A cultural sacred cow died today with the news from the Los Angeles Times that French women actually do get fat -- along with French men and children. As has been well documented in Asian countries whose populations grow in girth as they adopt more Western diets and lifestyles, the swelling number of French fatties proves that fat isn't an American monopoly so much as a successful cultural export.
Now that the French are living more like Americans -- eating more processed foods, cooking less, sitting down to fewer meals as a family -- they look more like them as well. Citing the National Institute for Health and Medical Research, the Times says that 42 percent of residents of the country known for its flowing olive oil, red wine and fresh produce are now obese or overweight. Compared with 65 percent of overweight Americans, that's slim pickings. But since French obesity rates are rising steeply, with children's and adolescents' rates quadrupling in the past 25 years, the French government is responding as if it's a health crisis in the making.
As the L.A. Times noted, the facts required the publisher of the French translation of Mireille Guiliano's 2004 book, "French Women Don't Get Fat," to change the title to "These French Women Who Don't Get Fat: How Do They Do It?"
But if fat waxes and wanes internationally depending on diet, affluence and lifestyle, it remains, as Susie Orbach's 1978 manifesto righteously declared, a feminist issue. The preoccupation, of course, isn't about people becoming unhealthier, but about all those women getting "fat" and fighting it in diverse and sometimes bizarre ways -- whether they are slogging through horrendous traffic to get to a Weight Watchers meeting in the suburbs of Paris or, as reported in today's New York Times, subjecting themselves to a new unproved fat-dissolving injection called Lipodissolve in Missouri and Kansas. CBS News cutely links the L.A. Times story with a New York Times piece reporting that American marriages are growing shorter: "Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, as the American waistline continues to expand, the length of the American marriage is shrinking." Call me cranky, but I can't help thinking more women are going to read that line and think about their muffin tops than men will reconsider their love handles.