The recent uproar over Michelle Obama’s dieting comments don’t take into account other perspectives on food.
The uproar is over the First Lady publicly discussing 8 year-old Sasha Obama’s weight. She’s also under fire by eating disorder activists such as Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh for daring to mention the “D” word. Lyster-Mensh says, “Dieting is a gateway drug to eating disorders for those with a biological predisposition to eating disorders.”
(photo from NY Daily News)
In France, there is a completely different conception of food. Its not just a richer connection, although home-cooked meals eaten as a family are certainly a large part of it. For the French, meals are public.
French meals are not merely tasting the food some chef has slapped together. Rather, they are tastes of culture and history. (for more on this, read 60 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong). In 60 Million Frenchmen, the authors state that French cuisine is specialized in part due to the centralization of the French State. In other words, in the French centralized government, cuisine was an outlet from homogeneity. Meals reflect upbringing and local supplies.
All of this fermentation of culture takes time, on both the calendar and the egg timer. Many meals take the better part of the afternoon to cook, and so you want to savor and enjoy it with friends and family, not scarf it down in 15 minutes in front of the télévision.
In France, eating and talking about food is not a private matter. It is quite normal for a mother to tell their children not to eat all of their dessert, or else they’ll get fat. I once went to a friend’s house for dinner, and her father told me that we were not having a cheese course because his daughter was on a diet. After dinner, then made an example out of me because I only wanted once slice of dessert. The very idea of talking about dieting, which my American mind sees as a private matter, in such a public space was quite jarring. But, the French see food as a public matter.
(photo from flicker)
When I tell this to my French friends, their first reaction is “Really, you don’t tell your children to diet? Even with all of the obesity in your country?” Regardless of their weight, most of my French friends have been bluntly told to diet.
(photo from Agathoune)
There are disparaging statistics on the comparative rate of eating disorders in France and the United States, although it seems eating disorders are slightly more prevalent in France, a couple percentage points higher. However, considering the fact French obesity is around 11% (and rising, to globalized fast food chains) compared to the United States rate of 30%, we’re doing our children a disservice by denying the need for dieting. But, is it really a diet if daily dinner includes cheese courses followed by the dessert?
We need to provide our children with realistic and moderate solutions. There is no reason to tell children that they’re fat (I think the French way is a little extreme), but there is no reason to keep the need for dieting hidden (as we do, the other extreme), especially because health and healthy care is moving from a private matter into a public responsibility. Rather, we need to teach realistic, practical and permanent solutions.
If we teach children that eating well is a part of life, then we raise healthy children. A diet is temporary. Eating well is a lifestyle change.
Michelle Obama’s comments? Spot on.