In famously slender France, can the tide turn against 'fatphobia'?

Though France has a reputation as a country of slim women and slender men, nearly half of all French people are overweight. Now it is seeing a new 'body positive' movement that encourages tolerance of plus-size physiques.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Children and adults wait for a bus – in the bold presence of advertising – at a bus stop in Paris in March 2014.

Cindy Solar, wearing hot pink Minnie Mouse fleece pajamas, is having her hair and make-up done under the glare of chandeliers in Paris’s grandiose City Hall. In one corner of the room a woman in black – all curves – practices her strut.

She and Ms. Solar are getting ready for a plus-sized fashion show in a city-run campaign to fight fatphobia, or what the French call “grossophobie.”

“Until I was about 13 years old, I got called fat and ugly all the time, then I rebelled,” says Solar, who has piercing green eyes and hopes to pursue a modeling career. “Now I use the word ‘fat’ to describe myself. Why should being fat be considered an insult?”

She is part of a growing trend in France towards fat acceptance, a pioneer of a body-positive movement that is challenging French ideals of beauty. In a country where being thin is such a vaunted quality that it has inspired book titles such as “French Women Don’t Get Fat” and defined the nation’s image worldwide, the winds of change are blowing.

According to a 2016 report by the publicly-funded BEH health journal, nearly half of all French people are overweight, including 15 percent who are obese. That alarms public health professionals who point to negative effects, but growing numbers of overweight French people are taking a different tack, finding positive ways to describe themselves.

A new breed of body-positive activists are working to create a politically correct lexicon to include words like “full-figured” (rond), “fleshy” (pulpeux), “plump” (bien en chair), and “curvy” (the English word, pronounced with a French accent), all the while working to take back the word “fat” (gros).

“Overweight French people want to show that they can talk about their lives on social media and post photos of themselves,” says Solenn Carof, a sociologist at the EHESS university in Paris. “There is a positive evolution towards people who want to reclaim their right to exist.”

That evolution has been influenced by the fat-liberation movement which first took root in New York in the late 1960s, though it has been given a “French touch.”

'Fat ... so what?'

In America, the focus of what the French call the allegro fortissimo (heavy and happy) movement is on “being accepted for who you are,” says Jean-Pierre Poulain, a professor of gastronomy and public health at the University of Toulouse II. “In France, the slogan has been the right to be ignored,” and to be treated just like anyone else.

Panoramic/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Jes Baker, activist, blogger, and pioneer of body positivity, speaks during a salon to fight against grossophobia at a salon of the Hotel de Ville, Paris, in December 2017.

Jes Baker, a US-based body-positive activist and blogger, says she’s excited to see France moving towards broader body acceptance.

“In France, the conversation up until now has been basically non-existent, but things are changing,” says Ms. Baker, who toured Europe in December to discuss fat-phobia and weight discrimination. “To have this happening at a government level is amazing.”

Stamping out discrimination against plus-sized people in France has been part and parcel of the city of Paris’s mission to fight “grossophobie.” In addition to holding an anti-fatphobia event in December, city hall has also launched an ad campaign featuring a full-figured woman and, separately, an equally full-figured man above the words “Fat … so what?”

Unsurprisingly, campaigners see France’s famed fashion industry as a major vehicle for changing peoples’ views of body image. French designers are increasingly outfitting plus-sized women, and in May lawmakers went even further, passing a law to ban super-thin models and oblige advertisers to label images that have been “Photoshopped.” 

This year, a private production company organized France’s first “Miss Body Pulp” competition, a national beauty pageant for full-figured women named for the French word for ‘plump,’ pulpeux.

But the fat-acceptance movement in France has come in for some criticism too. The French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) regards obesity as a growing public health problem with economic consequences.

According to figures from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, obese people in rich countries live on average ten years fewer than their healthier counterparts, earn 18 percent less, and incur 25 percent more health care costs.

“For a lot of people in France, being body-positive when you’re fat means you are promoting obesity,” says Daria Marx, a 30-something activist and co-founder of the “Political Fat Collective,” a fat-acceptance activist group. “They don’t understand that we just want to be treated equally.”

“More and more people are concerned by obesity … but the norm for weight is traditionally lower in France and the ideal for being thin is higher” than elsewhere, says Ms. Carof, “and a large number of women diet to attain that ideal.”

No French Oprah

That makes fat-shaming hard to beat here, especially in the job market. Ms Marx says she was rejected for a waitressing job in her twenties because her interviewer felt that her weight would bother clients.

“She told me, ‘The clients won’t be able to order cake because they’ll be thinking if they eat the cake, they’ll get fat like you,’ ” says Marx, whose dyed blond hair brushes her tattooed arms.

“Culture has told us what a fat body means,” says Baker, who like many French activists says being overweight is not always a choice – that thyroid conditions, medical treatments, and just plain genetics can make losing weight difficult if not impossible for some people, even if they eat sensibly and take exercise.

Mainstreaming tolerance of unusual body shapes will not be easy, though. Unlike in the US, where a plethora of full-figured pop culture personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O’Donnell are household names, overweight people are extremely rare in French media and political circles.

But as French designers, advertisers, politicians, and pop stars come to terms with diverse body shapes and sizes, they send a message that there are more ways to be attractive than the stereotypical international myth of the waif-like woman or the slender and dashing man.

At the end of November, Leslie Lauthelin became Miss Body Pulp 2017. She says that beyond being overweight, she is just a woman and has the right to express her femininity.

“I used to take the comments about my weight badly, but now I see that it’s part of my identity,” says Ms. Lauthelin. “I feel good in my body and I wouldn’t want to be thin for anything.”

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