When a French woman gains weight

My French friend Laurence, a black-haired, suntanned teacher, visited this summer. I kissed her in greeting and  thought "My, Laurence looks pretty and relaxed". When she left her signature tomato-red lipstick on my cheeks, I felt her skin, supple and smooth.

Then she pointed out her tummy. "Look at me, I am so embarrassed", she said, "I 'ave gain so much weight!"

And lo, her formerly flat 60+ year-old belly looked as if someone had inserted a gently-convex cushion, giving her une bedaine, or paunch. Like me, that's where her extra weight goes.

She revealed that she had developed an eating disorder– at 60. L. first adopted the wildly popular Dukan Diet, but then went into "a weird place", as she put it, eating only steak for lunch and dinner, black coffee for breakfast. "I had all kinds of energy", she said, "but of course it was terrible for me."

Because she's had a heart attack, she sees a cardiologist. He ran some routine bloodwork and inquired about her diet, and thank god she was honest. He sent her straight to a specialist for eating disorders; L. resumed eating a balanced diet. The weight gain is due to L.'s rekindled acquaintance with all food groups including Creme Brulée, and exacerbated by a personal loss.

Going from from a 4-6 to an 8-10, she can still find what she likes. "A 10 is big?", you ask. A two-size jump gives most of us pause, and in France, where plus sizes start at US10, she feels chunky.

So here is how she dresses now: same as ever. She had to replace her entire wardrobe, but keeps buying colourful skirts and fitted tees. Her only concession has been a pair of Mephisto sandals to encourage more walking.

Laurence eschews boxy cuts and all-dark-colours. Though she feels distressingly large, she finds exaggerated volume dispiriting and says it fools no one: "You can run, but you can't 'ide". We ducked into one store carrying loose, Lagenlook-type pieces and she made that tongue cluck non-non-non.

La bedaine de Laurence
In Montréal, Laurence found a sprightly pale blue cotton pleated skirt (stitched down over the hip) on sale and bought the belt she's considering in the photo, to wear over cardigans.

The cardi is worn buttoned from the mid-chest down, giving that subtle ease of the fold at the abdomen, the most disguise she will countenance.  

However, she is not about to keep adding kilos, given her history and the risks at both the overweight and obese levels. While I have obese women friends (and others comment here) who report perfect health, risks are identified in some studies, especially for those of us over 55. 

A 2001 Rand Corporation study using US data reports more serious consequences for obesity than for smoking, heavy drinking or poverty. The study says, "When compared with normal-weight individuals of the same age and sex having similar social demographics, obese people suffer from an increase in chronic conditions of approximately 67%."

The study also reports an increase in health-care expenditures due to obesity but this is harder to establish over the long run. If a person doesn't smoke, booze or become obese, he or she gains life-years, incurring other costs in old age, as this Forbes article explains.

Laurence is only un peu rondelette, like over a third of her compatriots. The weight will likely hurt her less than continuing that bizarre diet. We've planned more walks, in her city or mine, for our health and the pleasure of being flâneurs together.


Susan B said…
It was good to read this Duchesse, as I've been struggling with weight all my life, and more recently have had to cut back just to *maintain* after my doctor reduced the dosage of my thyroid replacement medication. (And even with cutting back, I've become more "squishy" through my torso in the last few months, even though the scale stays constant.) What photographing my outfits has really brought home is what your friend understands, that clothing with volume doesn't fool anyone. It's good that she's escaped the incredible shame that can accompany a weight gain, even a slight one, and her attitude is one to emulate.
materfamilias said…
Laurence's attitude sounds very sensible, and I'm glad the two of you will be able to enjoy wandering the Montreal neighbourhoods, browsing the shops, and stopping for the occasional glass of wine.
That temptation to cover up the middle is tough to resist, but it's so very true that such volume does not flatter. Enjoy your visit!
Anonymous said…
Post-menopausal waist thickening seems to be universal (except among those scary Helen Gurley Brown-type elderly anorexics.) Why, then, are we all so surprised and affronted by our bellies? Like your friend, I was a size 4-6 into my 50s; now I'm a 10 petite, thanks to my uncooperative middle. Careful eating and daily exercise have had little effect on on it, and dressing around it is a constant challenge. Voluminous draping is out for me, too, though I have some heavier friends who can carry that look, so I am always looking for tricks: yes--that cardigan fold, the easy-fronted blouse under a small structured jacket, the well-cut pants with non-binding waistbands. At some point, though, one needs to acknowledge (as Une Femme said--without shame!) the inevitable, and simply be grateful for good health, nice skin, the discovery of a color that illuminates the face, and a few outfits that still work.

Jean S said…
how wonderful that she was honest with her cardiologist....

here's to her health!! and to being a walker in the city...
Duchesse said…
Une Femme: Our bodies change, and weight can stay constant while shape goes quite its own way. My lone experience with an image consultant was all about getting rid of boxy camo-clothes.

materfamilias: L. is absolutely not giving up wine, in fact she can handle it at lunch and I can't. (When she did the steak diet it was wine and steak.)

