Hits Vocabulary Jackpot in Current Vanity Fair
Perfect Paragraph Achieves Impossible Peak
Like God, His Genius Creates What Otherwise Would Not Exist
If invention is the mother of delight then readers of Vanity Fair’s latest issue – July 2013, just arrived in Manhattan mailboxes this week – have reason to be glad they kept up their subscription, for it contains one of the greatest introductory paragraphs ever written. This tour de force manages to nail down what it is about French women which is stylistically inimitable and renders them the most desirable treasure for all who love women the way men love women, and does it so well that it suggests that if James Wolcott did not exist, no one else could have pulled this brilliancy out of thin air.
Well done James, this is what writing is for – to capture the response of the mind to matter.
Liberté, Fraternité, Supériorité
Frenchwomen don’t get fat, as the 2004 best-seller with that title informed the world—and the flood of Gallic how-to books hasn’t stopped. Les Françaises, they claim, do absolutely everything better: parenting, aging, sex, even celibacy, according to a new entry. Not so vite, says M. Wolcott.
Ah, Frenchwomen: so soignée, so C’est si bon, so clicky as they walk by. Everything about them—their poise, their refinement, their cool dispatch, their trim, tidy figures, their yachty scarves, their precision manners, their purposeful glances, their insinuating silences, their hair, their skin, their scent, the invisible caress of their lingerie, their avoidance of circus tattoos and purple henna—inspires marvel and envy. Although world-class cities from Rome to Barcelona, Buenos Aires to Singapore, New York to Dubai, can pride themselves on being lustrous strongholds of exalted femininity, it is the Frenchwoman—in particular the Parisian Woman—to whom homage is paid and of whom study is made. In the historical imagination the Frenchwoman has held a monopoly on mystique à la mode ever since Louis XIV made Paris the fashion and coiffure capital of creation in the 17th century. She exemplifies an ethos of personal expression that advertises itself as an aspirational ideal, an exacting calling. Yet it is more than an immaculate, enigmatic façade that the Frenchwoman grooms and wields; she is the caretaker of a sensuous intelligence, a creaturely knack for how to live that purrs from the pages of Colette and Françoise Sagan and pouts from the screen (and no one can pout like a French actress, whose moody lips cry out for a trombone). French film and novels may no longer fire the ardor that they did in the 50s and 60s, but over the last decade nonfiction publishing has taken up the slack and then some. The “Frenchwomen Know Best” genre has become quite the publishing racket, if I may speak baldly, a spate of titles addressing every aspect of the fine arts of bourgeois upkeep and flirty intrigue.
Whether it be subtle panache (Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris, by Jennifer L. Scott), intimate indulgence (Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French, by Harriet Welty Rochefort, Two Lipsticks and a Lover, by Helena Frith Powell), no-nonsense, non-hovering parenting (Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman, French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting, by Catherine Crawford), or growing older gracefully (Chic & Slim Toujours: Aging Beautifully Like Those Chic French Women, by Anne Barone), the Frenchwoman seems to have it all sewn up. “No French woman willingly works,” Helena Frith Powell writes in Two Lipsticks and a Lover. “French women have better things to do with their time, like waxing their legs and seducing other people’s husbands.” Unlike her neurotic American sisters, a French bachelorette would never be caught dead moping on the sofa, digging into a tub of Häagen-Dazs because some doofus didn’t call, and she never goes out looking as if she just crawled out of a laundry hamper. And unlike some of her slaggy British cousins, she doesn’t get bombed on alcohol and barf on the pavement as the capper to an evening’s entertainment. She remains mistress of her domain, avoiding the terrible modern fate of both sexes: becoming a sad sack. French Women Don’t Get Fat, as Mireille Guiliano detailed in her 2004 best-seller, and, according to Jamie Cat Callan, French Women Don’t Sleep Alone. But, hey, not so vite. Here comes Sophie Fontanel to instruct the reader in The Art of Sleeping Alone (this August, from Scribner), a confessional reverie that shot up the sales charts when it was published in France. Leave it to a Frenchwoman to convert even giving up sex into an elegant gesture that reeks of worldliness and sends up a smoky wreath.
