areas. My argument is that, on the whole, French women, regardless of
geography, don't get fat as long as they possess a traditional French
relationship to eating. And the statistics overwhelmingly support that
claim. I can't speak for the ones drawn to McDonald's, or to the
growing number of immigrants who have perhaps not yet had the
opportunity to absorb the gift of French gastronomy. Also, France is
still an agrarian country with regional cuisine consumed in relation
to fresh, local produce, so there's not a standard formula for what
all French women eat. That's a point I embrace: eat what you need and
enjoy but find your own equilibrium. And so long as we are talking
about adult French women - say 21 or better 25 years old and up,
there's no getting away from the significant cultural difference in my
view between their relationship with food and eating for pleasure with
women in other countries.
Q. 5. It is my impression that the French smoke more than Americans. I
have even heard it said that the decline in smoking in America is
partly to blame for the rise in obesity. How does smoking play a role
in French women's ability to stay thin?
- Liz, Longmeadow, Mass.
A. No, Liz, but I'm so glad you asked that question. This is a very
popular myth about French women. And I am startled that people who
have not read my book are writing to me and posting notes saying that
French women don't get fat because they smoke a lot. Nonsense. It's as
if they want a simple reason to avoid embracing a new approach to
eating for pleasure and to dismiss the vast majority of French women
who are simply not nearly as overweight as our American counterparts.
French men do smoke more than American men (33 percent vs. 24
percent), but with women it's about the same (21 percent France; 20
percent U.S.). And a lot of those French female smokers are young
women in their teens and twenties who have not found their equilibrium
in relation to a lot of things, just like in America. Is obesity in
America related to less smoking? Hardly. One might argue if one
substitutes a cigarette for a snack, you might not get fat. But it
doesn't appear smoking or non-smoking women in America are skipping
their snacks or full plates, and women in France don't snack. So, I
don't see the connection. I'm not a scientist, but while it's
plausible that one oral gratification might be substituted for another
if you don't have a properly cultivated relation to food, the
transference isn't all that simple and smoking isn't the proven
vehicle by any means. But as I tell in the book, I have known women
who ate badly because they were smokers: smoking deadens the taste
buds, and one eats more to get the same taste pleasure, often with a
greater taste for fats.
Q. 6. Are the recipes in your book what you would term easy or time
consuming, with common ingredients or specialty items?
- John Wilson, Omak, Wash.
A. Most are easy and cheap - a lot of bang for your buck. I made sure
of that, and many reviews have commented on the simple, delicious
recipes. Simple fresh ingredients are easy to whip into something
delicious. The point is not to buy second-rate. Sure, in towns and
cities in France there are more open markets (the food is fresher and
cheaper) and green markets are less common in America, but there are
amazing things to be found in all sorts of specialty stores and
nowadays in good supermarkets. If you embrace what I say in the book,
you'll appreciate that you are your own master and substitutions are
welcomed. The book is currently scheduled for 22 foreign language
editions, and I just read some queries from a translator asking for
substitutions or at least alternatives to some of the fish and
vegetables I recommend that just are not common in that part of the
world. No problem. Go for what's available and good. I do have a few
luxury items. In that category there are fingerling potatoes with
caviar. They make brilliant hors d'oeuvres, but are not in everyone's
budget, of course, though they could be for a very special occasion
since you don't need much. So I always include a more affordable
alternative (e.g., chopped chives instead of caviar or fish roe that's
increasingly available and good across America). I do have a few
recipes that take time - a lot of time, and that's entirely on
purpose, like baking bread or making your own croissants. Obviously
these are weekend projects, and more serious commitments, but they
unlock certain experiences you just can't enjoy any other way. (If
you've never baked your own bread, you don't know what you're
Q. 7. How do French women and men deal with sweets, pastries,
desserts? How often do they eat them and in what quantities?
- Steve Baima, Warren, Mass.
A. As in every culture, sweet tooths vary a lot. I've always had a big
one, and as I tell it was my downfall during my adolescence. A
well-trained French palate has a measured appreciation of sweets. A
rich dessert rarely follows a rich meal, after which a sorbet or a
wonderful ripe piece of fruit would be more pleasantly satisfying.
