In contrast to the explicit, shockingly bigoted things I’ve heard from Europeans on racial and cultural issues, the gender bias I have witnessed has been much more subtle.
There have been lots of little things. Unfortunately, women around the globe are judged on their appearance, but I have been shocked to the extent that is true in Europe.
For example, women in Europe are just hardly ever overweight. It is unthinkable to be even a little pudgy. It is actually so unusual that months into my stint living in France, I was on the subway when I saw a woman who was chubby and I actually did a double take. I was shocked. To be clear, this woman was not obese. And in the United States, she would not have attracted attention for her weight. But when I saw this French woman on the subway, it was the first time in months that I’d seen an overweight woman.
Indeed, when I lived in France, there were only four sizes, in which women’s clothes were sold. And typically stores just stocked clothes in two of those sizes. The other two sizes were fairly rare. Woe be to the woman whose weight did not conform to that narrow range.
The year I lived in France, I personally only knew one overweight woman. And she certainly wasn’t obese. Perhaps because of my American basis of comparison, I didn’t even consider her truly overweight. But my host family matter-of-factly described her as “fat” when she wasn’t around. They did so not in a mean-spirited way. She was a friend of the family and they loved her very much. They used the “fat” label in a descriptive way as other objective terms might be used, e.g., brunette, tall, young, etc. Again, this friend really wasn’t all that heavy in my opinion, but she wasn’t skinny, which was apparently the reason for the “fat” label. Nonetheless, this woman had actually had to learn to sew because that was the only way she would have anything to wear!
Another thing that got my attention in Europe was that when you go to pools or beaches, bikinis are de rigueur. I had European female friends tell me that if you wore a one piece swimsuit, people think you are hiding an ugly body and you are ashamed. I love swimming, but frankly such attitudes intimidated me to the extent that I didn’t swim the whole time I lived in France. Upon returning to the United States the next summer, I had occasion to go to a water park with my family. I distinctly remember being grateful for the range of body shapes and sizes around me. In that context, I didn’t feel so self-conscious in my one piece swimsuit.
I’m certainly not celebrating the obesity epidemic in America. It is not healthy. But in my observation, health is not the driver in European women staying slim. Smoking is rampant. In my observation, smoking has often been used as a proxy for eating to avoid weight gain. Indeed, the diet in many European countries has a heavier emphasis on rich, fatty foods than I was previously used to. I had never cooked with real butter and cream until I worked as an au pair and prepared meals for my French host family. Rich cheeses are a common dessert. Europeans also eat a lot more meat than my family ever did. I was a vegetarian in college, but consciously gave it up when I began my year in France. I knew it would be incredibly difficult to maintain that diet in Europe.
Another thing I have noticed is that European women seem to put more energy into how they dress and seem less inclined to dress in ways that make them comfortable. In conversations I had with a number of women, there seemed to be a lot more concern for how they would be judged based on their clothing.
Years ago, I remember one French young woman studying in the United States told me that we American women dressed very shabbily. I tried to not take offense as she explained that European women were much more careful to wear attractive clothing, even though they often had fewer garments in their wardrobe than we Americans did.
Later when I went to Europe myself, I saw what she meant. The women did dress up more. If you saw a woman in tennis shoes, she was probably an American tourist. Tennis shoes are a standard part of American attire, but in Europe the women wore a variety of non-athletic, leather shoes. Tennis shoes are not considered pretty and that is what counts.
When I lived in Europe, I had a friend from Germany who had spent a year as an exchange student living with an American family in California. I remember her making similar comments to that of the aforementioned French exchange student. At the time, my German friend made her comments, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be offended. She told me she had really liked her California hosts, but had been horrified that the mother would run errands in sweat pants, tennis shoes and t-shirts. My friend took pains to assure me her California mom had been not a fat woman; that would really have been catastrophic, apparently. No, my German friend assured me that her California mom could have actually fit into more fashionable clothing, but she chose not to. Despite being smart and well-educated, my German friend just couldn’t wrap her mind around this. No amount of physics, Goethe or calculus helped her figure out this riddle. She said that at first she was actually embarrassed to be in public with her California host mom. Without missing a beat, my German friend said she eventually got over the embarrassment--when she began to understand this was normal in the United States for women to be seen in public looking like slobs. What a cross-cultural insight!
I remember another interesting discussion with several thirtysomethings who lived in the same neighborhood as my French host family. It was a co-ed gathering. They were all parents of young children. The dads were all sole breadwinners and the moms were all stay-at-home moms. These adults wanted to practice their English, so we would occasionally get together and talk. Many of the topics involved sharing cultural insights and discussing different perspectives on various topics.
One time, these adults mentioned they would never want to work in the United States because we were overly sensitive about gender in the workplace. I frankly didn’t understand what they were talking about and asked them to explain. They said they had heard that in the United States if a male co-worker innocently complimented a female co-worker on wearing a nice outfit, he would be fired for sexual harassment. I explained that was not quite how it worked. But I also shared that in a professional setting, it didn’t seem relevant to spend much time noticing or commenting on colleagues’ appearances. Perhaps an occasion good-natured compliment when someone gets a new haircut or is wearing a particularly snazzy outfit. But from my American perspective, paying too much attention to colleagues’ physical appearance would be odd because the focus should be on getting work done.
Fascinatingly, one of the moms really took issue with this perspective. She had only worked professionally for a brief time many years previously and frankly she seemed to resent this; motherhood was not her calling and she seemed to be depressed to not have a glamorous, international career where she could use the many foreign languages she had studied. This particular mom expressed that one ought to have the right to express sexual attraction to one’s co-workers. Indeed, she asserted that there was nothing wrong with a workplace where people were routinely flirting with one another. I was perplexed and more than a little horrified by this attitude. She was a married woman and I didn’t understand that she was looking to change that situation. I asked why people would want to flirt on the job—especially if they were already in a committed relationship.
Her response astounded me. She said that women want to know they are “still attractive.” As she put it, if she were flirting with co-workers, it would make her feel good about herself to know that even in her thirties she still “had it” and “could have” other men if she wanted to. I remember appreciating her honesty but being so stunned and not knowing what to say. Blame it on my relative youth and naiveté. Blame it on the shock of such a stunning admission. But my response probably was not terribly sensitive. I shared that I would hope most women would know their own worth as human beings so they didn’t need ego boosts through such silly tactics.
I think I really did use the word “silly.” And in retrospect, I’m sorry because I must have hurt her feelings. She was a nice woman and I didn’t mean to be insulting. But frankly what she was describing was the sort of thing that girls in junior high did. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and thought women grew out of that. After my less than delicate response, the poor woman didn’t say anything more on the topic and we moved on to another.
As I write all this and reflect on what I’ve witnessed, it causes me to re-think my attitude to the EU ad encouraging girls to consider a career in science. Maybe I was overly harsh in that prior post. Perhaps that ad is ludicrous and insulting from an American perspective, but perhaps it makes sense in a European context. Maybe the people who created the ad were well in tune to their European audience and it spoke a certain truth. If that is the case, I find that to be truly depressing.
1 Timothy 2:9
[I]n like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing.