Justice goes far beyond institutions. A just society, to me, is a society free from hierarchies; where human beings who are born female are not doomed to become mere possessions – both literally and symbolically – of those who are born male. A society where women are neither hated nor taught to hate themselves for not conforming to oppressive rules. Such rules may be more latent that one thinks. They may be presented as natural features or empowering norms. Body standards and the devastating health effects they may trigger are a perfect example of symbolic violence disguised as, I guess, some kind of pursuit of well-being. Unveiling them, sharing common experiences, speaking out about and against them is one more step towards achieving justice for women and girls.
Since it is commonly viewed that most forms of violence against women and girls are far more widespread in some countries than in others, and since I am often told that the country I grew up in is some kind of progressive paradise, I thought I would provide an insight into what I believe has traumatised many French women: body image. Not to dismiss other forms of violence which are also very prevalent in France – sexual violence remains for instance very much unnoticed, silenced or underestimated. But, in my experience, the pressure to respond to certain body norms seems to affect French women even more so than others, and it is a sneakier, more « invisible » form of gender-based violence. It is also related to the gender stereotypes which cause intimate partner violence, sexual violence, etc.
Now, this post is anything but scientific. I haven’t conducted any research on the subject, I am just recounting what I experienced and, to a certain extent, am still experiencing now. I also don’t mean to fall into culturalism – this phenomenon exists in all societies I am familiar with. Yet what I have felt, observed and heard over the years makes me think that the issue as it is in France needs to be addressed and, firstly, shared. The fact that it is not based on scientific evidence doesn’t make it less real and worrying.
So there is this rumour that French women are all born ridiculously classy and thin. They stuff their mouths with pains au chocolat every morning and still manage to stay fit and lovely. When this famous(ish) book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, came out, I felt honestly insulted. I never read the book and am not particularly targeting its content or its author – but the fact is, it genuinely triggered the belief that French women are innately slim. Here’s why I felt insulted.
Eating disorders or serious issues with body image affected pretty much all my girl friends during adolescence. I could tell you a hundred anecdotes from my school years. Thighs were not meant to touch each other (no, the « thigh gap » phenomenon is absolutely not new – that was over a decade ago), bellies were an abomination, even our faces somehow looked too chubby in our opinion. Going to the swimming pool with friends was an absolute nightmare.
While this is relatively expectable in so far as girls are becoming women and are finding it hard to accept their new curves, it went far, far beyond puberty concerns. This ongoing pressure was not just coming from us, reluctant to become women, or peer pressure. It was very much exacerbated, if not even created in the first place, by all grownups around us. Entourage and media of course, but also health professionals. School nurses and doctors would tell 13 year olds that they were obese, when they were like, chubby at best. They would tell them to make sure they don’t get a belly – a « brioche » as the French call it. I mean, even in primary school, I had school mates (girls, again) who had been put on a diet – no joke!
When we were younger, girls who were suffering from extreme eating disorders were – from what they told me – treated as if the problem were only coming from them. It is, indeed, a serious mental health issue, and individual factors are of course at play. But I doubt that prescribing antidepressants without addressing the social root causes of the disease is going to lead us anywhere. Even if your weight doesn’t drop down to 30 kilos, even if your figure seems perfectly healthy, you might be tortured by your own body image. It is very much common to hear French people mock ‘fatties’. I have done it too, to tell you the truth. It was a defence mechanism, which I thought I was using to make myself feel better, and remind myself never to end up that ‘disgustingly’ fat. I am truly ashamed to write about it, but it is a fact – most people do it without even realising. Someone would pass by on the street, and you’d tell your friend – jeez, her bum was as large as a television.
Aside from health concerns (and mark my words – I am outraged that some health professionals would promote and perpetuate such unhealthy ways of thinking and feeling about oneself), these norms are, yet again, a perfect way of controlling women from an early age. Putting a girl child on a diet makes her self-conscious straight away, and teaches her that the (male) Other’s perception of her body matters more than her personal accomplishments and how she feels about them. This of course is very much intertwined with the hypersexualisation of girls. Looking ‘skinny’ and ‘sexy’ is, if not the top priority, at least very important to more and more girls. And I am not sure it goes away with age. My only friends who managed to sort of « grow out of it » are the ones who left the country. In my case, both my feminist activism and my years in Ireland helped me understand that no, I had purely and simply never been fat, or even chubby. Never.
Part of the controlling process is not only self-hatred, but also division. Women and girls criticise and compare each other. They are probably harsher than men are. And while insulting other women may look like a way to feel better about oneself, in fact it means giving up on the best way out of oppression – solidarity.
So of course, the cliché of the innately thin and healthy French woman is a myth! In fact, I recently came across an article on The Guardian which was referring to this myth and – sort of – aiming to deconstruct it. Fair enough, I thought, but I was quite disappointed after reading it. It hardly addressed the social pressure that women go through on a daily basis, and not once did it mention the prevalence rates of eating disorders in the country. And gosh, the damage that books like French Women Don’t Get Fat can potentially have on women! By pretending that being perfectly shaped (and what perfectly shaped means is a totally arbitrary norm) is an innate quality in France, it makes women feel even more abnormal and shameful for buying size 42 or more (I don’t mean to quantify what is regarded as overweight, it is a random example and this whole thing is so irrational that any woman of any size would feel fat). Also, it shames women in other societies, where the pressure is perhaps less high, or somehow different – while diversity of figures and beauties should be embraced and celebrated.
There is a significant difference between genuine health concerns and this. In the name of health, we are destroying women and girls’ mental, and ultimately physical well-being. First, our social environment constantly encourages us to look impeccable and not to neglect our appearance (« you’re not taking care of yourself » is a common thing you’d hear, and it basically means: « darling, you look quite ugly and fat, do something about it »). And then, books are released to tell us that this is a natural attribute, and if we don’t have it, well, tough luck, we’re marginal, ugly ducklings. It invisibilises all this symbolic violence, pretends it never existed.
I do believe that solidarity is the key. Women need to realise that they are not the problem. And they need to talk to other women. In my experience, non-mixed talking groups are probably the most empowering tools that exist. Let’s make sure they are available to all – and mediatise them more than erroneous and dangerous clichés!