(Those "napoleons," that the French call millefeuilles, are more for
occasional indulgence, such as an afternoon tea.) When a more desserty
dessert is served, a French woman usually contents herself with three
fork-fulls, since taste satisfaction is generally to be found in the
first few bites. (At that point in the meal, you can't say you're
eating out of hunger! Practice a little restraint, and you don't need
to deprive yourself of anything.) Two more things I note about
desserts in America versus France. In America, the desserts are
sweeter with much more sugar generally added. If you bake at home,
trying cutting back the sugar in the recipes in half. I regularly do
that and find the desserts more to my taste and certainly less
cloying. And, of course, American desserts win the gold medal for size
... jumbo size. My husband and I don't skip the pleasure of a good
dessert but generally pick one for two when we dine out.
Q. 8. How do you adapt your eating habits to accommodate a changing
metabolic rate as you age?
- Diana Buck, Pittsburgh, Pa.
A. You are talking to the right person, Diana. I certainly can't
handle the wine or desserts that I could in my twenties. In the book I
describe the various life phases when one should stop and take stock,
make small adjustments and compensations. But regardless of age, the
basic principle is always the same: small changes, taking from Peter
to pay Paul. It's easy to do slight portion reductions as we age
because older stomachs tend to be more delicate. You don't need to cut
out entirely anything you enjoy as long as you remain open to cutting
back slightly (this is the essence of my "fool yourself" advice -
small changes add up but don't have to put a dent in our enjoyment).
Also, one shouldn't accept metabolic decline as inevitable if we can
remain active. Try increasing your walk time, and if you are past 40
you must do some strength training with dumbbells. (Unless we resist
we naturally lose muscle mass as we age, and the less muscle mass you
have the lower your metabolism).
Q. 9. An etiquette question: why do the French never place their bread
directly on the dinner plate? Is there some historical reason for
- Brooks Doherty, Minneapolis, Minn.
A. It seems to me more gastronomic aesthetics than etiquette. As a
rule, the plate is the frame, so to speak, for the course one is
eating - a space surrounding a moderate portion arranged as
attractively as possible in the center. A French plate is never laden
with food on the edge, which is where some non-Frenchwoman would
likely place bread. We don't find anything gauche about laying one's
bread on the tablecloth. Indeed, bread is such a tactile part of
French lives that people are always carrying baguettes and breaking
off pieces by hand. It's French finger food. Only in the most formal
settings would a bread plate be de rigueur. So, at a bistro you'd get
a bread basket and no bread plate and at a fancy haute-cuisine
restaurant, you'd get a plate that a waiter comes around and places
bread on during the meal, often different breads with different
Q. 10. How to win a French woman's heart?
- Wil, New York
A. I love your question. It seems to me you have to start by finding a
French woman. France isn't a bad place to start. They have a lot of
single French women, and the food isn't bad, either. Of course, you
can frequent places in the U.S. that attract French women (forget
gyms) - and there are many around the country. You write from New
York, which certainly has the greatest number, but I'll leave it to
you to figure this all out. But assuming you have found the woman of
your dreams, then there's the inner her you must win.
Speaking now as a French woman, let me say that since we cultivate
joie de vivre showing an appreciation for that is the key. Respect and
enhance the enjoyment she derives using her senses in tiny thoughtful
ways - some flowers for no reason, a divine piece of chocolate left
for her to find with a sweet note. Champagne is great. All the old
clichésthey became clichés because they work and are used again and
again. And be sure to be open to the pleasure of the senses yourself.
American men can be so joylessly pragmatic sometimes and short of
spontaneity, delight in the moment. Above all make her laugh, and that
applies to all women the world over.
Like Champagne for Chocolate
February 6, 2005
By Julia Reed
FRENCH WOMEN DON'T GET FAT
By Mireille Guiliano.
263 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $22.
