Gabrielle Deydier: what its like to be fat in France

Gabrielle Deydiers book about being obese has ignited her native France. She tells Stefanie Marsh how her life has been a battle against grossophobia, discrimination and verbal abuse until now

In August 2015, 37-year-old Gabrielle Deydier went for a job interview which she passed with flying colours. The job was for a position as a teaching assistant at a Parisian special needs school and the interview panel, including the schools headmaster, had been so impressed with Gabrielle that they even told her they were worried in case she left for a better-paid job. There had been only one uncomfortable moment: it came at the end, as Gabrielle was walking out the door. The headmaster said: The teacher youll be working under can be rather difficult. Gabrielle barely heard him, she was so delighted about her new job.

It wasnt long before she realised that difficult was a colossal understatement. Youre Gabrielle Deydier, was the first thing the teacher in question said when they met. I dont work with fat people. Gabrielle tried to laugh it off, but the difficult teacher wasnt smiling. It wasnt a joke, she said.

Gabrielle has two degrees, a pleasant and open manner and weighs 150kg, or 23 stone. She also has the misfortune of both being French and living in France, which means that her physical appearance counts for everything, including her employability. In France, she says (and all the facts of her experience seem to bear this out), being fat is considered to be a grotesque self-inflicted disability. At any given time, 80% of Frenchwomen are thought to be on a diet. In the south of the country, theres a lively gastric-band industry (50,000 operations a year).

Theres currently a vegan craze sweeping the land a way for some people to cover up eating disorders. Frenchwomen, says Gabrielle, pride themselves as being the most feminine in Europe. There is this feeling that women have to be perfect in every way. Is it surprising then that the publication of Gabrielles book, Youre Not Born Fat,last month has attracted keen interest a combination of both admiration and moral panic?

For Gabrielle the past 12 months have been like waking up from a nightmare, if nightmares were real and lasted two decades. At one point in our meeting shes tearful but they are tears of happy disbelief. Suddenly, at 38, Gabrielle, whos been told her entire adult life that she wasnt fit for work, is being called an intellectual break-out hero. Shes been profiled in Le Monde, Figaro, the political news magazine Le Point, and appeared on Frances most serious TV shows.

The day before I meet her a councillor under Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, called Gabrielle to ask whether she would consider organising the capitals first anti-grossophobia (sizeism) day. Deals to write a film script and a novel have been made. Italian Vanity Fair wrote about her, and an Italian publisher snapped up the book. The English-language rights have not yet been sold.

Teenage torment: Gabrielle as a girl. She was only a little overweight, but her doctor put her on hormone treatment and her weight began to soar

What it means to be fat in France is for the first time up for discussion in France. I decided to write the book, she says, because I no longer want to apologise for existing. Yes obesity has doubled in the past 10 years, thats much too much. But it does not mean we discriminate against the obese in telling them they cant work and insulting them.

Gabrielle, who couldnt even look at a picture of herself until six months ago, has prepared herself for this moment. My publisher said: You will be on TV and it will be hard. So, with a friend, we started doing pictures of me in a swimming pool so I could accept how I looked in a swimsuit. (On Frances beaches, disgusted passers-by have told her to Please cover up.) Because I was doing it for a purpose, it had meaning.

Weve arranged to meet downstairs in the restaurant of a youth hostel in Paris, where shes lived since she lost the teaching job (and her income) on the grounds that she lacked commitment because she failed to lose weight. Its startling to find a woman of her age, likability, intelligence and now moderate fame living in temporary accommodation because she cant afford to rent a room in a Paris apartment. Its a contradiction but shes a small figure, despite her size, winkled into a banquette.

The previous week she had received an email: Dear Gabrielle, after university I went to work at Dior where I am now very high up. I despised women like you all my life; my mother has always been fat. But now shes in hospital, dying. She gave me your book and its the first time I have understood how it must have felt for her. Thank you. Gabrielle sits there looking very sad and a little bit helpless. I find that crazy, that people need to read a book to accept the overweight. Im really, really sorry to get messages like that.

There are many equally bizarre episodes in her life story. Returning to the teaching job, this is how it ended: discrimination on grounds of physical appearance is illegal in France, a law that seems not to have filtered through to employers. Following the awkward introduction, the difficult teacher introduced Gabrielle to the class of six autistic children as: The seventh handicapped person in the room. She accused Gabrielle of sweating too much. The headmaster told Gabrielle: If she has a problem with you, then so do I.

He said it was unfair on the children because they were now being doubly stigmatised for their disabilities and because theyd be bullied for having a fat teacher. Gabrielle was asked to have a think about her future. Were going to give you 30 days to prove you are motivated.

