Thick and Thin: A Foray Into Europe’s Slimmest Country

by Ariel Goldberg

Everyone loves good food, no matter their size. Image courtesy of Andrew Smith.

I was a bit nervous about my trip to Paris.

Not only is France known for having the thinnest women (who don’t believe they’re thin — which is another issue entirely that we could dive into) in Western Europe, but Paris is widely regarded as one of the unfriendliest cities (and France one of the unfriendliest countries) in the world.

To me, this combo was pretty scary.

But the thing is, I love Paris. I visited once five years ago with friends for an unfortunately short weekend, and I fell hard. I was aching to drink wine on the banks of the Seine, visit Shakespeare and Company, wander the hilly streets of Montmartre, sit writing and people-watching in cafés, and so much more.

But this time I was both fatter and alone. And though I used every mechanism in my emotional arsenal to prepare, I was still nervous.

So what happened?

Well, my trip was incredible.


Paris! Image courtesy of Ariel Goldberg.

I rode the Métro, I asked for directions, I toured Versailles, I wandered Le Marais, I ate a lot (a LOT), and through it all I was treated as normally as I am at home. However, someone did suggest that living in New York has hardened me, so I may not have noticed any actual rudeness.

(The only slight exception to the above is one awkward instance of street harassment in which a man followed me for half a block to tell me in French, and then English, “I do not usually like women your size but…your proportions! I really like them!” Okay, dude.)

In fact, I used OkCupid while I was traveling (for research purposes, of course), and I seemed to get just as much attention from French people, who are supposedly accustomed to and covetous of thinness, as I do from Americans. Case in point below (#noshame):


(Click to enlarge.) Image courtesy of Ariel Goldberg.

I do not believe that anyone should derive the entirety of their self-worth from the attention of others, but if this is not living proof that a fat girl can get around (and get around, if she so chooses) in Paris, I don’t know what is.

On my last night in the City of Light, I attended a dinner hosted through meal-sharing website VoulezVousDiner (discovered thanks to Janice Waugh). I was getting lonely and figured this would be the perfect opportunity to meet some locals and other travelers.

But, again, I was nervous. A fat girl eating with strangers? And not only that, but French strangers? My experience in restaurants had thus far been lovely, but would these people be rude? Would they judge me for eating? (To be fair, these are fears I carry with me in my home life too, but they were exacerbated by four days alone in Paris, of all places.)

That night I spent four hours in a small apartment in Montmartre, eating and drinking and laughing. I stood on a balcony and watched people wander among galleries and cafés on the cobblestoned street below. I swapped stories with five French people, one Serbian, and two other American travelers. I blushed as they all egged me on to taste my first foie gras and escargot, and I ate more bread and drank more wine than I ever thought possible.

I was not shamed; I was embraced. Something that seemed to come so naturally to all of them was so important to me.


I’m the fat one at the back. Emilie, our host, is on the far left. Image courtesy of Andrew Smith.

However, there are certain realities of traveling at my size.

Yes, I experienced no verbal or physical harassment due to my weight in Paris, but is this really the baseline at which we should be measuring a positive experience?

“It wasn’t awful, so it must’ve been great!” That’s not how it should work, but unfortunately that’s how it does.

Paris is not a fat-friendly city (big surprise), even if my personal experience was extraordinary. And travel (travel amenities, more specifically) is often not a fat-friendly activity.

The Paris Métro, for example, offers poor accessibility for anyone who is not thin and able-bodied. And websites such as VoulezVousDiner and Airbnb do not include the accessibility of their listings. I was lucky that Emilie’s apartment had an elevator (even if I had to climb a steep hill to get there), but my friends and I were quite surprised when we discovered that our Airbnb in Copenhagen was a fourth-floor walk-up.

I do not wish to conflate fatness with disability, but I believe that if we are to consider even just one kind of body that is left out of the dialogue, we should be considering all bodies.

Bathrooms are another area for concern. The WC at my Airbnb in Paris was so tiny that I’d guess even someone half my size could barely make it work.


Too small! Image courtesy of Ariel Goldberg.

Apparently this is an issue in many parts of Western Europe, not just France. In one bathroom in Amsterdam, for instance, I could barely close the door behind me, let alone sit on the toilet, so I just hovered awkwardly for two minutes, pretending to pee (so as not to arouse suspicions in the person waiting after me), then went to go find a bathroom I could actually fit inside.

The fact is that my experience as a fat traveler is, while wonderful, very different from a thin traveler’s.

And this is a universal truth for fat people everywhere. Navigating a society that is not designed for you is its own adventure.

You may also like

Leave a Comment