Sex and this city: The truth about French girls

By Rebecca Phillips

PARIS—The title of Mireille Guilian’s new diet book/memoir, French Women Don’t Get Fat (Chatto & Windus, 2005), is a bit of a misnomer, actually. The book ought to be called “Most French Women Don’t Overeat, and Neither Should You.” Of course, if this had been the title no one would really need to buy the book to figure out the secret, so I can understand why Guilian decided on the former.

This book joins the ranks of an ever-expanding collection of cleverly written manuals that attempt to teach the rest of us how to be more like “French girls.” In Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl (St. Martin’s Press, 2003), the American author Debra Ollivier systematically examines the head, heart, body, kitchen, party, home, work, and leisure of the French girl so that we can learn to incorporate elements of her philosophy into our everyday lives.

According to Ollivier, the French girl has “a way of being” quite different from our own perception of a girl. She “does not want to live according to what others think she should be. She is her own woman. Entirely.” I have found, however, that this is not entirely true. She is also very much a product of deeply rooted traditions surrounding what it means to be female.

Admittedly, for most of my own life I, too, have been fascinated by the mythic française, who seems so much more fully realized than I could ever be. What, I wondered, is her—the French girl’s—secret? How does she stay so thin, have such a perfect wardrobe, and project that certain je ne sais quoi that makes men go gaga? Now that I am immersed in her world, the delicate balance of strength, femininity, and joie de vivre stereotypical of the French girl has left me slightly less mystified but much more curious about the culture that has shaped the woman in the little black dress.

Even more important than what a French girl eats or what a French girl wears is the idea that a French girl has of herself. She may fall victim to fashion trends or, yes, even crash diets (the “magical leek soup trick,” wherein Guiliano’s readers are instructed to eat nothing but her “magical leek soup” for 48 hours to “jump-start” her program, sounds eerily like the infamous cabbage-soup diet that I inflicted upon myself as a high school junior), but according to the law she is the master and commander of her own

Politically speaking, French law protects the rights that a woman has over her body in a real and powerful way. Abortion was legalized in this country in 1975, and although the United States is slowly but surely chipping away at Roe v. Wade (a recent New York Times article reported that Democrats are “rethinking” their position on abortion in an attempt to bring middle-of-the-road voters back into the party), abortion rates are still lower in France than in the U.S. RU-486, the “abortion pill,” was legalized in 1986, and emergency contraception is distributed on demand at national pharmacies for eight euros. In the United States, a woman needs a doctor’s prescription, a pharmacy that carries the drugs (some don’t), and around $20-25 (depending on her insurance) to pay for the morning-after pill.

The French girl, then, does have something that we don’t: a legal affirmation that she is her own woman and may do as she pleases. Perhaps this is why she seems so much more self-confident than those of us in America.

I suppose that I too, by virtue of the fact that I am living in France and benefiting from the system, can classify myself as a French girl. I wear high heels, I eat foie gras and baguettes, I drink champagne, and yes, I did lose 12 pounds my first semester abroad by doing absolutely nothing. What’s more, living 4000 miles away from my comfort zone has forced me to be my own portable comfort zone, and to value myself the way that the French girls do. My life in Paris is certainly smaller in scale than it was in Chicago—I have only three classes and three or four close friends on this side of the ocean—yet I feel more fulfilled than ever before.

Honestly speaking, French women do get fat—they also fall victim to acne, bad haircuts, heartbreak, body odor, anxiety, allergies to dairy, and unfortunate fashion choices. But the magic of the French girl remains, because for her it has little to do with being French and everything to do with having the freedom to be whatever kind of girl she is. And she is not required to eat leek soup, either.