C. As a petite woman, I can see how volume could swamp you. Love your last sentence and agree wholly.
Kristien62 said…
Weight gain does seem to be an inevitable side effect of aging, even if only a small amount. My weight has been steady for a number of years, although higher than it should be. It takes a very low cal. diet with exercise to lose even a few pounds. Then it inches back up. I have accepted my size (14) and try to eat well and stay healthy. And I still love to dress my size 14 body. Thank God for shapewear!
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: I've found it impossible to lose or even maintain without a slow creep upwards without logging what I eat. (Can knock off six licorice twizzlers just writing this comment.) At the same time I let go of weighting what I did at 35!
KSL said…
So liberating to read this post and the comments. I've always had to watch my weight, since I was a teenager, and was able to maintain a relatively slim body until I hit menopause. Wow. I really struggle now, and have had to make peace with going up a size in clothing, and even that isn't easy to maintain. I eat very healthy, and exercise pretty vigorously too.

I try to be OK with it all, and to have gratitude for good health, etc. - but sometimes in photos, I feel upset. Wish I could get over it already.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this post: i can really relate to it and to C's comment above. I don't have an eating disorder -at least I don't think I do - but I recently managed to trigger some digestive problems with what I can only describe as a midlife crisis diet. Now I am trying to make peace with my squishy middle and follow the advice in C's excellent last sentence. On the bright side, I recently noticed that my 79 year old mother had gained a few pounds and now she looks YOUNGER!

Lin said…
Re weighing the same as at 35...as a 35-year-old, I wish I weighed the same as when I was 20 (or rather, that the weight distribution was the same)... I find my metabolism has slowed down a lot, and suddenly, so it's an effort to maintain the same weight; definitely need more activity, and perhaps fewer treats. So I suppose this is something that naturally happens at various stages in life!
Gretchen said…
I have a running suspicion that nature adds to our middles as we approach older age in order to protect our organs from damage we could incur...from falls, from lack of appetite in elderly years, and such. I agree with C that those anorexic-looking older women are frightening. Who wants to hug a bag of bones?
Melissa said…
Dieting is responsible for all my weight gains over the years. I wish that diets were forbidden as all they do is muck up the metabolism and have people stop eating perfectly healthy foods such as bananas and avocados because they contain a few kilos. I stopped dieting 4 years ago and have finally kept a stable weight instead of a constant rise. Yes, I am size 18 but I have perfect cholesterol, text book blood pressure, don't eat junk food and walk about 1 hour most days. I am about to do a 12 day hike in Japan. I am 48 years old and am perfectly comfortable with grey hair and a curvy figure. I also feel that I dress nicely and get lots of comments on how lovely I am looking. Why do poeple obsess about being skinny! They are no healthier or morally better than curvy people. I have recently had 3 fit, skinny friends spend time in hospital with major cardiac operations.
Duchesse said…
Kathy Leeds: Some women even struggle to *gain* in midlife! But but undesired gain is more common and there is a level where it is not a contributor to health risk. Still, it aggrieves women enormously.

Jm: Hope your health regains its equilibrium. Personally, I avoid diets because of years of yo-yoing. (I watch the portions and avoid empty calories.)

Lin: You are nearly 30 years younger and I'm writing this blog for women over 50- but anyone is welcome in the Passage. Yes, it gets harder as you age.

Gretchen: Apparently some women believe being skinny is appealing or they would not go to such lengths to attain that state. (Perhaps being huggable is not their #1 criterion?)

Melissa: Oh that "c" word. Those of us carrying some extra lbs. love it. "Curvy" sounds sexy and size-positive. I use it myself. But if we use the medical terms for weight, the categories are overweight or obese. Doesn't matter to whether a woman uses "curvy", "plump", "fat" or the medical language, as long as we face the health risks that have been identified (in enough good studies to convince me). I have a post coming up soon on my own wake-up call.

Every woman should consider, given her health status and history, how much over the normal range is fine for her. It is a health issue to me, not an aesthetic consideration, though I do know obese women who say their weight has been a barrier to their careers.

barbara said…
Of course I also struggle with weight gain in the middle of the road. Always have been slim from head to toe (and still am)butt & belly are bigger.
I watch portions, but not all the time. Not having a sweet tooth I'm loosing my character when having italian pasta on the table.
And I never give up one or two glasses of wine with my(early)dinner.
I eat healthy, go for weight training and sometimes just walk or bike a bit.
The hardest for me is the self acceptance on this topic.
But I do so agree to your friend, I never would wear lagenlook because you can't hide something everybody knows what's underneath.
Sarah van Holland said…
What a great post,thank you! as so many women I can sure relate to the weigh struggle... only at my 50's I made peace with myself and my body, taking care of it by healthy diet and exercise; accepting the fact that I will never be a size 4-6 (I am European size 42,is that an American 12?). I have been yo-yoing most of my life and that is actually very unhealthy. It is very unfair,but after 50 a person needs less calories a day (around 100kcal less!!!)that is one of the reasons why women gain weight at that point. You do have to look at what you eat-healthy eating and real food, and of course exercise pffff,not my favorite thing to do,but I do love the feeling that my body is feeling strong
Duchesse said…
Jean S. : As she told me she did not admit it till that time, but the test results were so bad she was scared into honesty.

barbara: I was used to two glasses of wine with dinner, but that's above the guidelines for women in Canada (10 drinks/week, no more than 2 per day). Cut back to one most days, none twice a week. Am still powerless in front of a plate of carbonara.

