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The best books on Dutch Women (and Happiness)

recommended by Ellen de Bruin

The Dutch science journalist takes a light-hearted look at national stereotypes: why Dutch women are happy, and what it means to be blonde. She picks the best books on Dutch women.

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There have been a lot of popular books in recent years about the characteristics of women of various nationalities, like French Women Don’t Get Fat, which we’ll discuss in a minute. They seem to reflect an interest in whether other cultures have something to teach us about living our lives better. Your own book is called Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed. You have a PhD in psychology so are worth taking seriously, but before we all pack up and emigrate to the Netherlands, you mentioned that your book title isn’t quite true.

It was my publisher who came up with the title Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed. I’m a science writer for a Dutch newspaper, the NRC Handelsblad, and my focus is on psychology. I had written a lot about happiness at that time, because it was a very popular topic in research. So I was planning to write a book about happiness, but then a lot of books on the subject came out at the same time, so I decided against it. I was having lunch with my publisher, and she suggested, “Why don’t you write a book like French Women Don’t Get Fat? How about Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed? That’s also an alliteration.” We had a good laugh about it. I pointed out to her that it’s also not true, though we do score quite well on the happiness scales.

How well do you do?

We’re always in the top 10. We’re not completely at the top – Denmark is. I don’t know what Denmark’s secret is. That would also have been a good book – Danish Women Don’t Get Depressed – and another alliteration. But we got there first! Depression of course is an illness, and one woman in five gets depressed at a certain time in her life. That’s the same for all Western countries – it’s no different here in Holland.

But Dutch women are happier?

We are among the happiest countries, yes.

Are these books you’ve chosen going to shed some light on why that is? Tell me more about Dutch women.

I actually had some difficulty when I was writing my own book. I am a Dutch woman, but I had virtually no idea how other people look at us. What is the stereotypical Dutch woman? I had no idea and I started asking around. I asked Dutch people who had lived abroad for a long time, and I asked people who came from abroad to live in the Netherlands. And I got this stereotypical image of Dutch women, which is: We are pretty, we have a sort of natural beauty, but we don’t know how to dress. We are rather rude – we just say anything we like. We’re not very hospitable and we don’t cook very well. We eat cheese sandwiches and don’t do hot lunches. The only thing we eat hot at lunch is what we call kroketten – it’s sort of offal in breadcrumbs, it’s horrible. We don’t do Botox, we don’t blow-dry our hair. In relationships we are very bossy, I was told. We are very bossy to our men, but at the same time we are very un-bossy at work – and we don’t get to the top. We don’t dare to ask for a rise and we are not in a lot of management positions. [Compared with other countries] we’re always very low in the list of women in top positions – we’re somewhere near Pakistan, as one of the people I interviewed for my book pointed out. So we’re not very liberated in that sense.

“Both Jonathan Franzen and Geert Wilders give freedom a bad name, which is a pity, because it’s such an important concept.”

Then I had to figure out why it is that we are happy, and I think it’s to do with the different types of freedom we have in the Netherlands. We can marry whomever we choose. We can work part-time or work full time, or we can decide not to work at all, and be a stay-at-home Mum – or just a stay-at-home woman, if we don’t have children. We have freedom of religion, we can dress any way we like. If we dress like a frump nobody cares. It’s freedom that gives us our happiness.

In the US, there’s quite a strong interest in “freedom” – but it seems to be an anti-government thing, and so, for example, in the name of freedom, we’ve seen strong opposition to universal healthcare. There seems to be a lack of appreciation of how liberating it is to know that if you lost your job and all your money tomorrow, you’d still be taken care of. Some of the benefits the Dutch state provides to women are probably unimaginable to many.

There’s lots of social security in the Netherlands that’s not present in other countries. That gives you a vast amount of freedom to do whatever you like – and working part time is one of those things. About 72% of Dutch women work, but work is defined as “at least one hour of paid work a week”. About three-quarters of Dutch women only work part time.

This has been a matter for comment in the blogosphere, that less than 10% of Dutch women work full time. Does that sound right to you?

