Paris cracks down on fat shaming

You Are Not Born Fat is written by Gabrielle Deydier, a teacher and journalist who has struggled to find steady employment because of her weight.
You Are Not Born Fat is written by Gabrielle Deydier, a teacher and journalist who has struggled to find steady employment because of her weight.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The success of You Are Not Born Fat by French author Gabrielle Deydier leads to a campaign against fat phobia

PARIS • Chic, svelte, feline.

This is the caricature of "la Parisienne", the well-heeled woman who embodies the essence of the world's most fashionable city. Think designer Coco Chanel, actress Catherine Deneuve and model Ines de la Fressange: paragons of style, arbiters of taste. To make the cut, you have to be many things. Until recently, one of those things was thin.

Not any more.

Last Friday, the city of Paris formally launched a campaign against "grossophobia", or fat shaming. Mayor Anne Hidalgo convened the conference after the stunning success of a book On Ne Nait Pas Grosse (You Are Not Born Fat), published this year. The book was written by Gabrielle Deydier, a teacher and journalist who has long struggled to find steady employment because of her weight.

"Fat phobia is a reality lived by so many citizens," Ms Hidalgo said in a statement last Friday. "The city of Paris is unveiling this phenomenon and engaging."

That may very well be the case, but this is still a city where the reigning power breakfast is an espresso and a cigarette. If you're feeling indulgent, you can maybe allow yourself a drop of milk in your coffee. Come nighttime, the cocktail hour of "apero"- where you might have some nice red wine, and possibly some nuts or a little nibble of cheese - can absolutely count as a meal. And, of course, many Parisians walk everywhere they go, and climb steep flights of stairs back to tiny apartments that cost the arms and the legs they otherwise exhaust.

Obesity is far less visible here in the French capital than it is in much of the United States or Britain. According to a report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development this year, drawing on data up to 2015, only 15.3 per cent of the French population is obese, compared with 26.9 per cent and 38.2 per cent of the British and American populations, respectively. The predominant view in Paris is that you are born thin and, if you do your job right, nothing will ever change.

But it is because of this view, Deydier argues in her book, that fat people - and especially fat women - are stigmatised in French society. She cites multiple personal experiences with discrimination in the workplace and says she has even had trouble finding long-term accommodation as a result of irregular work.

"I think we have a problem with minorities in general in France," she said in one interview this year after her book was published. "We say we are politically correct but, in fact, we are not at all. The biggest problem is that people generally do not consider fat phobia to be on the same level as other discriminations because they think that if someone is fat, it's their fault and that they should change."

This is especially the case for French women, she says, who live in a society with an aggressive ideal of femininity. "There is this feeling that women have to be perfect in every way," she said in another interview.

The ideal of the perfect female body is even on display in the French language, in which the word for pregnancy literally translates to "fatness".

But this standard of French femininity is known far outside France. In the US, for example, books such as French Women Don't Get Fat are periodic bestsellers. In fact, myths such as that of the lithe, stylish French woman and her perfect body are part of the rhetoric that is most often used to shame American women, said Ms Jes Baker, an American blogger and body activist who also spoke in Paris last Friday. "Fat is not wrong," she said. "What is wrong is the way we address fat. It's time for change and this conversation is happening all over the world."

It is finally happening in Paris.

Last Friday, the city hosted a rare plus-size fashion show in the lavish expanse of the Hotel de Ville, Paris' city hall. While such fashion shows are fairly common in the US, they are not in France, where the annual couture events remain something of a religious rite - and mostly the province of rail-thin fashion editors and the even-thinner models they applaud.

In any case, the choice of venue was significant, as the Hotel de Ville is often used for those other shows. Last Friday, however, with Rihanna's music on blast, the models came walking down the aisle, modelling a variety of styles. They received a standing ovation.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2017, with the headline 'Paris cracks down on fat shaming'. Print Edition | Subscribe