Monday, 18 July 2016

Why You Shouldn't Read Blogs Like This One

I read an article online about France the other day which annoyed me. This happens frequently - it's one of the dangers of the internet in general, and of reading "lifestyle" pieces about France in particular. On this occasion, the article was about pregnancy in France and about how medical professionals here encourage you not to gain too much weight. (I'm not going to link to the article, as this isn't intended to be a personal attack on the writer, and there are many similar ones out there, so if you want to read them, do a search!)

For those who are not expert in the subject, a "normal" weight gain in pregnancy is considered to be 10-12kg in France (according to the pregnancy bible J'attends un enfant), 10-12.5 kg in the UK and 25-35lbs in the US . (The writer of the article was American.) In other words, we all pretty much agree on what healthy looks like.

There are, however, differences in how this is monitored. My friends in the UK were never weighed during their pregnancies. My personal experience in France was that I was weighed at every midwife appointment, but as I was well within the limits, even before the sadistic diabetes diet, the only comment that was ever made was, "Vous n'avez pas pris trop de poids - c'est bien." A French friend told me that she had been enguelée ("told off") by her doctor for weight gain, but she admitted that she took advantage of being pregnant to eat all the unhealthy things she didn't normally allow herself (and unlike me, she was very slim to start with!) and had put on 25kg by the end, which she then regretted. The 10-12kg rule is often interpreted as 1kg per month, with a little bit more at the end, so French doctors will often tell you to be careful if you go over this monthly limit, and this is what happened to the woman in the article.

Don't get me wrong - I can understand why she was upset. I can well believe that a doctor might apply the one-kilo-per-month rule very strictly, not allowing for the fact that you might gain two or three one month and less the next, or appreciating that the difference between gaining 12kg and gaining 13 or 14 is not that great. French kids are brought up to accept this kind of criticism; Brits and Americans are not.

What annoyed me was the rest of the article, which was several paragraphs about how French (although I think she meant Parisian) women are all extremely thin, hardly eat anything and never serve themselves twice from the bread basket. It may have mentioned that it's all about fitting back into your designer clothes as quickly as possible. (If this particular article didn't, I'm sure there is one out there which did.) Not once did it mention that excessive weight gain is associated with serious complications in pregnancy, such as (ahem) gestational diabetes or the potentially life-threatening pre-eclampsia. She didn't say, perhaps because she didn't know, that the traditional idea of "eating for two" exists in France as well, and that many women, like my friend above, "take advantage" of their pregnancy to eat unhealthy diets and need to be reminded not to. Nor did the writer appear to accept that it is actually quite nice not to have to worry about losing loads of excess weight after the baby is born, when you probably won't have time to spend cooking up carefully balanced, calorie counted meals and when your body is in too much of a mess to contemplate most forms of exercise.

The reason I'm writing about this is not that I think weight gain in pregnancy is a fascinating topic, nor, as I said before, to have a go at this particular writer. Once I got over my annoyance, I realised that the article I read was the perfect illustration of a kind of double-whammy culture clash that causes so many of us grief when we move to a foreign country. The first is the interpretation of words and actions according to our own cultural norms: in France, the doctor was giving the woman sound advice which was for her own good, even if it was difficult to hear; according to American norms he was practically fat-shaming her. The second was that, in trying to interpret her experience, she fell back on stereotypes ("all French women are obsessed with being thin and incredibly stylish"), rather than examining the deeper reasons for her doctor's advice.

The first "whammy" is hard to avoid. You don't realise how deeply ingrained your own cultural norms are until you experience violation of them on a daily basis. It's part of adapting to a new country and it's hard, but the long-term gains are worth it.

The second, however, I feel, can be more easily avoided. While it's interesting and fun to read the kinds of blogs and books where this kind of writing appears, it's also dangerous. If you learn about your adopted country largely by reading the experiences and interpretations of people from your own culture, you'll never adapt your perspective to truly understand where the natives are coming from. In fact, you can even start to see stereotypes (which, although they often contain an element of truth, are rarely the whole picture) that you wouldn't have created for yourself. It's harder, but much better, to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Those are my words of wisdom for the day, but if you want to live dangerously, try Googling what Brits and Americans in France think of la reéduation périnéale. It's obviously all to do with getting back in shape for your husband (and maybe also your lover) and nothing whatsoever with being able to sneeze without fear in middle age ...

6 comments:

  1. I had the exact opposite in Canada, I was constantly told I wasn't gaining enough weight and I was weighed at EVERY visit. Which triggered a bout of not-so-healthy relationship with food :-/ The worst part is, I was doing fine and the baby too! I was just active, more active than before actually because I was no longer in an office environment, and I was doing yoga and all. There was a logical explanation to my weight!

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    1. That seems a bit daft to me. From what I've read, the baby takes the calories and nutrients it needs before the mother (which is why you can have a healthy baby even after bad morning sickness), so if the baby is a healthy size, which they can tell from the scans, and the mother is doing well, what is there to worry about? Sorry you had a bad experience :-(

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  2. 10 - 12kg in France and 25-35kg in the US? Wow that's a huge difference! About reéduation périnéale, I was always told that it was for my own good, and never heard from any French friends here that it was to please the husband. I read about the stereotype about pleasing the husband in English blogs.

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    1. Oops, that was mrant to be pounds (so the same amount). Off to edit now!

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  3. I just read something about American women having lots of problems with torn pelvic floor muscles after birth because doctor's don't ever think to check, and women have problems with incontinence. And I realized that maybe the French were on to something with the ré-education.

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    1. Yes, British women with experience of these things have told me the same thing and are usually very impressed when I tell them that everything will kept in tip-top shape with twenty sessions of physiotherapy. Can't say I'm looking forward to doing them though!

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