Susan B said…
Duchesse, this post has inspired one of my own today...
Unknown said…
Wonderful post and so glad to have found you. My weight has stayed fairly consistent, just relocated itself to my middle, and a bit to my jowl. I work to find the silhouette that works best for my new shape. It's not easy in. Our you obsessed culture.
Duchesse said…
Sarah van Holland: Gaining a pound takes somewhere between 3200-3500 calories consumed beyond what is required. An extra 100 per day= 36,500 calories a year, and that gives a woman 10 extra pounds that came out of "nowhere."

According to About.com
(http://goeurope.about.com/cs/shopping/l/bl_clothes_size.htm) a US 12 is a European 42 but Italian 48, UK 14 French 44. t seems to me to vary a lot by maker, though.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: That's a great one you wrote! Thanks for the hat tip. That is, a close-fitting hat ;)

A Well Styled Life: I think you meant to writ "youth culture" but wrote "you culture", just as apt. So much of appearance-focus is our ego.
Unknown said…
I did mean youth, but you're right, our focus on appearance is over the top.
Mardel said…
There seems to be no way to avoid the shifting and softening of age, and I applaud your friend Laurence for overcoming the shame of weight gain, even if she was frightened in to it. I've come to accept that I will never again weigh what I did in my youth, and in releasing that demon there is much freedom. Now I can enjoy walking for its own sake, vigorous exercise for the way it makes me feel strong, and savor food for its own sake. Moderation doesn't mean deprivation, although I really try to avoid mindless empty calories.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: What is also remarkable to me is that none of us (who have known her for many years) spotted her ED. My "excuse" is that I can recognize certain problem eating behaviours in young women and even thirty-somethings, but never considered one could acquire an ED at 60.

She's in a good mind frame now.
Anonymous said…
Gretchen makes a good point: moderate weight gain in middle age may well protect women later in life. After years of wishing to be thinner, my 80-year-old mother became dangerously underweight when a case of shingles left her without a sense of smell, and thus without much appetite. She's added several pounds now, thanks to high-calorie protein drinks, energy bars, and well-rounded dinners at her assisted-living place, and she looks and feels much better. I don't like to think what might have happened if she had been fashionably thin when her loss of appetite began. Illness, surgeries, and depression can have similar effects, so maybe we carry our extra padding into old age to cushion us from the blows of fate?

1-2punch said…
A wonderful post, and I loved all the comments as well, I guess we could all collectively write a book on the subject.Thank you.
Duchesse said…
C. You don't want to be underweight, or obese in the 80s. But ultimately the old age feels, in the words of anther writer whom I cannot cite right now, "as if they are shooting at you from the parapets".

1-2Punch: This crowdsourced wisdom is a new form, and could be a book or series of columns!
Viktoria said…
I´m a bit late to the discussion here, but I have a book tip for you: "Mindless eating" by Brian Wansink. He has all the science on why "character" doesn´t work, and has totally changed the way I look at my eating habits. The book is frankly life changing.
Duchesse said…
Viktoria: Thanks for book recommendation; his web site is
http://mindlesseating.org for those who want ti investigate it b/f buying book.
Anonymous said…
Bonjour Duchesse,
New on your blog which I find both fun and interesting!
It helps - to a certain point only - to read that others have weight issues when turning 50! I can totally relate to Laurence's issues. And the worse is that diets seem useless :-(
I personally think we can hide these curves. The point is to do it without excess. Long fluffy tunics are probably not the best. But a semi fitted shirt / blouse (slightly oversized)worn with a narrow belt is an option which works pretty well.
Have a great day,
Anne (Playing With Scarves)
Duchesse said…
playingwithscarves: We like the discreetly flattering semi-fitted blouse, for example, but not the voluminous tops that are wider than long.

L.'s concern with staying thin led to a dangerous eating disorder. Since then, a physician friend has told me he has seen women *in retiremement homes* who developed anorexia (and not because of dementia- they just wanted to be thin.
Duchesse, I suspect that your friend Laurence would NOT agree that the "trapeze top" shown in this piece from the Toronto Star is flattering and slimming:


I don't either.

But of course clothes shouldn't be too tight either, as those spotlight a sausage-shape: ils "boudinent", in French.

I had never heard the expression Lagenlook, but are you referring to Boutique Maï? They have quite a few of those pieces, which I don't like either. They are very popular among arts and media type women of a certain age in Northern Europe. Maï has some good, more classic clothing as well, though.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: She would hate that top! Yes, she fled @ Mai. She bought the skirt @ Barbeau.

"Lagenlook" is defined by the person who says that she coined it:

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