“For a long while, and I really don’t wish to say when it was or how many years it lasted,” Fontanel writes, “I chose to live in what was perhaps the worst insubordination of our times: I had no sex life.” In an interview with The Telegraph (U.K.), Fontanel, an editor at French Elle and an author of other books, dispensed with the veil of secrecy, specifying that her period of celibacy had lasted 12 years—an awfully long layoff, though falling well short of Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive-game streak. The first step on the road less traveled is taken at a ski resort, where the prospect of going to bed with a man named Jonas for a scenic tryst “sent [her] body into lockdown.” As her body closes up shop as an act of resistance to another borderline compulsory round of huffing and puffing, her spirit is uncaged. Standing at the window, the vista of pure white snow providing the perfect movie/novel setting for a personal epiphany, Fontanel vows to give up the bedroom grind and be reborn as virgin wool. “My life would be soft and fluffy. I was through with being had.” Celibacy proves to be as rejuvenating as a spa visit. A white candle seems to illuminate her from within. After only a few weeks of non-coitus, her face un-scrunches, her skin radiates, her spine straightens. She submerges in lavender milk baths, “my breasts upthrust like buoys signaling a human presence along a seacoast,” hugs her pillow at night as if spooning with a man, and burbles like a schoolgirl over Robert Redford, a platonic crush that crowds out any need for a real man or passable facsimile. Which, needless to say, gets on the nerves of those around her, those friends and couples who remain intensely invested in the French game of amour that has kept Yves Montand and Catherine Deneuve employed lo these many decades. In a sex-saturated culture, adult chastity is the ultimate nonconformity. Fontanel sighs: “Sabine and William, doleful swingers, who absolutely had to stay together to have someone to swap—even they found me peculiar.” This has the makings of a fine boulevard comedy (a libertine circle confounded to find a reborn virgin in their midst, an affront to every lizardy value they hold dear), but before long the memoir becomes too Gallic for its own good, wandering through the meadows of reverie and picking pensées. It isn’t the author’s fault that for many Americans the primary text on celibacy is the episode of Seinfeld—let the French lean on their philosophers; we in America have Seinfeld reruns to light the way—where George Costanza involuntarily gives up fornication and turns into a genius savant, speaking Portuguese, teaching the physics of hitting to Yankees sluggers, and so forth. As Jerry explains, previously George was extracting what he could from a leafy scrap of his brain, the rest of it obsessed with sex; now he had access to the entire lettuce head. The reverse happens to Elaine, who boycotts sex and becomes a duh-faced idiot, the trash buildup in her head making it hard for her to think. Fontanel gets a little fuzzy herself as the book goes along, as if experiencing a spiritual form of jet lag, but that’s the French for you.
Although Fontanel’s ode to celibacy would appear to run counterclockwise to the erotic gamesmanship of the typical Frenchwoman guide, where the stratagems of seduction require a mandolin finesse, and the mingled aroma of adultery (perfume, cologne, and animal odor) wafts from every set of crumpled bedsheets, it’s rooted in a similar spirit of renunciation. It’s about drawing clean lines of demarcation. “[The Frenchwoman’s] culture exalts the iconoclast, the nonconformist, the artist and original thinker—all of which makes it more natural for her to say No to prevailing pressures,” writes Debra Ollivier in Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. “This ability to say No—graciously, thoughtfully—reinforces her natural discretion: What she eventually does let into her life is more a reflection of herself—and by default more authentic.” On this side of the Atlantic, a sloppy Yes prevails over a curt No, and discretion has gone the way of the dinosaurs, which is where these books satisfy a craving. Although the “Frenchwomen Know Best” genre abounds in useful tips, morale uplifters, and finger-wagging dos and don’ts, the usual self-help panoply of makeover advice, I suspect that the source of its continuing appeal lies in its being a species of dream literature. It invites the reader to holiday in a holodeck of romantic possibility and try on a new you, much as Downton Abbey and Jane Austen revivals promote time travel to a dressier, less buffeted, more orderly theater of operations. It’s a trip to Paris in which you never leave your head. The poignant thing is that while female readers in the States are pursuing a French course in self-improvement, just try finding a book aimed at male readers keen on learning the cool, sophisticated ploys of Frenchmen, who have plenty of foxy tricks of their own that we American lugs might profitably learn from. It’s a completely lopsided market. Then again, most American men probably couldn’t even cough up the name of a familiar Frenchman except for maybe Gérard Depardieu, and him you wouldn’t dare to emulate.
A recent survey showed that french women have the lowest BMI (body mass index) of all European countries. The average BMI is around 23 . In the UK it’s 26. You are considered overweight (medically speaking) when it’s over 25 and underweight when it’s below 18.5.
Poland, land of the most beautiful women in the world, is 25.93 for women, 26.67 for men.
The US figure for men is 28.46, 28.33 for women.
India is 20.99 fopr men, 21.3 for women. Maybe the lesson is to eat curry.
Here’s a map of the world you can cursor over to see BMIs for each nation:
This map shows World trends in age-standardized mean Body Mass Index (BMI) 199 countries over 28 years.
The worldwide prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled since 1980, according to a project that tracked risk factors for heart disease and stroke. The study, published on February 2011 assess how body mass index (BMI) changed between 1980 and 2008.
In 2008, women in the world were obese (with a BMI above 30 kg/m2), compared to women in 1980.
Pacific island nations have the highest average BMI in the world, reaching 34-35 kg/m2.
Among high income countries, USA has the single highest BMI (over 28 kg/m2 for men and women). Japan has the lowest BMI (about 22 kg/m2 for women and 24 kg/m2 for men).
Among high-income countries, between 1980 and 2008, BMI rose most in USA (by more than 1 kg/m2/decade), followed by New Zealand and Australia for women and followed by UK and Australia for men.
Women in a few Western European countries had virtually no rise in BMI (last 28 years).