Seen from the outside, the France depicted in numerous Anglo self help books, is a place where women painlessly remain svelte and stylish.
It's an image that fits with the stereotype many in the anglophone world are obsessed with, and it sells. The image is regularly perpetuated by authors such as Mireille Guiliano, whose latest publication 'French Women Don't Get Facelifts' adds to a long list of books aimed at teaching Americans how the French mademoiselles remain beautiful and shapely with little effort in other words, just by eating and living the French way.
Guilano's previous book 'French Women Don't Get Fat' was a bestseller in 2004. But as many point out the women presented by the likes of Guillano are idealized versions of women who live in a few chic neighbourhoods in Paris.
Who better to dispel this image than France's newly-crowned winner of the Miss Ronde beauty contest for bigger sized women. Solange Marais, 23, who took the crown ahead of 25 other contestants from around France, told The Local she hopes her efforts will change the image of women in her country.
“I haven’t read it (French Women Don’t Get Fat) so I don’t know what’s in it, but it’s really not true,” she said. “We gain and lose weight. It just depends on the rhythm of our lives. There are all sorts of French women. We are all different,” said Marais, who represented the region of Aquitaine at last weekend's Miss France Ronde.
“It doesn’t hurt me, it doesn’t anger me and I don’t care. Everyone has their own vision of the perfect woman. Today, to say ‘perfect woman’ is a pretty broad term. In my opinion we are all perfect – but in different ways.
“As long as you feel good in your skin, that’s the most important thing.
“It would be better if we didn’t put people in categories like plump or skinny. It would be better to see them simply as women and not think about them in terms of their weight. It would be better to see them as human beings.
“In France we talk about women’s bodies all the time. In magazines, fashion, we talk diets and being thin. We discuss these things constantly. But it’s not typically French to focus on a woman’s body, I think it’s that way all over the world.”
Jean Beaman, a sociologist at Duke University, said it's true that many American women perceive their French counterparts to be “fashionable and stylish (and) beautiful in a sort of effortless way.”
By way of example, she cited photographs of former French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who was born in Italy but grew up in France from the age of seven.
But Beaman, who studies immigrants who settle in France, added: “As an American, it's sometimes a little bit frustrating that these books sort of paint a very idealized version of France to Americans, and don't necessarily reflect the multi-ethnic diversity that exists in France.”
Marais agrees and laments the fact that many of France's classiest boutiques are simply out of bounds for women her size.
“There are lots of stores in France that don’t sell sizes above 42. It’s more the haute-couture stores. And for them, their view is that if we are a little to big then we shouldn’t wear their clothes,” Marais said.
“There are stereotypes for everything, sadly, it’s like that. Each country sees the women in another country differently, but in the end when we arrive in the country we see something else. Maybe we even see the opposite is true.
“There are all kinds of women here in France. And we are all different. I think it’s that way all over the world. We can’t all be the same, it’s impossible.”
Although author Guillano insists that, although there may be more rounder women in France than she makes out, it is no way near the number seen in the US.
“Of course, there are French women who are fat and who undergo cosmetic surgery,” said Guiliano, “but not to the scale that's seen among American women – far from it.”
But whereas Guillano is hoping American women can take a few lessons from their slimline French counterparts, Marais is more concerned with making France accept the rounder form.
“I hope that (Miss Ronde France) will change the image of women in France. But it will take some time. We will do it by showing that most women today are a size 42, rather than 36.”
“The women I see on TV are sublime, but I don’t see many like that around me.”
What is your opinion on women in France? How true is the Anglo stereotype and what damage does it do?