Body acceptance in the land of “French girl chic”
Please enjoy July’s guest author #TransparentTuesday email (below), written by Erin Zhurkin– author of the novel PLUS SIZE IN PARIS, and an American living overseas with a very interesting story to share!
Plus-Size in Paris? C’est compliqué.
The past sixteen years, I’ve been living in (and adapting to!) six totally different countries and cultures, by being determined, flexible, and able to approach diverse cultural perspectives with curiosity and respect.
I’ve always been an avid adventurer; not only in the world-travel realm, but also in the personal-growth growth realm. I like to journey inward, and see where I’m missing opportunities that could enrich my life.
And all this adventuring—both outward and inward—has been done in a plus-size body.
It took me seven years to get my first novel Plus-Size in Paris released into the world, and I did it with the awareness that society says I should feel defective because of my body size when honestly, I feel anything but.
Being an American overseas for so many years I tend to get asked the same questions. Questions like:
Why are Americans so loud?
Why do Americans expect American food in a country that’s not America?
And the big daddy of them all…
Why did we elect Donald Trump?
I’ve learned to graciously answer those questions because I want to represent an America that can hold those comments with an open heart and an open mind.
But living as a plus-size woman overseas, I also found myself asking questions, about the unattainable body size and beauty standards in the different cultures I was living in. It was fascinating to me that dauntingly unattainable beauty standards weren’t just an American thing that I grew up with and brought with me in my baggage, but appeared to be a global thing as well!
There are exceptions to that, and some cultures are ahead of the curve (no pun intended), but for the most part I’ve experienced a common thread running through every place I’ve lived: unrealistic beauty standards.
In Paris, it was the pressure to be French girl chic, with a super thin body requiring much restriction, and the weight of those expectations was indeed heavy.
In Seoul (where I live now) it would have been soul crushing if I didn’t accept the fact that I’m never going to be the body size that is considered acceptable, even if I did try to lose weight. I just can’t compete with the beauty standards of thin perfection that are widely accepted as the norm here.
So to protect myself and my mental health, here are some things I did to counter those unrealistic beauty and body ideals:
1. I faced my own biases and shadows of judgment. I had to fully accept that who I am may never be fully embraced in any culture I find myself, but I can still be true to myself by focusing on what I have to offer. (Funnily enough, a quote by famous French woman Coco Chanel, “beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself,” has become my north star!) While living in Paris, I desperately wished for a book that spoke to how it felt living in a larger body that didn’t fit the norm. So I decided to write one! When I started formulating the story of my main character Abby, however, I realized that I was still carrying my own biases and judgements towards myself and others around body size. So I had to start getting really honest with myself, and dismantling those biases. Writing and formulating this story helped me to flesh that out. I believe the only way we can fully combat unattainable and oppressive beauty and body ideals is to work together and advocate for inclusivity of all, and that includes how we develop our stories in fiction… and I really wanted my book to reflect that. So I remained curious about our society’s deeply rooted biases against larger bodies– not just in others, but in myself. I had to start with me.
I made a commitment to remain true to myself while writing Plus-Size in Paris, which meant not compromising on voicing how it felt to live in Paris as a plus-size woman, but also to bring together women of all shapes and sizes within that culture. Rather than judge the people who judged me, I worked to stay curious and compassionate, both with myself and with others, no matter the body size. Eventually I came to realize that while being judged by others can bring up feelings of unworthiness in me, those judgments could be coming from a sense of unworthiness in the person doing the judging, too. After all, when we believe we are worthy to take up space in the world regardless of our body size, we don’t feel the need to judge others or their bodies.
2. I fully embraced the fact I have something to offer, and I can make a difference just by being myself. I scheduled time with myself to go and sit at those charming Parisian cafes and just be. I struck up conversations with the French waiters– people who tend to be stereotyped as curt, unpleasant, and unkind– and found most of them to be the opposite: interesting, helpful, and gracious. I decided that my character François, who is a French waiter, would be my main character’s romantic interest and bring humor, fun and lightness to her life just as they did for me on many a day when I was struggling with my feeling of not fitting in my first year in Paris. I decided to join a gym on the Champs Elysée after a dear fellow writer friend recommended it to me. She told me a story of the infamous Lido dancers coming into the gym with their dancer bodies and energy and how it incentivized her to enjoy the visits more. I wanted to experience that too. I happened to be there one day when they were there, and I was on a treadmill a few rows down from them and with my headphones on and the song “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake blaring in my ears I started to have some fun swaying and grooving to it. Sure, enough I looked over and the line of Lido girls were grooving too. We exchanged smiles and I felt an instant connection of health, vitality and fun. We were all enjoying each other’s energy and it didn’t matter what we looked like or our body sizes. I’ll never forget the moment of clarity that day that I brought myself into a space that could’ve been otherwise hugely daunting… but ended up being hugely healing. Paris will always be a place where I found my creative passion and voice again, as well as where I pushed back on negative body thoughts. Threading those two things together brought me an incredible sense of letting go of the old, tired body tropes and letting in something new, progressive, and self-affirming. I started to believe in a world where we don’t think about body sizes at all (and celebrate each of us taking up space in all the different places in our unique ways), and connected to the fact that both me and my writing could play a role in helping us get there.
I hope that by sharing my story, you might feel inspired or supported in your own body acceptance journey, but you don’t have to go to Dublin, Paris or even Seoul to adventure into yourself. Sure it’s fun to travel, but it’s equally rewarding to keep yourself open to what you may be missing about yourself. What if you went to those places inside where you are afraid to go? What would you find? I bet you’d find a person that’s full of amazing light, purpose, and worth waiting there ready to say, “Maybe it wasn’t so compliqué after all? What’s next?”