Grossir. The big, fat truth.

Fat catIt’s not pretty. In fact, it may be the least desirable word in the French language. Even less attractive than ‘moche’ and that’s ugly.

‘Grossir’. Oh, the indignity of it! To gain weight, aka ‘grossir’ or ‘prendre du poids’ is the obsession (‘la hantise’) of French women and many French men. Being able to zip up those slim jeans is what keeps the majority of the population in this country on the straight and narrow, at least between vacations and end-of-year fêtes.

The adjective for big, ‘gros’ (or grosse in the feminine form), shares the same roots as that for the vulgar and unrefined. Foul language is called ‘grossier’. I suppose that’s where we get the word ‘gross’ in English – and also the slang expression to ‘gross out’ or disgust someone.

The only acceptable reason to grossir in France is to become gross with child. La grossesse transforms the word into something elegant, even beautiful. But even then it’s something that must be strictly managed.

My babies were both big, and so was my weight gain. I remember one woman asking me, “And your doctor allows you to put on that much weight?” I was stymied by the question. What on earth had my doctor got to do with it? I just ate healthily and figured nature would take its course. But the other expectant mamans worried about their weight gain, wanting to avoid a longer or more difficult delivery at all costs.

I used to be called petite. Mostly because I’m on the short side (5’2”). But even before middle age spread caught up with me, I never fit into French clothing. My body type is all wrong – too big of bone and heavy of limb. Even French shoes don’t fit. German, Swiss, Italian…but not French.

Everything here is on a smaller scale. People and parking spots. There are no supersize menus, no jumbo snack packs and few plus-size shops. The fact is, there is no culture in this country for big.

That is not to say that French woman don’t get fat. Bien sûr qui si! You can’t live in a country filled with gourmet foods and little fitness culture and never gain weight. That’s a myth that’s sold a lot of books.

As much as they love the good things in life, the French care deeply about appearances: elegance, refinement and la ligne. That sells a lot of diet pills, miracle cures and crazy weight loss schemes. None of which works, at least for long.

My late Belle-mère spent much of her life trying to stay slim. She tried everything: pills, Weight Watchers (which she pronounced ‘what-ay-wha-chairs’), even joining a gym. Her diets and exercise regimens worked for awhile but she inevitably yo-yoed back to being a little rounder than she was comfortable with. I only wish she could have found a happy place with her weight. A balance where she enjoyed life, remained active and most importantly, felt good about herself.

French woman do get fat. But they fight it. Mostly they do this by balancing out the weekend’s excesses with a slimmer regime during the week. By avoiding dessert, not snacking, staying active (although not necessarily exercising per se). It’s really about balance and moderation. And a refusal to let bulge creep in.

This summer the good life got the better of me. Not by much. But on my so-called petite frame, a few pounds makes a huge difference. For me, it’s not so much how I look as how I feel, which is gross in every sense of the word. So I’m stepping up the exercise and cutting back on the treats. At least until I feel good about myself again.

Nothing drastic, mind you. Life is too short not to enjoy a daily glass of wine or a slice of cheese, preferably both.

Et vous? How do you feel about your weight or attitudes towards weight in general?


  1. cheergerm · September 11, 2014

    Your post reminded me of my husband who attracted my ire and disappointment a few years back by buying me French Women Don’t Get Fat for my birthday…yes, my birthday. He thought it was a ‘foodie’ book, I nearly lobbed the book at him and knocked his block off. I tend to pare back my eating on the weekdays and exercise so I can indulge on the weekends. I am very glad to hear that French women do get fat. 🙂

    • MELewis · September 11, 2014

      As a birthday present, perhaps not grounds for divorce but definitely not a gift. Good for you for having the self-restraint not to ‘throw the book at him!’

