Quelle surprise! I was the thinnest woman in the village
Our house in France is close to a beautiful medieval town called Pèzenas. One of the best things about it, apart from its cobbled streets and stunning architecture, was that there was no McDonald’s. Then to my horror, one day it was there in all its multicoloured garishness.
“No one will go,” I told my husband confidently. Imagine my surprise when we passed “McDo” a few days later to be greeted by that unmistakable smell of unsavoury hamburgers mixed with car fumes as queues of vehicles stood at the drive-thru. This is a nation that used to walk to the bakery for a baguette, then the cr?merie for a piece of Brie to complete the picnic, stopping off at the wine shop en route.
But McDonald’s opening in our home town was just one disillusionment of several about food in rural France. For example, I imagined that the French would shun supermarkets, preferring the weekly market with all its fresh goods and character. I wasn’t even sure there would be a supermarket where we lived. How wrong I was; cut-price supermarkets such as Aldi and Lidl were the shopping outlets of choice. There is, of course, a Saturday market in P?zenas, with stalls selling fresh, local produce, but this is stuffed mainly full of Britons and other expats living the French dream. A dream that the French themselves seem to have woken up from.
The sad truth is that in France it has been going poire-shaped for a while. I may have written a book (Two Lipsticks and a Lover) about how perfect French women are, but the kind of slim, well-manicured French woman that I wrote about is only found in Paris. The (very thin) former Chanel muse and supermodel Inès de la Fressange has also noticed a change in recent years: “French women don’t exercise. They are less obsessed by their figure, too. Maybe there is more wisdom now: they know health, children and love are more important. So in the country of fashion, women show less interest in their appearance.”
In my area of southern France, near Montpellier, I am actually among the thinner women. And, rather astonishingly, better dressed than most. I was also among the healthier eaters. I remember being utterly shocked at the junk that my children’s friends would be given to take to school as a snack, such as those terrible cheese strings and bits of processed ham.
On Thursday nights in our village, a man selling pizzas from his van would set up shop in the square. I used to buy a margherita, then cover it with rocket to make it healthier and tastier. That was if I could get through the crowds of Frenchies ordering their salami-strewn delicacies by the dozen. In fact, every new shop that opened in P?zenas was either an estate agent or a fast-food outlet. Everything from kebab shops to pizza-slice booths to deep-fried chicken. There is one particularly nasty fast-food chain called Quick, where the food is as unpalatable as the decor and the clientele are so enormous that they could have been flown in from Texas.
There are still Frenchwomen who subsist on a lettuce leaf a week, but they are in the minority. One reason could be that what is desirable has changed. As de la Fressange says: “Today being sexy seems to be an obsession, and very often sexy is the opposite of a bony girl.”
“It is about freedom of choice,” says my friend Sophie, a 44-year-old from Paris who weighs 59kg, so is not fat but jealously guards her right to be so. “We French women are very protective of our right to choose; our right to choose lovers, our careers and what and how much we eat.”
But surely they mind if they get fat? “Yes, of course, no one wants to get fat,” says Claire, a 50-year-old management consultant friend who lives in London but comes from Toulouse. “At least, I don’t. I suppose the women that do get fat don’t care about the way they look as much as we did. I think it is a younger generation thing, this letting yourself go. But I don’t think it will ever get as bad as it is in the UK.”
Helena Frith Powell’s first novel set in France, Love in a Warm Climate, will be published in September
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog www.beautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as contributing regularly for newspapers and magazines, writing short stories and studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Smullö that will be published in spring 2020.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and came out in paperback in April 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives between there and London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019