Stop drinking. Take folic acid. Buy maternity clothes with clownish but addictively comfortable stretch panel. Put gynaecologist on speed dial. Watch your weight.
What now? Watch your weight? Of all the annoyances and indignities one suffers when pregnant, being told to keep an eye on my weight was one that I really didn’t expect. Surely, I thought, surely pregnancy is the one time when you can put aside thoughts of diets, waistlines and BMI. Apparently not in Paris.
French women don’t get fat?
Before living in France and, indeed, having a baby myself, it never crossed my mind that there would be an ideal weight gain during pregnancy, nor that any expecting woman would ever be told to faire attention. British friends who’d had kids spoke of ultrasounds and prenatal classes, never of monthly weigh-ins. But that is indeed the reality of having a baby here – a surprising number of Parisian doctors do warn women to put on just one kilo per month and will admonish women who overshoot.
When I went to confirm my own pregnancy, my doctor offered advice on vitamins then leant over and whispered to me conspiratorially that not putting on much weight was the best way to avoid stretch marks and ensure easy recovery of your pre-baby body. Seriously? I had been pregnant for all of five minutes and I was already supposed to be concerned with fitting into my bikini after giving birth!
Weighing it up
Now, let’s not fall into cliché here. This and other harsher anecdotes are absolutely not representative of all Parisian doctors. Most are much more measured and sensible. Not to mention sensitive: weight is a very delicate issue for a large number of women at the best of times, and pregnancy can exacerbate disordered eating and feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s body. But while draconian doctors are by no means the norm in Paris, there does seem to be a definite cult of thinness here among an extreme few that just isn’t noticeable in English-speaking countries.
Skinny jeans and Petit Bateau
Of course, this goes hand-in-hand with the truth universally acknowledged that Parisian women are thin in general. Or, more precisely, thinner than us. I’ve not done a scientific study but every ex-pat I know perceives a difference between morphology here and at home. So it’s easy to understand why so many ex-pat women feel generally “big” compared to the natives here, and they also feel under incredible pressure to have “neat” pregnancies then shed the weight pronto.
However, short of leaving the country, the only thing we can do to counter this trend and protect ourselves from its influence is control is how we react to this pressure, be it insidious or overtly stated.
The example I set
Since I had my daughter I have lived with a profound sense of responsibility, the knowledge that my behaviour and attitudes will shape her experience of the world and her understanding of her place within it. I’m sure I am not the only parent to feel acutely aware of this. It’s a heavy weight to bear, but it can also offer a kind of protection. When I start to feel bad about the baby weight yet to be shed, I ask myself whether I would want my little girl to feel like that. When I’m tempted to engage with pressure to lose weight in ways that are speedy but perhaps unhealthy or extreme, I ask myself whether that’s the example I want to set for my daughter. And when I’m drawn into comparing my weight, shape or looks to others, I remember that for my mother, I am beautiful, just as my daughter is perfection in my eyes.
What I want for my daughter, I must claim for myself. And I want her to see her unique beauty – not to compare her thighs to the next girl’s. I want her to enjoy all that her body can do – running, jumping, swimming, playing – not to waste time lamenting a number on a scale. Most of all, I want her to be healthy, both physically and mentally and that, more than anything, starts with me.
Originally published in Message Paris magazine.
Whether you conform to society’s current physical ideal or not, you can only gain from opting out of the rush to look like the latest image of perfection and taking the time to find your own beauty – whatever it looks like.
Hungry but chic. What does that mean to you? Think about it for a moment while I give you some context.
This week, I was blithely staring out of the window of the bus as we jerked through the 11th arrondissement of Paris when I saw a poster that made me sit up and take note – literally, I wrote down what I saw. It was a picture of a woman crouched down before a slightly open refrigerator, eating what appears to be a yoghurt. She’s nicely dressed and perfectly coiffed, but her eyes suggest we have surprised her in some kind of clandestine food-fest. Below her floats one of high-street retailer Kookai’s new advertising slogans: hungry but chic.
A widespread trend
I have to say that, living in France, you get somewhat used to slightly sexist advertising (I have never understood the need for naked women in TV ads for yoghurt) and provocative billboards. But this really did stun me, so I went online to see if anyone else had noticed the ad. I remember when I was a student, the university women’s group successfully campaigned against another of Kookai’s ads – a woman in a bikini with a miniature man pushing a lawnmower trimming stray pubic hairs – on the grounds that it depicted a judgemental and violent image of a woman’s body. I assumed that the web would be filled with outraged blog posts and perhaps even an online petition. I was wrong.
I found a couple of French blogs that echoed some of my own shock, but nothing that really interpreted the ad the same way I did. So, I checked with the beloved. He’s a down-to-earth guy with a naturally unsexist attitude but very little actual engagement in any kind of feminist debate. I figured if he could see what was wrong with this, I wasn’t over-reacting. His analysis? “Well, it kind of sounds like they’re saying it’s ok to starve yourself, as long as you look good doing it.” Then, warming to his subject, “It’s almost encouraging or at least condoning eating disorders, isn’t it?” Aha! This had been my exact reaction, and I wasn’t the only one! I read that slogan and immediately saw: this woman doesn’t eat enough and is always hungry, but you shouldn’t feel bad for her, she’s chic so it’s OK. Her perpetual hunger isn’t a problem, it’s for a good cause!
The vital statistics
B-eat currently estimates that 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, and 6.4% of adults display signs of disordered eating. The National Centre for Eating Disorders has found that over half of all dieters are not actually overweight, which means that 1 in every 2 people on a diet does not need to be. In a time when weight and eating issues – anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, excessive dieting and even the flipside, obesity – are so much in the news and on our minds, Kookai’s choice of advertising seems at best irresponsible, at worst dangerous.
I’m not suggesting that seeing this one advert will instantly provoke the development of eating disorders up and down the country, but this kind of message does contribute to our society’s continuing cult of skinniness which it has been proved is indeed having an effect on women (and men – 11% of people with an eating disorder in the UK are male). Between the proliferation of dieting products offered in pharmacies (terrifying to behold in France, I have to say), the size-tiny actresses coming out of Hollywood, the increasing acceptability of cosmetic surgery to “correct” natural body shapes, catwalks displaying ill-looking models, and the insidiously generalised attitude that certain foods are bad and that we all have to “be careful” all the time, it’s true that Kookai’s nasty little contribution is but a drop in the ocean.
For me, though, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. I write regularly about self-acceptance, being kind to ourselves, and learning to treat ourselves as we do other people. But seeing this advert made me seriously think about my own capacity occasionally to beat myself up for not being thin enough, willowy enough, this enough, that enough. Messages just like Kookai’s abound in our society, and I for one have had enough.
The ideal prison
The path to self-love and contentment doesn’t start with internalising someone else’s – or society’s – version of what is good and attractive and acceptable and then spending your life trying to conform to it and judging yourself by it. It starts with making sure you’re healthy and then celebrating your body and your looks, enjoying the way you are, flaunting your assets and playing to your strengths instead of lamenting “cankles” and “bingo wings” (that we have actually given names to perceived bodily imperfections is horrifying). Happiness cannot take root in an attitude of “I’m not thin like the models, but that’s ok” as that upholds the notion that the models are an ideal of how we all should be. Happiness comes from throwing away the supposed ideals and the notions of what’s right and perfect and revelling in our different shapes and sizes, seeing beauty in more than one physical type, and deciding on our own what we find attractive and how we want to look.
I intend to start down my own path to self-respect and self-love by no longer shopping in Kookai. It’s a shame as I often like their styles, but until they produce advertising that shows me and all women more respect, I’ll celebrate myself elsewhere.