  2. davidprosser · September 11, 2014

    Having become round enough to be thought La Grossesse I found the perfect way to deal with the weight gain. Buy bigger clothes. One sixe bigger than I actually need and people ask, “Are you eating enough, you’re losing weight”, et voila, solved.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · September 11, 2014

      Now there’s a strategy! Unfortunately for me, the bigger size up would mean having to hem the already too-long pant legs and shirt sleeves….and probably still find the shoulders and waist too tight. Hmm…maybe I’ll try the men’s department. Cheers! xxx

  3. mindfulexpat · September 11, 2014

    I appreciate your calling out the myth that French women don’t get fat. I think there is the impression that they stay naturally thin completely effortlessly, whereas it seems to me that many of them are quite obsessive about their weight in a way that feels borderline eating-disorder-esque to me. I will never forget how the first time I met one of my boyfriend’s aunts, she said to me, “You’re thin. You should eat very little to stay that way” (or something to that effect in French) — the exact opposite of what someone in my family would say (if they were rude enough to comment on someone’s weight at all upon first meeting them, of course!) — “You’re thin. You need to eat more!”

    In any case, I’m not feeling very thin after a few months of living in France… I’m sure that the actual change is not much and probably hardly noticeable to other people, but to me I’m feeling a little bit grosse too. Time to cut back on the good French bread. 😉

    • MELewis · September 11, 2014

      I’m sure you’ll get past the first months of adjustment and find a new balance that will allow you to enjoy the bread – one of the major attractions of life in France, n’est-ce pas? It seems so sad to me when people don’t allow themselves to really enjoy life for fear of softening up. And I’ve certainly met lots of borderline obsessives in France, who are generally more concerned with appearances than fun. Thanks for commenting!

  4. longviewhill · September 11, 2014

    Lately I’ve been taking a ton of exercise classes. They are fun, but Lordy – am I tired! Every muscle aches today… even some I didn’t know I have! 🙂

    • MELewis · September 11, 2014

      I’m always inspired by your exercise efforts. I know I should get out for some classes, but the effort seems way harder than dragging my butt on the ellyptical or doing yoga online. Probably worth it though – it’s been awhile since I worked hard enough to have sore muscles!

  5. jackiemallon · September 11, 2014

    Yuur experiences in France are sound exactly like mine in Italy. Yes, the country serves up all that delicious gourmet food but it’s the gluttonous Irishwoman who was pigging out on it! Diet pills and strange liquid cleanses were du rigeur but I’m just not that person. I’m actually more attentive to my calorie intake living here in the states where bootlicious junk-in-the-trunk badonka donks are celebrated. Go figure… maybe I’m just a contrary article like my mother always claimed 🙂

    • MELewis · September 12, 2014

      Oddly, considering the relative amount of obesity in the U.S., people also seem to be both more concerned about calorie intake and fat consumption. It’s a land of extremes. But *bootlicious junk-in-the-trunk badonka donks *? Thanks for enriching my urban vocabulary!

  6. · September 15, 2014

    The diet culture is so present in America, yet we have now officially reached the 30-percent mark for people who “fit” in the obese category. It is staggering, although a little easier to feel on the “thin” side here than in France. I miss my 20-year-old self’s metabolism. I’m a few months shy of 50 and trying to reach my “dream” weight by then. The lack of fantastic boulangeries on every corner just may work in my favor.

    • MELewis · September 18, 2014

      I know the feeling – I always feel a bit slimmer on the other side of the pond. My 50th is well behind me and I battle just to stave off the bulge. Cheers, Nancy!

  7. yoga blocks · September 17, 2014

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    • MELewis · October 12, 2014

      Merci! Glad you enjoyed!

  8. Maison Bentley Style · September 17, 2014

    Hehe..the winter coat arrived early here! I have a friend who’s going down the liquid shake diet..but I just can’t..I don’t believe it. But I have started swimming regularly..long may it last! xxx

    • MELewis · September 18, 2014

      I’m with you – I can’t and won’t with the diets. But the swimming sounds sustainable. Keep afloat! 🙂

  9. A Crooked Mile · October 12, 2014

    Really enjoying your blog, and this post makes a lot of sense to me. Interestingly, a French woman told us that the smoking rate is higher here among teenage girls than boys—and it’s exactly because the girls are concerned about their weight. Very sad. To my American eyes, most people, especially the women, look a little under weight. How do they walk on those skinny legs in those big heels—and on the cobblestones, mind you!—without toppling over? It’s a skill, alas, that I will never possess.

    • MELewis · October 12, 2014

      Nor one that I even want! I refuse flat out to wear heels – feel so much more free to be me in flats. But you’re right about smoking and the obsession with staying slim, I think it’s definitely a factor in why so many young women still start up. Glad to have you on board, and looking forward to reading about your experiences in France.

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