Lori Anderson: Don’t be seduced by femmes fatales

Actress Marion Cotillard. Picture: Getty
Actress Marion Cotillard. Picture: Getty
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Enough of the myth of perfection, French goddesses can get fat and are not Superwoman, writes Lori Anderson

Ooh la la! As I sit here sipping my Mariage Frères thé à l’opéra, nibbling on my pistachio and rose-coloured Ladurée macarons wondering whether or not to slick on my Clinique Parisian red lipstick, I can’t help but feel the silken knot of my Hermès scarf tighten like a tourniquet around my neck.

Call it an epiphany – or severe heartburn brought on by too much foie gras, red wine and the fugue of a burning forest of stinky Gitanes – but all of a sudden I want to say, “Non” to Pepé le Pew, Inès de La Fressange, Carine Roitfeld and the leader of the French cabal Mireille Guiliano, who is the author of that most heinous and toxic myth French Women Don’t Get Fat.

I am also adding to my index of forbidden books: Jamie Callan French Women Don’t Sleep Alone; Lessons From Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L Scott; and Pamela Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food, which was released in paperback just last week and is already scaling The Sunday Times bestseller list like a toddler jacked up on a heady cocktail of E numbers.

I too have been mesmerised by the Gaullettes; Bardot, Deneuve, Cotillard, those living embodiments of seamless chic and it appears I am not alone. An unhealthy proportion of British and American women have been seduced into thinking that the French femme is a latter day Galatea, an earthly goddess sheathed in Carine Gilson silk lingerie and sumptuous Dior.

If one was to peruse this growing niche of books, one would conclude that the French woman is a mistress of the bedroom, boardroom, kitchen and creche. Just six weeks after giving birth, the French wife is seducing her husband with a little help from la rééducation périnéale, the government-funded postnatal course which tones up the pelvic floor muscles, then she heads to work in her Roger Vivier heels, and in the evening slips into the kitchen to prepare the perfect cassoulet. Superwoman exists and she is French.

So, is it true that French Women Don’t Get Fat? The French paradox, the observation that the nation’s diet is filled with fat, butter and cream and yet so many of them stay so svelte has been a matter of debate for the past ten years, but the truth is that many French women remain slim by eating only the tiniest portions and by padding their diets with cigarettes and coffee. Indeed, tear away the caul of illusion and the facts show that the world obesity tables list Austrian and Italian women as the slimmest in Europe and recent studies have shown the French female lung cancer rate is rising and double that of the UK.

French women are beginning to pack on the pounds. For while the population remains one of the slimmest in Europe, France has been quietly fighting and losing its own battle with the bulge. According to a study by a Parisian nutritionist, Professor Arnaud Basdevant, a third of all French women are now overweight and compared to men, “women’s waistlines are certainly expanding the fastest”.

The number of French men and women classed as clinically obese has doubled in the past 15 years and the cause could be put down partly to the nation’s surprising love affair with McDonald’s. There are more golden arches in France than any other country outwith America. The home-cooked meal is also on the back-burner. Some French homes no longer have a dining table and more meals are being consumed in front of the television.

Oh and if you are covetous of their ability to indulge in a glass of wine over lunch, it is worth remembering that one in 30 now drinks enough to be classed as an alcoholic, although I’m sure, as a whole, France can still teach Scotland a thing or two about when to put the cork back in the bottle.

Like all myths, there are elements of truth in the image of the insuperable French female. In the chicest avenues of Paris, one will no doubt find many madames more than capable of flicking their antique Mont Blanc pens and ticking off that desirable attribute of stylish hauteur. French style, however, is tame, it has rules – less is more. It lacks the unbridled creativity of British women, or the oozing sensuality of Italian women, it is as Edith Wharton said “grown up”.

What lies beneath is another story. France has a thriving lingerie industry. When Stendhal spoke of “the heavy artillery of virtuous coquetry,” he was just ahead of Martin Amis and his “demonology of lingerie”. French women are adept at casting spells of mystique from a whisper of lace.

America in particular is obsessed by French chic. Yet are they so different from their sisters in Mayfair or the Upper East Side and isn’t it as much a question of affluence and class as innate national taste?

Peer behind the myth and reality can be quite different, but France is a seductress and for centuries she has seduced the world. Our current obsession with the perfection of French women is merely the latest chapter in a long book, for the French have long been flirting and toying with us. From the 17th-century passion for French furniture, to the 18th-century desire of British ladies to cloak themselves in French fashions and on to the 19th-century admiration of French artists, the country has led the world in manipulating its image.

Voltaire said: “It is not enough to conquer, one must also know how to seduce.” France no longer conquers, it has no other power than its skills at seduction which remain unrivalled. It seems that some women will always need an ideal, someone to emulate and for the moment, the role model is that sensual maiden who remains a symbol of the French Republic, the modern day Marianne.