French Women Don’t Get Fat was first published in late 2004. I had heard about it at the time (which was personally timely, more on that later), but paid it little mind sixteen years ago. Life plodded on and while 2004 me was a single, scraping it together grad student, 2020 me is a hard-working, exhausted, mother of two who, yes, is tipping the scales at more than my doctor says I should. Did I go out looking for a “self-help” book? No. What actually happened was this: I listened to the History Chicks podcast about Julia Child, again. This book somehow emerged as the center of the Venn Diagram of listening to that podcast, already having read Child’s My Life In France and Bringing Up Bebe, a New Year’s Resolution to life more healthfully, and reminiscing fondly on a 10 day intensive study in Paris that took place in 2004.
From the above description, you might assume that I fancy myself a Francophile. I really don’t; but this book just weirdly came to mind and, as it was easily available in audio form thanks to my library apps, I gave it a try.
There’s nothing groundbreaking about Mireillle Guiliano’s work. It’s all stuff that we’ve been told ad nauseam from any number of outlets probably since birth. However, there was something about the approach that made it very palatable. I’ll try to distill things down into a top five to give you a taste of the book, encourage you to pick it up (if that’s your thing), but not give away the whole cow.
1. Drink water. Well, duh. We all know we’re supposed to drink water. However, Guiliano makes water part of the plan, not an additional rule. She’s also fan of sparkling water, surprise, which may be more appealing to some of us. For myself, I find that I’m not able to chug liter upon liter like I used to. It honestly makes me nauseas. Instead, I’ve been turning my water bottle into a terrarium with slices of mint, cucumber, lime, lemon, and orange each day. In seeing my bottle one day, a student asked if I had shoved a rose in there. Not quite, but it is a veritable garden.
2. Get up off your ass. Another one that should go without saying. This doesn’t mean “go to the gym” or download a work out app. Instead, what Guiliano is suggesting is to incorporate physical movement more into your life than trying to carve out time in an already overburdened schedule. Take public transport to work? Get off a stop early and hoof it to the office. Drive your own car? Park as far away as possible. Have a water color at your place of work? Only use a small cup, therefore encouraging you to get up and walk over to it each time you need a drink.
3. Eat your fruits and vegetables. Your doctor (and dentist) will thank you. One of the best parts of this section was Guiliano’s discussion of the frugality of eating seasonally. The idea being you’re getting the most bang for your buck if you eat things that are in season: they’ll taste better and will be cheaper. Also, shop the produce department fearlessly! Make friends with fruits and vegetables you’d never have considered before (proceed with caution, keeping possibly food allergies in mind). In the age of the internet, I guarantee that you’ll be able to find a recipe to use for whatever crazy looking thing you pick up.
4. Treat yourself…within reason. I think we sometimes pride ourselves on how Spartan and Intense and EXTRA (C) we can be as a society. This is the opposite of the French way of life. There’s this rather ironic, almost Capitalist approach to food that Guiliano talks about. She discusses having a glass of wine or champagne everyday or enjoying a decadent dessert every day, with the understanding that tomorrow, she will walk a little more, or not have something so rich. Like balancing a budget. I spent too much today, so I need to spend less or earn more tomorrow. She doesn’t like the idea of “cheat days” since that leads to six days of punishment to one day of gluttony, and honestly, how long can most of us keep that up before it turns into one day of punishment (or less) to six days (or more) of gluttony? Knowing that you’re going to get something that you want every day psychologically primes you for success.
5. Embrace pleasure. This is pretty much the Golden Rule of the book (I think she might even call it that; I don’t know, I forgot). Guiliano talks about how each meal, particularly the larger meals are an event, with every aspect savored over. Time, and more importantly, joy, spent deciding on the menu, procuring the best ingredients. Luxuriating over the preparation and presentation, and lastly fully embracing the eating. This isn’t eating that goes from freezer to microwave to mouth while you mindless watch TV. It’s a love affair with food, but more than that, it’s a love affair with life. She talks about how French women eat with all five senses, and it’s very true. The meal should include different textures and should be visually pleasing. How appealing is this gray blob plopped onto a plate next to that tan blob? Gross. Smell the food, from raw ingredient to preparation to finally eating the finished product. But also, allow yourself to take the time to sit down and actually enjoy it. You have earned it. And the more satisfied you are with the whole production, the more satisfied you’ll be with smaller portions. It’s about quality over quantity. It’s also about more than just embracing pleasure in what you eat. Some of the things that she notes in walking to work is enjoying the new perspective and fresh air. Crazy new ingredients will have new smells and textures that can add spice to your life. Your body will function better when its hydrated, making you able to enjoy things. Embracing pleasure is at the core of everything that Guiliano touts. And it makes for a happier, more stress free life.
Would this book get published in 2020? Probably not. Which is a shame, as the abruptness of the title is probably what gets it a second look and if you are struggling with your relationship with food, it’s probably well worth it. Self love should be a big part of self care, which is something that we all need to focus on in our lives. The method discussed in this book is not one of shame or punishment. It honestly takes very little to follow, and again, is mostly stuff that we should all be doing anyway. If you are looking for a gentle approach, this is it. Enjoy a glass of wine and embrace the pleasure of a diet fulfilling in multiple ways.
Will everyone like this book or benefit from it? No, of course not. It was inspiring for me. Some people may find Guiliano judgy of humans in general. However, I found her to be just as judgmental of herself. And she’s also not coming from a place of guilt, for either herself or others. She’s quite clear that this is not a “diet book” in the traditional sense; it’s more a lifestyle guide. She’s also quite clear that not everyone will like it. But she had been privately coaching women in her circle and decided to write a book to broaden that circle.