We started doing pictures of me in a pool so I could accept how I looked in a swimsuit: Gabrielle couldnt even look at an image of herself until six months ago. Photograph: Caco Design

Motivated? Motivated to lose weight. To show youre committed to this job. It was never the children, says Gabrielle. They were wonderful. But I was finding it difficult and complicated to deal with. It was noted that: You were seen out of breath after climbing the stairs to the third floor.

Why didnt she take the school to court? I was afraid I wouldnt be believed, she says. Its not an unlikely scenario. Shed experienced many similar events. The gynaecologist who grumbled: Theres so much blubber here, I cant see; the male colleague who denied hed sexually harassed her on the grounds that his wife was much better looking: Why would I try to rape a fat woman?

The police were very good, but said: You have a right to make a complaint, but we advise against it because a tribunal wont be on your side.

Strangely, nothing similar had happened to her at Montpellier University, where shed blossomed. I was very happy, she remembers. I had lots of friends and went out a lot. There were people who made fun of me, but it wasnt too bad, it wasnt really discrimination. They were idiots, but it wasnt the system. It was when I started looking for a job.

Becoming obese can happen to anyone and it began happening to Gabrielle at 17. As a teenager she was sporty and muscular, a bit overweight (at 65kg, by a stone) plump. Her mother decided her daughter needed to take emergency steps after Gabrielle came home from a shopping trip with a new pair of trousers in size 14, instead of her usual 12. She was very depressed about it: You cant have put on weight you spent money for no reason. But even then my weight wasnt such a big deal. That changed when she went to a doctor.

The doctor considered Gabrielles weight gain to be a very big deal indeed and started her on hormone treatment. I began having problems like very bad skin all over my body and hair growing everywhere. And I put on a lot of weight: 30kg in three months. More hormone treatments were prescribed, combined with a strict diet of boiled vegetables and meat. The weight piled on. It changed the way I thought about food. And I found myself eating things Id never eaten before, hiding food, stealing money from my parents to buy food. All sorts of nonsense.

She now weighed 120kg. I wanted to die. Every day. I thought of myself as deformed. Her parents werent happy either. It was a very, very difficult time. She failed her baccalaureate twice, then passed. University meant freedom.

What happened after she graduated? Gabrielle grows smaller in her banquette. I saw all my friends getting work experience and I wasnt, and I didnt understand it. There was no logical reason for it. People were giving me admin or underpaid jobs. I was doing factory work. Halfway through a job interview, a recruitment consultant spelled it out: Youre not compatible with the image we want to portray of the company. I said: Well, Im not an idiot. And he said: Its well known that IQ is inversely proportional to body weight.

Gabrielle knew there was something specifically French about her experience. Shed spent a year in Spain as part of her degree. In Spain it just wasnt an issue. If someone commented on how I looked it was only to give a compliment. In France Id be a couple of minutes into a conversation and it would be: But why are you fat? Was that a choice? Is it an illness?

The visit to the doctor when Gabrielle was 17 is mirrored by its opposite, exactly 20 years later, the second time in her life when her world was turned upside down: but this time from terrible to a waking dream. Last June, she remembers: My depression was serious. I hadnt talked to my family for a year. I was even worried I was going to be homeless. I put on 30kg. I was going into decline and frightened. I thought of shooting myself or leaving for somewhere far away, but didnt know where to go. And on one of those horrible days my friends forced me to come to a book launch. I didnt want to go, got completely drunk and ended up talking to some writers about an investigative project where one was working undercover in an abattoir.

I said: Do you know what grossophobia is? and nobody knew what I was talking about. So I described all the things Id experienced. They told me to get it down on paper and email it to them as soon as possible. If Gabrielle hadnt still had alcohol in her bloodstream the next morning she doesnt think shed have had the courage to put it into words, six pages. Wincing, she pressed Send. There was a publisher on the phone the same day. A fortnight later, a book deal. Shes welling up: It saved my life.

The book is most revelatory about France in the reactions it has triggered especially in the readers letters Gabrielle now gets every day (hardly any of them from people who are overweight). One woman told me she had been bulimic for 20 years because she was scared if she put on weight she would lose her husband and job. A more layered response came from a man: He said, Your book has made me realise Im a total shit. For five years I worked with young people. If they were overweight, I humiliated them. He asked me to forgive him, as if I was a priest in a confessional. Thats not her job, she says.

Still, the letters confirm one thing: its Frances turn now to feel as Gabrielle did: ashamed and questioning herself. All because of a single book. Her story is fascinating, heroic, ongoing. Gabrielle Deydier: this is your year.

Correction: this article was ammended on 11 September 2017 to reflect the fact that the English-language rights to the book have not yet been sold and that it was a councillor under Anne Hidalgo who called.

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