There exists an enormous misconception about the reality of body image and acceptance in France. I know a lot of people who go on and on about how all French women are “thin” and “elegant.” A large portion of the American population views their European neighbors as naturally slim and healthy individuals. After spending the last two years living and traveling around the European continent, I have discovered that the reality is far from the glamorous ideas we create in our minds.
And as a European citizen myself, I am not particularly proud of the negative atmosphere many European women find themselves in.
In many ways, I really do believe that American society is the most progressive. Even though our country has its own internal battles to sort out, the key point here is that in American society, we are having conversations. While we push for tangible change, at least these critical issues are being spoken about and written about. In the case of body image, America has quite a way to go before eradicating the unrealistic and toxic fashion campaigns. Nevertheless, there is buzz and a strong push for these changes to happen.
France, however, has a serious fatphobia problem and almost no one is talking about it.
Fatphobia is discrimination and general disgust and disregard towards overweight or obese people. It is a judgment based on image. It is a vain decision that places a person’s self-worth on the number that appears on the scale. Fatphobia is well and alive in France and it’s only until recently that the country’s eyes have been opened to the severity of this issue.
French society places enormous pressure on its women to fit the cookie-cutter image of what has been determined to be the perfect French woman: rail-thin, elegant, and submissive. This phenomenon is not as clear on the surface since it’s so deeply ingrained in French culture. That’s probably why you perceive French women as genetically and naturally slimmer than the rest of us.
Well, if you didn’t know this already, French society and acceptance are largely based on image and material items. In fact, Europeans in general place a large amount of importance in their possessions and display of “apparent wealth.” Wealth is measured not in the stability and security of one’s bank account, but in all the flashiness and glamour that a $3,000 Louis Vuitton purse has to offer.
And Paris, of course, acts as the fashion and shopping capital of Europe. France has a reputation to uphold and ‘les gros’ (‘the fatties’) are only getting in the way of preserving this precious image. So, no, the French female population is not blessed with unusually high metabolisms: diet culture and body shaming are a way of life. This toxicity is an extension of the unnecessary emphasis that is placed on appearance.
Body positivity has very recently become a national conversation in France. Even so, it continues to be largely ignored. The two principal figures leading the discussion on body acceptance and body image in France are Clémentine Desseaux and Gabrielle Deydier.
Desseaux, a French plus-size model, began the All Woman Project alongside Charli Howard, a body-positive British model. The project challenges the unattainable and destructive beauty standards portrayed by the modeling and beauty industries. Desseaux recognizes the importance of body diversity in the media in order to truly represent all women and all forms of beauty.
Womanhood does not have only one shape.
The All Woman Project campaign posts untouched and authentic photos of the models to demonstrate that women do not need to be retouched or photoshopped to satisfy the public/male gaze. In an interview with Not Plant Based, Desseaux explains, “Women need to open up and break myths that men set for us to reach.”
And this is exactly what French writer and author Gabrielle Deydier is accomplishing. Deydier experienced severe bullying and rejection during her adolescence because of her weight. In fact, both Desseaux and Deydier recount to ARTE their turbulent and emotional childhoods. Discriminatory insults on the street and rejection from peers and teachers are among the many ways in which these women are treated unjustly.
And the discrimination continues into Deydier’s adult life as well. A LinkedIn study back in 2018 found that overweight workers often earn less than their colleagues. In France, an overweight woman is eight times more likely to be rejected by an employer than a thinner woman. Deydier experiences an exorbitant amount of this kind of discrimination in the workplace. From nasty insults from co-workers to being asked to follow a strict diet by her boss, Deydier has suffered enormously.
In a recent documentary with ARTE, she discusses her suicidal tendencies and her struggle with self-confidence and self-acceptance. Deydier uses her platform as a writer to speak out about fatphobia in her country and fight against the injustice she experiences on a daily basis.
ARTE’s documentary in conjunction with Deydier was released on June 17, 2020. The film gives French viewers a brutally honest and heartfelt look into the effects and reality of fatphobia within their country. On achève, bien les gros (“We finish off the fatties quite well”) exemplifies the unnecessary importance that French society places on the weight of a person.
The documentary includes a scene in which Deydier recounts an instance of workplace discrimination to a group of middle school students. She tells them that upon arriving at a new job as a teacher, she was immediately disregarded by a fellow teacher. The co-worker had allegedly told her that she does not “work with fat people.” Deydier then began an open conversation with the students. One young boy seemed particularly convinced that her heavier build is a result of her own inability to take care of herself.
A common trend among French citizens is the idea that poor image and a larger build are consequences of a person’s own incompetence.
This kind of thinking shows us that judgment is made based on appearance and not based on character. A person’s weight should not get in the way of their ability to obtain a job. Nor should it get in the way of their ability to be treated with respect on a daily basis. While Desseaux and Deydier are making enormous strides in their fields, their work cannot completely transform all of French society.
Desseaux notes the ways in which social media has contributed to the movement by allowing women to post authentic and real photos. These sites give more potential for women of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ethnicities to express themselves and make powerful statements. Through the use of sites like Instagram and Facebook, plus-size women have more visibility and can use their voice to inspire others. Conversely, social media can also be an incredibly negative influence and promote fatphobia. Therefore, it’s unrealistic to rely solely on the use of social media to expect change anytime soon.
By speaking out against the controversial fashion and beauty industries, I look to Clémentine Desseaux as a role model. By writing and teaching about the realities of fatphobia, I look to Gabrielle Deydier as a role model. The malicious male minds of the mainstream media have constructed a society of unattainable beauty standards, and I don’t want any part of it. A woman’s body – and any person’s body for that matter – should not be a subject of mockery or discrimination. Our bodies should not be expected to fit a certain mold or undergo expensive and painful transformations.
More than any other audience, I’m writing this for the French. Il est l’heure de commencer à considérer les personnes comme des êtres humains. Notre taille et le numéro qui apparaît sur la balance ne devraient pas changer la façon dont nous sommes traités. Toutes les femmes sont belles, peu importe ce qu’elles pèsent.
Oh, et j’emmerde le patriarcat.