When I was 15, I studied in France, at the University of Strasbourg,
for six weeks. On weekdays, my fellow American students and I ate
lunch in the school cafeteria and discovered the wonders of braised
rabbit and coq au vin, followed always by an apricot tart or napoleon
(my first ever!) at the nearby patisserie. On weekends we toured the
country by train, fortified by bread and (real!) cheese, along with
copious amounts of cheap red wine. Already weight-obsessed, I was sure
I'd put on at least 10 pounds. But when I stepped off the plane, the
jaws of my waiting parents and my best friend literally dropped. It
turns out I'd lost 10 pounds -- I'm not sure I've looked as good
Mireille Guiliano had quite a different teenage experience abroad. As
an 18-year-old from a small town in eastern France, she spent a year
as an exchange student in the well-to-do Boston suburb of Weston,
Mass., where she discovered the distinctly American joys of bagels,
brownies and chocolate chip cookies and gained 20 pounds. When her own
parents met her ocean liner in Le Havre, they were as stunned as mine
were, but for a different reason -- her father told her she looked
like a sack of potatoes. ''I could not have imagined anything more
hurtful,'' she writes. ''And to this day the sting has not been
Never fear -- Guiliano's story has a happy ending. After a few
miserable months during which she gains more weight, cries herself to
sleep and hurries past mirrors clothed in shapeless flannel shifts,
her mother brings in the family doctor, a k a ''Dr. Miracle.'' He
detoxes her with leek broth for a weekend, teaches her to become a
master of both her ''willpower'' and her ''pleasures,'' and supplies
her with recipes, including one for apple tart without the dough. She
learns to love walking, finds her ''equilibrium'' and goes on to
become C.E.O. of Clicquot Inc. and a director of Champagne Veuve
Clicquot. Most remarkably, despite the fact that she dines out 300
times a year and enjoys two- and three-course meals for lunch and
dinner every day -- always accompanied by a glass of Champagne -- she
has remained thin.
Guiliano recommends Dr. Miracle's plan as the French way, but it is
not unlike the advice that American nutritionists on Web sites and at
spas and clinics across the country dispense every day. It is exactly
the advice I got last year at Dallas's Cooper Clinic during my annual
physical: if you want a glass of wine with dinner, don't eat the bread
or skip the baked potato. Do some aerobic exercise; if you're over 40,
lift weights. Keep a food diary and cut out the processed junk. Slowly
changing your eating habits is far more effective than any crash diet.
You don't have to deprive yourself if you learn to make trade-offs.
And on and on.
Somehow, though, these sensible stratagems are more palatable coming
from Guiliano, who was once fat herself, and who now happily lives in
America, where she first fell victim to our bad habits. She knows we
eat too fast in front of the TV or with newspaper in hand, while
French women make a ritual out of every meal. She knows we eat
portions that are too big and food that is too bland. French women, on
the other hand, stress flavor and variety over quantity and,
therefore, are more satisfied with less. (Bland food and too much of
one kind, a big bowl of pasta for example, breeds boredom, which leads
you to alleviate it by eating more.) She knows our tendency to gorge
ourselves on Snickers bars rather than savoring a single piece of fine
dark chocolate. French women eat slowly and ''with all five senses.''
Indeed, much is made of the superiority of French women in all things,
from chewing to ''using the same scarf to create a different effect''
to ''preserving spark and mystery'' in long-term relationships.
Apparently, they're even better at being happy -- ''the French woman
understands intuitively that one does not laugh because one is happy;
one is happy because one laughs.'' This gets a tad tiresome, but I
forgive Guiliano her patriotic fervor and her endless aphorisms
because she is on to something. After all, I lost 10 pounds by walking
off my daily pastry and eating small portions of once exotic dishes
(at the university cafeteria they never filled your plate). Also, who
can blame her for branding? If a lot of what she dispenses is
universally sound advice with a French label, she's smart to apply it.
We may profess to despise her compatriots in all their arrogance, but
secretly we still find Paris far sexier than South Beach.
I think our problem with the French has always been jealousy. We have
an inferiority complex, at least stylewise. French women can do more
with a scarf. We wish we had their innate chic, their effortless
discipline, their easy appreciation of all things sensual -- their
impossible thinness. When I begged my parents to send me abroad, it
was not to, say, Germany that I wished to go. Desperate to be
sophisticated, it was French that I wanted to learn, France that I
wanted to know. (Now of course, I wish I'd studied the far more useful
Spanish.) Despite all our achievements in what used to be the
exclusively French provinces of fashion, food and wine, the real
milestones for many of us remain our first Chanel suit, our first sip
of Pétrus or Château d'Yquem, our first time at La Grenouille or La
Tour d'Argent. And then there is the fact that while close to
two-thirds of American adults are either obese or overweight, French
women really don't get fat.