Well, if 72% work at least one hour a week, and three-quarters of those work part-time, that means that less than 20% work full time. But not less than 10%.

Let’s start with your first book, French Women Don’t Get Fat.

I listed this book because it was an inspiration. We had so much fun with the idea of French women not getting fat, because obviously you can go to France and see fat women there. Maybe the percentage is lower than in the US or the Netherlands, but it’s just not true that French women don’t get fat. The book is full of little tricks so you don’t eat too much. For example, you should always carry a bottle of water and drink from it constantly so that you get full and don’t have to eat. If you get a glass of wine you should just sip it and not drink the whole glass in one go. There are all kinds of things like that in it. It was just so funny – the book was asking to be satirised.

Because all the things it’s recommending are pretty unpleasant?

Yes, I think they would make you very unhappy. I wouldn’t like to be bloated by water all the time, and not be able to eat. They have all these small clothing sizes in France. I wouldn’t fit into their clothes and I wouldn’t want to live like that, to be forced to starve – socially, culturally.

So French women who live by this book will be thin but unhappy.

Yes. There was another book, Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat. I thought that was even more hilarious. They don’t even get old. What’s to envy about that?

Let’s go on to Women and the Birth of Capitalism in Western Europe.

This book has not been translated into English but it’s a real gem. Tine de Moor and Luiten van Zanden are historians, and they describe how the European marriage pattern helped the economy bloom in the late medieval and early modern period. I had never thought about the nuclear family in this way before. It started in the Low Countries, around the Netherlands, and is something we exported to the rest of the Western world. Before that, people just lived together as an extended family, with grandparents, maybe brothers and sisters and their children, all in the same house.  But with the change to a nuclear unit, people had to start setting aside money for old age – because they could not rely on living with their children anymore. Also, in the Low Countries, women could inherit money from their parents, which meant that women could start to choose whom to marry. Sometimes they waited, and got a job. Women could just stay home and wait for the best man who came around – they weren’t forced to marry quickly to get their dowry.

So the key is that women were getting married later?

Yes, and they were very independent. Then the plague broke out [in 1348], and a lot of men died. Lots of hands were needed in the labour market and women got their chance. That’s referred to, by some historians, as the first feminist revolution.

The Black Death?


Your next book is On Blondes by Joanna Pitman, which is a socio-cultural history of blonde hair. I love that when you met the author she told you that the first time she got her hair dyed blonde she was unable to park her car.

It’s such a wonderful story. It’s a form of self-stereotyping. There is all kinds of research on this. If you tell women that women are, on average, worse at maths than men, then women will perform worse on a maths test. This is something like that. Joanna Pitman dyed her hair blonde, and was very conscious of it, and looked at herself in the mirror all the way home. She had this image of herself as this blonde woman and when she got home she just couldn’t park her car. The book is full of great stories about blonde hair being a sexual symbol ­– and people from Roman and Greek times dying their hair using all these weird things, like horse urine and bird poo. Sometimes women went bald, because the stuff they were using wasn’t really good for them. But if they were rich, they could use the hair of German slaves and get blonde hair that way. It’s really a wonderful book.

Are most Dutch women blonde?

Not even half. But it’s a strong part of the stereotype. When I asked around for the stereotypical characteristics of Dutch women, that’s one of the things people came up with – long blonde hair, on a bicycle, hair blowing in the wind, very free. So I really thought I should have a chapter on it in my book – also because, of course, I’m blonde myself.

You are?

Yes, so I’m very used to being joked about. There are lots of jokes about blonde hair. Is it the same in the US? That women with blonde hair are not only sexually attractive but also very stupid?

Yes, I think that’s pretty universal.

I was afraid so.

What other insights did you get into blonde hair?

In my book, I also wrote about why blonde hair should be considered so attractive. You couldn’t really imagine a book written about brown hair, or black hair. There’s something about blonde hair that’s really interesting, and why is that? According to some scientists it’s because you can spot more easily if someone is healthy – because blonde hair goes together with light skin and on light skin you can spot imperfections more readily. Also, with blonde hair and light skin, you can see fairly easily if someone is sexually interested – because people see blushing more readily on light skin. Maybe that is something that explains the connection between sexual attractiveness and blonde hair. And once that association was made – between sex and blonde hair – all women tried to dye their hair, and tried to be blonde, even if they had brown hair originally.

