By Margarita Nahapetyan
A report by the National Institute of Demographic Studies in France has revealed that French women, who are the slimmest in Europe, consider themselves as fat, while British ladies, who are the most overweight - are the most comfortable with their size.
But while a new research has confirmed that French women are really the thinnest in western Europe, their slenderness comes at big cost: they are also concerned much more about being fat than their counterparts in any other EU country. The findings also highlight both massive differences in the weight of men and women all across Europe, as well as how people's attitudes towards extra weight vary in different countries.
The weight comparisons are based on adult Body Mass Index (BMI), the measure recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). To find out one's BMI, the weight in kilograms must be divided by height in meters squared. A BMI below 18.5 is considered as dangerously underweight. The range between 18.5 and 25 is perfect, between 25 and 30 is overweight, and above 30 it is obese.
In France, the proportion of thin women has long been the highest in Europe. According to the most recent statistics, nearly 6.7 per cent of French women are dangerously slim; they also have Europe's lowest average BMI, at 23.2. Yet when the investigators asked women about their ideal weight, they found that French women were still not happy and longed for the thinnest bodies in Europe. Around 50 per cent of all slim French women are convinced that they weigh too much, the study found.
Italian ladies have the second lowest BMIs in Europe, followed by women in Austria, Germany and Denmark. British women had the highest average at 26.2, which was above the normal range to be considered healthy. Surprisingly, British women are, on the whole, feeling very comfortable with their size, and by no means consider themselves as overweight. In Portugal, Spain and the UK, where ideal weights are higher, there was also a tendency to underestimate weight, according to the report. The number of women who considered themselves to be too thin was greater than the number who actually were.
The survey found, unsurprisingly, that European gentlemen, in contrast to ladies, were less worried about their weight in spite of the fact that in western Europe only French and Dutch men are, on average, within the ideal weight band, according to World Health Organization standards. All the rest are overweight, with British men tipping the scales as the third plumpest, behind the Greeks and Finns.
In only three nations do females join males crossing that line: Britain, Greece and Portugal. And only among individuals in Netherlands there are more overweight women than men. France is the one country in which both genders are solidly in the perfect weight borders, and the only country in which more than 5 per cent of women are officially below the normal weight.
"Men denigrate their own bodies when they are underweight, but when they are overweight, they often do not see a problem," said the author of the report, Thibaut de Saint Pol, adding that outright obesity was another story. "When women are underweight, they do not devalue that at all. But as soon as they cross the line into overweight, they find that unacceptable."
Mr. Saint Pol said that his research suggests that average national weight is not just a matter of eating habits, physical activity or genetics. It is strongly affected differences in cultures and national attitudes to what is being considered as an acceptably thin, or attractive, or - in the case of men - athletic and strong body. In some countries, such as Greece, the investigator points out, male fatness is still viewed as a symbol of power or strength.
French ladies, he said, are slender, in part, because they come under intense pressure from French men, but also from other French women, to stay thin. "What people consider to be the ideal weight in France is lower than in other countries," M. Saint Pol said. "If a French person who feels fat were to go to the United States, he or she probably wouldn't feel fat any more."
M. Saint Pol's study is published in this month's edition of Populations et Société, the newsletter of the French demographic institute, INED.