WeightWatchers in Paris
None of the women at the WeightWatchers meeting in Paris are particularly fat. Not by American standards. As a whole they are probably ten or fifteen pounds overweight–enough that they wear a size eight, when they would prefer a six and maybe got married in a four.
But the sense of collective failure, of near total emotional and spiritual breakdown, is complete. Women enter the room like shackled convicts brought to court. Furtive smiles, downcast eyes, a faint shuffle. Oh yes, hello. Don’t look at my thighs.
Women are getting larger in France. According to national health statistics, one in three is overweight up from one in four twenty years ago. This is partly due to the arrival of fast food but also a general widening in standards of beauty. The thin white woman (Catherine Deneuve circa 1962) has ceded some ground to second- and third-generation Senegalese and Moroccan immigrants who like to eat.
There is still a fair amount of ambivalence about the new mores, however, hence the popularity of WeightWatchers. It is a perfect program for the French psyche because in theory you can eat whatever you like. You just can’t eat much. This gels with the firmly held French belief that food is by definition good but that everyone should carry around a vague sense of deprivation. Elegance is refusal, said Coco Chanel.
“So,” says the weight watcher’s animatrice, when everyone has taken their seats for the meeting. “How are we feeling this week?”
A collective groan goes out across the room and she smiles pertly. “Did some of us overdo it?”
The program assigns each participant a certain number of daily points which roughly correspond to calories. Then they ask you come to a weekly meeting where you can discuss your diet and get weighed. In New York, where I did this a decade ago (to lose the same unlose-able fifteen pounds), women rushed in on their lunch hour, weighed in and left before the meeting, presumably to go back to the office. In Paris, however, the salon is full. Coats are off. Lunches are unpacked. Women have pencils out, ready to take notes.
“What are the biggest problems you faced this week?” calls the animatrice. “What where the indulgences?”
Shame fills the air. Finally, one brave soul in the back calls out. “Cake! J’ai mangé trop de cake.”
The room erupts into shocked gossip.
The animatrice draws her lips firmly and raises her hand.
“Cake,” she says dramatically. “Is not your enemy. Cake…is your friend. Remember, everything is permitted!” The woman sitting next to me pulls out her pencil and starts to write.
“But is cake your friend every day?” the animatrice asks.
The room fills with confused murmurs. You can eat what you want on this diet? No? Yes?
“No it is not!” she shouts. “Not everyday!”
The woman next to me nods and scribbles furiously. No cake everyday. It is like France. You can do whatever you want in this land of liberté. Except you can’t. Not really.
The animatrice raises her hand again. “What is the most important principal of WeightWatchers?” she calls.
Ten hands shoot up. One woman waves her arm in the air like a first grader.
The animatrice nods in her direction.
“Balance!” the woman says in breathless triumph.
“Exactement!” says the animatrice. “Balance. With every meal you must eat some meat, some bread, some vegetable, some cheese, some fruit.”
Women mouth the axiom in recognition. Restoring balance is the solution they have been offered since childhood by mothers, doctors and friends. It is the bromide to all mental and physical ills, the rationale for six weeks of vacation a year and the 35 hour work week. In America we pursue happiness; in France they pursue balance.
But there is dissension among the ranks, a Robespierre to challenge the King. One woman is ticking off food groups on her fingers and whispering to her neighbors: “Cheese, meat, vegetables, fruit. How is it possible? It’s a lot of food. I could just have a hamburger, ten points, be done with it,” she swishes her hand at them, confident.
I lean over to offer some insight. I have done this diet in three countries now and it’s clear the system favors each host country. In the US, quiche and bœuf bourguignon have higher points counts than nachos or cheeseburgers. A potato is next to nothing in London but more fattening than croque monsieur in France. The points don’t matter, what matters is getting weighed by a scary animatrice every week. That’s why it works.
“I have a friend who lost 20 pounds drinking wine and eating low-fat cheese.” I whisper. “Balance is overrated.”
Their mouths drop. “That doesn’t sound healthy at all,” one woman exclaims loudly enough to draw the animatrice’s attention. “It sounds like she has a drinking problem.”
I consider this. “No, not really. She lives in New York.”
But I have lost my crowd and my larger point. The group, moments before a hotbed of dissent, pulls back into itself and turns its lonely eyes toward the animatrice.
“Alors,” she says, frowning at me in triumph. “Now we will talk about exercise. Remember, only in moderation…”
Weight watchers, French style
Balance is everything. Try to eat carbohydrates, protein, fruit, vegetables and dairy with each meal. I suspect they don’t really include breakfast in this.
Dairy is your friend, especially plain white yogurt.
Don’t drink alcohol. Eat food.
Exercise is overrated and makes you hungry.
Eat more pears and apples than you thought possible. (Unlike the American program fruit has no points in France)
Eat saucisson and quiche and bœuf bourguignon, just eat miniscule amounts.