Do you feel, personally, that it’s better to be blonde?

I wouldn’t know. I’ve never dyed my hair dark. That’s something you have to ask someone who has had their hair both colours. I do think it’s different. One of the things Joanna Pitman told me is that she felt happier when she was a blonde. I can understand that. Your day brightens up. If you look in the mirror and your hair is very blonde, it feels like you’ve been on a summer holiday and your hair is bleached by the sun and the sea. It does feel very good.

Your next book isn’t specifically about Dutch women, but more about Dutch people in general?

It’s actually about people in general. Matthijs van Boxsel has been working on a long-term project, which is an encyclopaedia of stupidity. He lists all the ways in which people are stupid. His main theory is that, unlike other animals, people are self-destructive by nature. If you are self-destructive, you need to evolve some kind of ability to overcome all the bad things that you do to yourself – and that is what he calls intelligence. As a species, human beings have to overcome their own stupidity by becoming intelligent, according to him. I really like that theory. I talked to him about Dutch people. “Do we have a specific type of stupidity?” I asked him. He said, “Well, when the first people came here, there was almost no land, it was just water. They should have just rowed on, but no, they had to live here.” He says, essentially, that the Dutch have been finding ways to fight water through all these centuries and we have become very good at it. Most of our land is below sea level and we still have to fight water constantly.

In what way are Dutch women stupid?

There’s something stupid about the stereotype of the Dutch woman, who is very bossy in a relationship, while the Dutch man is very subordinate and not very macho. There are comic books and drawings from centuries ago, in which men are warned not to marry because they will be slaves to their wives. There is something of stupidity in there by both sexes: By men, that they still fall for that and get trapped in marriage, and by women, that somehow they change, that they are very sweet before marriage and very angry and bossy after marriage. There is something self-destructive in that.

Your last book is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. After you recommended it, I bought it but haven’t got very far – I don’t yet know why it’s called Freedom.

I had a theory about that, but I looked it up and it turned out to be wrong. Jonathan Franzen said in an interview why he called it Freedom, that he gave the title to the publisher because he really, really wanted to be free. My theory was rather different. In the book, some people explore their own freedom in relationships with others – there is the boy Joey, Patty’s son, who behaves very badly. He’s really seeking the edge of freedom – trying to be really free in that family, and harming other people by doing so. Later on in the novel, Patty explores her own freedom in a way that harms her husband. When I finished the book I thought it was about people seeking freedom at the cost of others. And although I can imagine people seeing the world in that way, that is something I really didn’t like about the book. People can be free and act free, and still have responsibility for other people’s feelings.

I think this idea, that you can be free, but not at other people’s expense, is a very Dutch sentiment.

Jonathan Franzen lets his characters – especially Joey and Patty – get away with being really self-interested and just pursuing their own interests without caring for the interests of the ones they love. It’s a wonderful novel, but this really gives freedom a bad name. It’s the same with Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party – which is not really a party, more of a movement. He took the word freedom, but what he means by it is that he should be free to do whatever he wants. It’s not that everybody should be free – he denies freedom to people from other cultures. He is pro-freedom, but only for people who think like he does. Both Jonathan Franzen and Geert Wilders give freedom a bad name, which is a pity, because it’s such an important concept. Personal freedom and the experience of freedom is a very important part of becoming happy. You can’t be really happy if you don’t feel free.

July 14, 2011

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Ellen de Bruin

Ellen de Bruin

Ellen de Bruin is a science reporter for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and the author of Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed. Her most recent book is Immortality, A Beginner’s Guide, a self-help book on how to live for ever. She has a PhD in psychology and her writings combine satire with serious research

Ellen de Bruin

Ellen de Bruin

Ellen de Bruin is a science reporter for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and the author of Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed. Her most recent book is Immortality, A Beginner’s Guide, a self-help book on how to live for ever. She has a PhD in psychology and her writings combine satire with serious research