by Dorty Nowak
I skipped dessert today, which is not easy to do in Paris, where patisseries flaunt their delicacies on almost every street corner. I was on my way to my favorite bistro when I passed a store whose name caught my eye, “Plus Madame.” Since I’ve never seen anything “plus” relating to women’s clothes advertised in Paris, I stopped to look. A sign in the window informed me that the store specialized in sizes 42. 42! That’s a size 8 in the U.S. and a size 10 in the U.K., but in France, it’s a “plus.” Suddenly, so was I.
I shouldn’t have been surprised after several years of trying to squeeze myself into French fashion. “Oh, what a pretty outfit. Did you buy it in Paris?” my American friends ask. Well, no, I didn’t. Never mind that with the weak dollar there are no bargains here. The truth is, I don’t fit into most of the clothes I try on.
For one thing, French women have no hips. This is particularly apparent now that skinny jeans – which look like they are painted on – are very a la mode. Not that I, who actually has hips and a waist, have ever dared to try on a pair. Forget blouses too. The sleeves are cut for toothpicks. Even lingerie isn’t an option. Beautiful as it is to look at, on me it leaves far too little to the imagination. Dresses are a possibility, as long as I don’t mind the waists being near my armpits, and the lengths just shy of indecent.
Still, I long to look like the svelte Parisian women I see every day, so I keep shopping. Too often I find myself in a dressing room, with an outfit that looked so perfect on the rack but on me, isn’t. Staring into the mirror, I feel like Alice after drinking the Mad Hatter’s potion – very, very big in clothes that are much too small.
I don’t always leave a boutique empty-handed however. I can buy scarves. French women wear scarves, elegantly and artfully draped, with almost every outfit. Maybe they are born knowing how to tie them. Not being French, I usually end up looking like a girl scout or a Russian grandma.
What is curious to me is that many French women think they are fat. Pharmacies, beauty salons, department stores, all carry a mind-numbing array of products to help with one’s “minceur.” To be “mince” (slender) is good. To be “maigre” (skinny) is not. This is a distinction I have not yet been able to discern. French women, whatever their age, all look maigre to me. However, my French friends are well aware of the difference. Around the beginning of March, they begin to fret and to diet. Posters plastered in the metro stations picture beautiful, bronzed women sporting impossibly small bikinis. It is very important before the annual August migration to the beaches of the Mediterranean to be in good form, i.e. mince. I, however, fret over lunches stripped of their rich creamy sauces and luscious desserts. Somehow they don’t taste as good sitting across from someone picking gingerly at a salad.
I could easily develop a serious body image complex were it not for the U.K. Each summer, when French women migrate to the beaches, I head north. I like the U.K. Fish and chips, ale and fattening pub food, and no one seems to mind. It’s a great place to shop too. I have no trouble buying clothes there, where it seems B cup bras are considered “youth” size and are exempt from sales tax. After a week of restorative eating and shopping I’m ready to take my svelte self back to Paris.
Dorty Nowak is a writer and artist living in Paris and the U.S. who writes frequently about the challenges and delights of multi-cultural living. A former educator and insurance executive, she helped found the Oakland School for the Arts. She is co-curator of the “Where Do I Belong” project involving artists and poets from Europe, Australia and the U.S.