The Style Myth of La Parisienne
American women in Paris sometimes confide to me that they won’t go outside even to buy a baguette without putting on make-up. Encountering so many stunning Parisian women in the streets is so dispiriting, they feel obliged to make at least some effort to compete. British women are similarly meant to feel naturally inferior to their Gallic rivals. That’s implied in the familiar question: “What is the difference between a French and British woman?” The answer: “Ten kilos”.
The femme française as style icon has a long history, going back to Catherine de Medici, an Italian married off to the French king, who in the 16th century introduced high heels to fashionable Parisian society. The myth of French feminine perfection persists today. Parisian women, it is true, are always well turned out, impeccably dressed, and astonishingly thin. Even middle-aged Parisians, sometimes women well into their fifties, can be seen in the streets in high heels and lacy stockings. As the exam-cheating helicopter mother attempted to prove, for Parisian women 52 is the new 19.
What is it that makes Parisian women so perfect? In my own book, Home Again in Paris, I explore some of the deeper realities behind the cliché of the femme française as a mythical creature inspiring envy and desire. And the answer, alas, destroys the myth.
While Inès de la Fressange‘s style advice is undoubtedly useful for aspiring Parisiennes, the truth is that Parisian women don’t get fat because they don’t eat. Many have elevated self-inflicted starvation to a fine art, almost a life philosophy. It has long struck me as ironic that so many Anglo-Saxon woman move to Paris to achieve their dreamy ambitions of becoming a “foodie” in the haute cuisine capital of the world — yet most Parisian women don’t indulge in these epicurean delights. Parisian women talk about food, but they don’t actually eat it.
One of the little-known secrets of growing up a girl in France is suffering the constant reprimands of mothers admonishing them about their eating and weight. By the time French girls are adolescents, many have become manically adept at starving themselves to stay thin. They have also learned from their mothers the most effective appetite suppression technique: cigarettes. In French the expression is coupe faim. In a word, smoking to cut your appetite. It’s estimated nearly half of French adolescent girls smoke. Smoking may ruin the lungs of French women by the time they are in middle age, but it helps them keep slim for a lifetime.
Many French women also turn to pharmacists to keep the weight off. When I first moved to Paris I was mesmerised by the exquisitely feminine aspect of pharmacies. They looked like weight-loss clinics that just happen to offer apothecary services. Cream-coloured posters in the windows showed hard-bodied physiques of gorgeous young women to advertise an assortment of minceur products for weight loss. Pharmacists were the keepers of the secrets to their fabulous figures. What I didn’t know was that many French women depended on drugs to stay thin. Cigarettes were not enough. French women were taking medication too.
The entire country was jolted into shock about the extent of prescription drug abuse for weight loss when hundreds of French women started dying while taking a medication called Mediator. Produced by a French pharma company called Servier, Mediator went on the market in 1976 as a drug to lower fat levels in the blood. Doctors had been prescribing the drug to diabetics as a weight-loss medication. Gradually, as appetite-suppressant drugs started gaining popularity with French women, doctors began prescribing Mediator as a weight-loss medication. During its first few decades on the market roughly five million French women were taking the drug. Mediator was one of the top-50 prescription drugs in France, a blockbuster hit for Servier.
Then tragedy struck. Hundreds of people taking Mediator, mostly women, started dying of cardiac valve disease and pulmonary hypertension. In 2009 the drug was hastily pulled off the market in France. At that time some 300,000 people in France were taking Mediator. Too late, the death toll spiralled to more than 500, though some put the total figure at close to 2,000 victims. These women wanted to lose a few pounds; now they were dead.
Jacques Servier, the owner of the French laboratory that manufactured the drug, had once been president of France’s National Order of Pharmacists. In 2008, only a year before Mediator was pulled from the market, Nicolas Sarkozy had decorated Servier with France’s prestigious Legion d’honneur.
Now age 90, Servier was investigated for manslaughter. The head of France’s public health agency was forced to resign and serious questions were now being asked about the power of the pharma lobby in France. Today, the charges against Servier are still grinding slowly through the French courts.
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