Zut alors! What, I ask you, is wrong with American women that has made thousands of us gobble up books that compare us unfavorably to French femmes? Can we be so masochistic that we’ve turned French Women Don’t Get Fat and Perfect Madness, a book that disses American moms while heaping praise on mothering a la française, into bestsellers?
Yes. It’s sad but true. All over America women right now are scrubbing and scrubbing the sand out of leeks (no easy chore, I can assure you) in order to brew up Magical Leek Soup, an elixir that Mireille Guiliano claims in “zee book”–the first lesson in learning her “hereditary French gastronomic wisdom. ” That’s the wisdom that allows you to do as those French women do–who “have three or four courses at lunch and then another three (or four) at dinner, And with wine.” And yet, universally, even into middle-age, retain the figure of “twenty five year olds,” a claim that just might be a teeny-weeny bit of an exaggeration.
Now Mireille (pronounced “Meer-ray” we are told on the book flap), once upon a time wasn’t able to fit so easily into her own Chanels. After a year in America as an exchange student she returned home to be greeted by her father at the dock. Rather than a kiss, a welcoming embrace, or even a “Bonne Jour, Mon Ami,” Papa snarled (I’ll translate for you) “You look like a sack of potatoes.”
Now it is worth noting that a new, highly praised French movie called Look At Me, which just opened in New York, is also about a French father and his plump adolescent daughter who he has made absolutely miserable because he is always criticizing her about her weight.
Maybe this book should have been called “French Girls Don’t Dare Get Fat,” which is probably a bit closer to the truth.
Madame Guilano, who is the CEO of Veuve Clicquot and peddles this very pricey champagne in America, tells us only what anybody, French or American, who doesn’t have much problem with his weight, already knows: That it is better to eat what you want but not eat too much, to eat only when you are hungry, and to walk more. Not exactly le revelation!
Still Mireille, who shares with us the fact that her American mother-in-law simply adores her, just can’t help extolling on every page her own and her countrywomen’s joie de vivre. She writes in a long list recounting their virtues: “French women love to sit in cafes and do nothing but enjoy the moment.” Yadayadayadayada.
But hey, I can stomach 200 pages of self-congratulatory chauvinism and yogurt recipes a lot more than Judith Warner’s snappish assault on American moms in Perfect Madness, a book that rated a cover story in Newsweek and a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review. Warner, by the way, just happens to be the co-author of Howard Dean’s screed Take Back Our Country and Return Democracy to America.
This author, when she first had children, lived in France. She insists French mothers have it good and get it right because France is simply a “paradise.” It’s a contrast to “most of America,” which she found upon returning home to Washington, D.C. is “competitive,” “rapacious,” “amoral,” “moralizing and just plain mad. ” Merci, Judith.
French mothers, she writes, unlike their guilt-ridden obsessive-compulsive American counterparts, have lots of time to read a book, go out for those three-or four-course dinners, maybe even sit in cafes and do nothing. And why is that? Because “France has modernized its family policies and philosophy of motherhood, [while] we in the United States remain in the clutches of a reactionary Motherhood Religion that has never yet undergone a Reformation.”
American mothers she concludes, after talking to 150 upper-middle-class women, are exhausted trying to do too much for their children–like a friend who was “going insane” by color-coordinating the paper napkins for the class Christmas party. “I looked at her face, saw her eyes fill with tears… And I was reminded of the words of a French doctor I’d once seen…about headaches… He wrote down the name of a pain killer. (You can get marvelous things over the counter in France.)” Thank heaven, for little pills! “But he looked skeptical as to whether it would really do much good. “If you keep banging you’re head against the wall,” he said, “You’re going to have headaches.”
And yet another le revelation! In fact, both books have wise French doctors in supporting roles, who could have been played by Maurice Chevalier. It’s Mireille’s wonder doctor who hands over that magical leek broth recipe.
In truth, both these books wildly over-generalize and make their much-hyped points based on the experiences and attitudes of small groups of elite women. Chic svelte Parisians, of course, not all French women are the ones who make sure they don’t get fat. And it’s not most American mothers, but a very few upper-middle-class moms whose religion of Motherhood makes them agonize over throwing the perfect toddler birthday party, complete with bouncy tent.
Now I, of course, would never generalize in the same way. That would be like my saying all French men lack courage on the battlefield. Or calling them, for example, cheese-eating surrender monkeys. No, Mireille and Judith, you Francophiles, I would never do that. Even if it might be true.