Using her life as a case in point, bolstered by scientific studies, Gabrielle Deydier exposes in 150 pages the many ways the obese in France face censure, as well as frequent insensitivity from the medical profession.
PARIS — When a fledgling alternative press published Gabrielle Deydier’s plaintive memoir of growing up fat in France, there was little expectation that the book would attract much notice. Frenchwomen are among the thinnest in Europe, high fashion is big business and obesity isn’t often discussed.
“To be fat in France is to be a loser,” Deydier said.
So no one, least of all Deydier, expected “On Ne Naît Pas Grosse” (“One Is Not Born Fat”) to become a media sensation.
Using her life as a case in point, bolstered by scientific studies, Deydier exposes in 150 pages the many ways the obese in France face censure, as well as frequent insensitivity from the medical profession. Soon, the 330-pound author was being interviewed by a broad range of news outlets.
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The coverage provoked a public reaction, and a variety of comments, including empathy and offers of support for those who are overweight, but also statements denigrating them. Some people complained Deydier was trying to normalize obesity.
“To be close to someone obese in a train or a plane haunts me,” Mathieu B. wrote in a comment on Le Monde’s website. “It’s like being close to someone who smells bad. One has a very bad journey, that’s a fact.”
In short, Deydier had touched a nerve. Her small publisher, which ran a limited first printing, has ordered a second.
“A book like this had not been done,” said Clara Tellier Savary, Deydier’s publisher at Éditions Goutte d’Or. “For an obese person to be aware of all the issues and step back is very rare.”
Unlike in the United States, where TV regularly features programs urging viewers to take a positive view of their bodies and where a plus-size clothing industry is booming, celebrating one’s girth is almost unheard of in France.
Yet more and more French people are obese. A report published last year by Inserm, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, found that 16 percent of the adult population was obese, up from about 12 percent eight years ago.
That is still low compared with the United States, where 36.5 percent of the adult population was clinically obese in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (International standards define being obese as having a body mass index of 30 or higher, and overweight as a BMI of 25 to 29.)
Activists trying to increase public awareness about the problems the obese face, and demanding that the French Health Ministry disseminate more information about treatment options, are only beginning to get a hearing, said Anne-Sophie Joly, president of an umbrella association of groups representing obese people.
“Society is very harsh with women,” Joly said. “Women face the most demands: She must be beautiful, but not too much; she must be thin, but not too thin; she must be intelligent, but not too much because you mustn’t put the man in the shadows.”
Deydier, a native of the southern city of Nîmes, studied literature as well as a bit of politics and philosophy in Montpellier and has worked in journalism. In her book, she describes with sometimes caustic candor the daily humiliations of “grossophobie,” or fat-phobia, in France.
France is one of the few countries prohibiting job discrimination based on physical appearance, in a 2001 law, but the measure appears to be more often ignored than observed.
Jean-François Amadieu, a sociologist at the Sorbonne in Paris who tracks public perceptions of obesity, said that obese men were three times less likely to be offered job interviews, and obese women six times less likely. (It is customary in France for job applicants to include photographs with their résumés.)
Deydier recalled applying for a job at McDonald’s as a university student, when she weighed around 200 pounds. The manager “didn’t want customers to see me working there,” she said, “because he didn’t want them to think they would look like me if they came often.”
Later, during a trial period working with autistic children, a senior teacher told her, “You are the seventh handicapped person in the class,” Deydier recalled. She was told that she made the children feel doubly like misfits because they were saddled with an obese teacher. At the end of her six-month trial period, her bosses suggested that she look elsewhere for a job.
“I was ashamed to bring a complaint,” Deydier said about filing a discrimination suit, adding that people had told her that she would never win one anyway, given her weight.
One indicator of French views on obesity is the rising rate of extreme treatments like bariatric surgery, in which part of the stomach or intestine is removed or bypassed. The number of such operations has doubled in France in the past six years, to 50,000 annually.
Deydier, who has tried dieting repeatedly and lost weight only to regain it, said she had considered having the operation but had been disturbed by the idea of choosing “to amputate a functioning part of my body.”
Of the possible complications, she added, the most upsetting was the risk of social isolation: It can be difficult to share a meal after such surgery, which leaves people needing five small meals a day instead of the traditional three.
Yet for many, the desire to be svelte prevails over health risks or discomfort.
“In France, people are much more invested in ideas about physical appearance” than in other places, said Amadieu, the sociologist. “Norms have changed from the 1960s and 1970s; they have become thinner and thinner.”
Deydier describes her reluctance to take trains or buses because of frequent derision from fellow passengers, the discomfort of being out of breath even after walking a short distance and the sense of having her eating habits watched hawkishly.
Over a cup of coffee far from the high-fashion redoubts of the Avenue Montaigne, Deydier described walking into a bakery in her neighborhood in Paris late one morning and, having missed breakfast, ordering two croissants.
Before she even had time to put away her change, she recalled, the woman behind her in line said to the attendant, “One will be enough for me, thank you.”
“She spoke as if I couldn’t hear her,” Deydier said, “but I was standing right there.”
Sociologists link such censure to a strong emphasis on appearance, to attachment to rules and to fears that order will dissolve if conventions are flouted.
Abigail Saguy, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied attitudes toward appearance in the United States and France, said that obesity is seen in France as a sign of being out of control.
“Even if you’re not heavy, you can receive criticism if you are eating in a way that is perceived as out of control, such as not at mealtimes,” she said, citing a book whose French author described with horror seeing Americans eating alone, or at any time of day.
“France is a very rules-based society,” Saguy said. “There are rules about eating in France, about mealtimes, and you need to follow the rules.”