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What it’s like to be overweight in France

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Gabrielle Deydier's account of discrimination is positively shocking and deserves to be taken seriously.

To many, France is home to the Eiffel Tower, romance, and impossibly beautiful women. To some extent this is true; there’s nothing more romantic than walking along the banks of the river Seine, gazing up at the most-visited paid monument in the word, or at the splendid Gothic Notre-Dame cathedral. And yes, it’s easy to discern those elegant native Parisians from the crowd; they’re the ones who are able to walk impressively quickly in heels, and look half the size of the rest of us. So I wasn’t really surprised when a report showed that French women have the lowest average BMI (Body Mass Index) in Europe at 23.2, but more interestingly, they also had the highest proportion of underweight women.

It would seem that to be beautiful, you have to be thin under any circumstance — as they say; clothes hang so much better when hips and a bust don’t get in the way! And I’ve seen this first hand. Having lived in France for 15 years I’ve watched colleagues faint at work from not eating breakfast (and sometimes lunch) in a bid to be able to wear their 16-year-old daughter’s jeans. I’ve seen friends at dinners just nibble on the odd vegetable and reluctantly turn down the delicious desserts being served. French women give themselves impossibly high standards to live up to, and as a result, if you don’t meet them you are often the subject of contempt.

This was the case for 39-year-old Gabrielle Deydier, a larger than average French woman, whose experience of sizeism led her down a path to depression, further weight gain, and finally, enlightenment. In her recent book, You’re Not Born Fat, written in French, Deydier gives a shocking account of what it’s like to not conform to French expectations. She talks of the successful interview she had for a post as a teaching assistant in a special needs school. Although she performed brilliantly in the interview, and got the job, the bullying that ensued will both disgust you, and make you want to hug Deydier and all her 329 pounds.

Back in 2015 when a delighted Deydier had completed the interview, she hardly noticed the warning shot the principal gave her when she left the room: “The teacher you’ll be working under can be rather difficult.” On meeting this difficult teacher, Deydier was confronted with “I don’t work with fat people.” (At this stage you’d be right in encouraging Deydier to retort with a “Well, I don’t work with exceptionally rude people” and walk off.) Deydier shrugged it off. The teacher went on to introduce Deydier to the six children with autism in the class as: “The seventh handicapped person in the room.”

In what beggars belief, the bullying continued. The teacher complained of Deydier’s excess sweating, so when she took this up with the principal she was met with: “If she has a problem with you, then so do I,” explaining to Deydier, “it was unfair to the children because they were now being doubly stigmatized – for their disabilities and because they’d be bullied for having a fat teacher.” She was asked to consider her position and given 30 days to show she was motivated: “Motivated to lose weight. To show you’re committed to this job.”

By now you’ll be screaming at Deydier to sue the school for discrimination. However, although it is illegal in France to discriminate against someone on the grounds of their physical appearance, few people take legal action. You’d be right to ask why, but in a country where a lot of people in power are openly opinionated and quite honestly, rude, Deydier felt she wouldn’t be believed. When she accused a male colleague of sexual assault, he denied it by stating he had a much better-looking wife so “Why would I try to rape a fat woman?” The police, whom Deydier described as being most understanding, said: “You have a right to make a complaint, but we advise against it because a tribunal won’t be on your side.”

And other professionals are not shy in speaking out. Deydier explains how on a trip to the gynecologist she was met with: “There’s so much blubber here, I can’t see.” Beyond rudeness … just a complete lack of compassion. And this attitude is rife within the medical profession. Many of my friends don’t eat enough throughout their pregnancies in fear of being insulted by their doctors for putting on too much weight — and these women are thin! The pressure is immense.

So it’s no surprise when last year Deydier shares how her “depression was serious. I hadn’t talked to my family for a year. I was even worried I was going to be homeless. I put on 65 pounds. I was going into decline and frightened. I thought of shooting myself or leaving for somewhere far away, but didn’t know where to go.”

It’s hard to imagine the fear she must have been feeling. Years of mental abuse, being outcast, denied employment for the simple fact of being overweight. Luckily for Deydier a friend forced her out to a book signing event. In a drunken state she plucked up the courage to talk to writers about an investigative project: “Do you know what grossophobia is?” (gros being French for “fat”). They didn’t. They asked her to describe all her experiences, and when she did they told her to get it down on paper and email it to them. Luckily with enough Dutch courage still flowing in her veins, she went home, wrote it all down, and the rest is history.

A fortnight later she signed a book deal. As Deydier tearfully says: “It saved my life.” She’s now very much in demand, appearing on prestigious TV shows, with a novel and movie in the offing, and notably, she has been asked by a councilor to the Parisian mayor, Anne Hidalgo, to organize the capital’s first “anit-grossophobia day.” While it’s tragic that Deydier has had to experience such discrimination and heartache, she has managed to use her experience to lift the lid on what it’s like to live in France and be fat.

“I decided to write the book,” Deydier says, “because I no longer want to apologize for existing. Yes obesity has doubled in the past 10 years, that’s much too much. But it does not mean we discriminate against the obese in telling them they can’t work and insulting them.”

While Deydier reminds us that all shapes and sizes should be celebrated, she has also touched a nerve with many readers. She received a letter from one man who wrote, not very eloquently: “Your book has made me realize I’m a total shit. For five years I worked with young people. If they were overweight, I humiliated them.” Deydier said that he asked for her forgiveness, “as if I was a priest in a confessional.” But as she says, that’s not her job.

Another woman wrote her highlighting the pressures many women feel in France: “One woman told me she had been bulimic for 20 years because she was scared if she put on weight she would lose her husband and job.” No man or job should ever become a health risk.

Deydier’s experience has taught the French, and the rest of us lucky enough to hear her story, that beauty comes most certainly in our actions. A woman who only tried to help those with special needs was left humiliated and bullied, and in the depths of despair. Yes, France can celebrate being home to fashion and beauty, but let’s hope that it can soon add kindness to the list of its achievements. And to Gabrielle Deydier, a thank you for having the courage to share your pain so that others can learn.

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