International author Erin Zhurkin has published a new novel, Plus-Size in Paris, inspired by the body positivity movement to promote an idealistic image of “health at every size.”
The heroine, Abby Allerton, is a young, “plus-sized” social media influencer who lives a double life online running a pair of rival Instagram accounts. “Femme Fatale,” features a petite childhood friend as the face of the profile that advertises high-end brands. The other account, “Plus-Size Real,” is a platform for Allerton’s body-image activism.
Drama strikes when Allerton quickly finds herself jetting off to France under false pretenses. Organizers of a premier fashion show in Paris invite Femme Fatale to cover their event for the account’s wide audience. Allerton takes the ticket for the overseas gig despite Parisian executives expecting to host her friend, the face of the account. After years spent fantasizing about a trip to France, however, Allerton finds the French are far less destigmatized to overweight visitors than Americans are. While the book is called Plus-Size in Paris, it might as well have been titled Too Fat for France.
The book chronicles Allerton’s month-long journey in France — where obesity rates are less than half of what they are in the U.S. — as if she were a character in “The Devil Wears Prada” navigating an industry with traditionally strict body standards. Only this time, Andrea put on some weight, and instead of U2 scoring the soundtrack, songs by Lizzo and Meghan Trainor are repeatedly referenced as Allerton’s anthems.
It’s a charming tale and an easy read. One might even call it “jolly.” The proposed title above doesn’t work, however, because the message that’s clear by the end of the book is that there’s no such thing as “too fat” — not in the mythology presented. Allerton uses her platform while in France to prove as much. The problem is that it’s a deadly concept that’s only aggravated by the kind of entitlement Allerton shows throughout the more than 300 pages, which seems to frustrate the French.
Our influencer hero struggles to find comfort (let alone validation) in her French fantasy when she is confronted with a country not accustomed to the extra weight Americans have come to accept as normal. Allerton is routinely reminded of her size from the moment she climbs aboard the airplane. While episodes of prejudice are certainly exaggerated for the sake of storytelling, it’s likely the French do take notice of overweight tourists from the U.S. The author, Zhurkin, writes in the acknowledgments that the book was inspired by her own experiences traveling in France with a “larger body.” There’s a reason, however, that the French obesity rate is just 17 percent, while the U.S. is nearly 42 percent.
Societal stigmas exist for a reason. Stigmas against habits such as drug and alcohol use discourage unhealthy behavior because of the broad understanding that those lifestyles are deadly. Erase the stigma, and you erase one of the most effective barriers to a population living on runaway impulses. In that respect, gluttony is no different, even with the emotional baggage that comes attached.
The hard reality — which starkly contrasts the mythology of “health at every size” as presented in Zhurkin’s fairytale — is that today, we’re not healthy at any size. A data analysis based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys revealed in June that just 3 percent of adults 20 and older are in perfect health. Furthermore, 88 percent of American adults suffer some sort of metabolic dysfunction, thanks in large part to our diet.
With that said, personal health is a personal responsibility. Allerton, who simultaneously plays the role of chief protagonist and chief victim, has none of it. Seemingly every other page features another indulgence in French pastries while she chastises locals such as a doctor who dared recommend any weight remedies. Enjoying French croissants in Paris on a brief vacation is one thing, but doubling down on them daily over a month-long stay is another. A bit of irony plays out when Allerton goes on to shame a colleague at lunch for smoking a cigarette, but he’d better not mention her crepes.
The book blames genetics for Allerton’s weight early on. Genetics, however, doesn’t necessarily lock individuals into an obese fate. In his 2021 book Metabolical, pediatric neuroendocrinologist and University of California professor Dr. Robert Lustig, who has published six books on health and nutrition, explains how genetics can’t be a scapegoat to explain obesity.
“There are thirty-nine genes that determine risk here,” Lustig wrote. “Only two,” he said, “have any real clinical import, and are only found in about 16 percent of the obese population, never mind the general population.”
If you had every other obesity risk gene, it would only explain ten kilograms or twenty-two pounds of weight, hardly enough to explain the population rise in obesity. Genetics are important, but not the biggest reason for obesity.
Obesity itself carries severe risks of developing chronic diseases, from diabetes to cancer, which shorten lifespans and make sick individuals’ final years painful and expensive. People who are obese can expect to cost double for lifetime health care compared to those at an otherwise healthy weight.
Outright fat-shaming isn’t appropriate. But the glorification of obesity to fulfill a narcissistic desire is a deadly response. Don’t buy the lie that “every size” is “healthy.”