The reason behind that most enviable difference, says Guiliano, is
that ''French women take pleasure in staying thin by eating well,
while American women see it as a conflict and obsess over it.'' Put
another way, ''French women typically think about good things to eat.
American women typically worry about bad things to eat.'' She says she
is constantly appalled that American cocktail parties are filled with
chatter about diets, a subject that shouldn't be deemed proper
conversation. She says eating in America has become ''controversial
behavior'' and that our obsession with weight is growing into nothing
less than a ''psychosis'' that she believes adds stress ''to our
already stressful way of life,'' which is ''fast erasing the simple
values of pleasure.''
She urges us to relax. Walk to the market, breathe in the fresh herbs,
cook a good dinner, have a glass of wine or champagne (preferably
Veuve Clicquot). Just sip it slowly (she makes hers last through a
meal). She rejects the ''American rule'' of ''no pain, no gain'' and
describes exercise machines as a ''vestige of Puritanism: instruments
of public self-flagellation to make up for private sins of couch
riding and overeating.'' By all means go to the gym if you really love
it, she says. Otherwise take the stairs and pick up some weights in
the privacy of your own home. She finds walking an indulgence that
allows time for ''freedom of thought,'' and says French women walk an
average of three times as much as American women do. She proudly
reports that during the 2003 blackout she easily made it past the
younger people in her building who were huffing and puffing on the
Sometimes these ''simple values'' seem perhaps too simple. Many of us
need the discipline of the gym and don't have time to stroll to the
open-air market (which probably doesn't exist where we live) or set a
proper table twice a day. My own early lessons in the civilized life
sadly didn't take. The summer I returned from France, a McDonald's
opened in our town and a Big Mac suddenly seemed as exotic as a
niçoise salad. I failed miserably at what Guiliano calls
''recasting,'' emphasizing quality over quantity in both meals and
But, armed with her book, I am willing to try again. There is no
scientific ''food plan,'' just suggestions and seemingly indulgent
recipes, including one for fingerling potatoes and caviar. Guiliano
reminds us that a half-dozen oysters contain only 60 or 70 calories,
that soups fill you up and supply much-needed water to your body
(''The theory goes that the French, who eat soup up to five times a
week for dinner, eat better and less.'') Her mother's ''soupe aux
légumes'' is worth the price of the book alone, but I am less sure
about her own ''Chicken au Champagne,'' which requires you to pour a
cup of champagne over some chicken breasts and then broil them. After
tasting one, I can say with certainty that I'd rather have the
Champagne in the glass and that I would definitely not serve the
chicken to company along with, as she suggests, brown rice and
mushrooms. I'm also not entirely sure about Dr. Miracle's apple
''tart'' with its cabbage leaf ''pastry'' (not for eating,
necessarily, but ''for presentation''). Still, sans cabbage leaf, it's
a good idea, and her snapper with almonds is good full stop, as is the
delicious tagliatelle with lemon.
Guiliano ends the book with a list of more observations about French
women. They don't weigh themselves, they don't snack all the time,
they eat more fruit but would never give up their bread or other
carbs. They dress to take out the garbage, they understand the
importance of a good haircut and expensive perfume, they know love is
slimming. Part of me wanted to throw the book across the room, while
the other part was memorizing the list. I actually found myself
resolving to learn to eat with all five senses -- or at least to try
to turn off ''All My Children'' during lunch breaks. I did not even
throw up when I got to the line that encouraged me to savor ''all the
little things that make each day a miracle,'' so that I may not need a
shot of Scotch (French women don't drink hard liquor) or a quart of
Haagen-Dazs to get me over the top. At the very least, we would all do
ourselves a favor to make like Colette, for whom the table was ''a
date with love and friendship '' instead of the root of all evil.
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