The fear that fuels the myth of French womanhood

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The Independent Online

First Vanessa Paradis filched Johnny Depp from Kate Moss. But that deep national humiliation is not enough for French women. Now one of them has written a book that smugly explains why French Women Don't Get Fat (Chatto & Windus).

The author, Mireille Guiliano, concludes that this is because French women are sensual creatures in tune with themselves, their sensuality and the natural rhythms of food and life, while other women (she means us) are mad, lazy, old bats who can't cook, can't shop and spend our whole lives binge eating and binge drinking because we're so miserably out of touch with our essential selves.

Of course, since this is exactly the premise for Bridget Jones, the fictional character that British women identified with so completely, its hard to refute Mireille Guiliano's implied criticisms of us. But it is far from difficult to suggest that it isn't just the sensible and sensual culture of French life that keeps its women at the friable national average of a skinny size eight.

For a start, if the slenderness of French women is so very natural and healthy, then how come so many of them appear to chain-smoke constantly in an effort to stave off their hunger pangs? How come their pharmacies are full of over-the-counter appetite suppressants? And how come they are so paranoid about regaining their figures after childbirth that they'd rather flock to special post-partum fitness training than breast-feed their babies?

The reality is that French women do in fact strive to stay slim because there is a massive taboo against women carrying any extra weight, especially among the metropolitan wealthy - just as there is in this country and in the States. While the culinary traditions of France are certainly not as fat-inducing as the fast-food cultures of Britain and the US, in fact French women do work hard at staying tiny.

At bottom, in French culture, there is more paranoia about staying groomed and trim in order to please one's partner. This, in turn, is not due to the natural style and natural good housekeeping habits of French women. Instead it is because the masculine culture insists that married French men are perfectly entitled to take a mistress without fear of being assailed by any kind of social disapprobation.

This is because when French men behave badly, it is invariably because their women have not been behaving well. People point to French ideas about keeping private lives private as being terribly civilised, but actually its just the apotheosis of a double standard whereby it is image-enhancing for a man to have a lover, but humiliating for a woman to have a husband who strays. Failing to shift your baby pounds within two weeks of childbirth is just the sort of sin that can attract such a well-deserved punishment.

Which is why the French way of life keeps its women thinner than it does its men.

Why do we still glamorise the psychiatric illness of addiction?

It's quite something, watching a man being deified by thousands because he has dedicated 20 years to ruining his mind and body. But that can be the only reason why the crowds attending the reformation tour of the folk-punk band the Pogues - in London for a series of Christmas dates - were crying out not for the musicians treating them to a virtuoso concert, but for the broken figure shuffling on and off stage, resting between each of the songs that he managed to shout flatly to his adoring fans.

It's painfully sad that Shane McGowan, the celebrated songwriter, should not have been able to do any creative work for such a long time, caught as he is in the maw of substance abuse. But it's sad too that his middle-aged audience hang on to their image of a man brought low by the psychiatric disease of addiction as some sort of romantic hero.

As pop-loving baby boomers grow grey, they are reluctant to stop projecting their teenage poses of nihilism on to musicians. Nothing brought this home more graphically that the sight of Kirsty Wark conducting an end-of-year interview on Newsnight with Pete Doherty, the young man who used to be in a group called the Libertines but was told he could not remain part of it until he controlled his drug use.

Gifted as Doherty is - and his songs are beautiful - the distressing fact is that the middle-class establishment - of which, surely, Wark is a perfect figurehead - reward this young man with their attention not simply because of his talent, but because the self-abnegating psychodrama he is acting out is such familiar stuff of the myth of the creative artist.

The funniest thing is that not only are the stories of Shane McGowan and of Pete Doherty so very similar, but some of those who surround Doherty are the very same people who were hanging around McGowan 25 years ago, hoping that their talent will rub off on them when in fact only their chaos did.

It is a small world, that of the punk-addict, inhabited by tiny band of faithful, enabling, vampirical, stalwarts. Its influence on mainstream culture has reached an astonishing level, though. There should not be room on Newsnight for Kirsty Wark to declare with a rhetorical flourish that "I spoke to your mum yesterday" to an interviewee. But when Britain's premier current affairs team have finished sentimentalising Mr Doherty's troubles, I guess they'll return to scratching their heads over the mysterious rise of Britain's drinking culture.

¿ As Shane McGowan struggled through the most successful of his great old songs, "A Fairytale of New York", it was horrific to consider that while he is still living - after a fashion - his partner in the worldwide hit version of this classic duet, Kirsty MacColl, is gone.

The daughter of the folk singer Ewan McColl, Kirsty (pictured) was of course a great performer in her own right, whose career as a singer was only just achieving the degree of recognition it deserved when she died.

Even though she was killed only a few short years ago, people are already rewriting her end. Young people have twice told me that they believe her to have died of a drug overdose when in fact she was killed by a reckless speedboat driver as she swan on holiday with her son and his friend. Her very association with McGowan infects her with his malaise, even though nothing could be further from the truth.

Except that very many people do not see this as an infection, but as a burnishment.

Happy New Year.

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