(Photo: Legendary Italian singer, Mina Mazzini)
“I'm tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin-deep. That's deep enough. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?”
Ok, let’s go over the checklist. Hair? Properly ironed. Make-up? Done, except for the lip gloss, which I’ll apply right before I go out the door. Clothes? Fashionable and suitably accessorized. Shoes? Comfortable low-heeled boots, with a sparkly little band around the ankle. Perfume? Of course, no woman is complete without it. Today’s choice is “Crystal Noir” by Versace. Purse? For this excursion I think I’ll go with the black leather Valentino. Checklist complete, and now I’m ready.
Am I going on a date perhaps? Off to a job interview? Meeting friends for a special lunch? No…I’m going to buy potatoes.
There’s a lot of work that goes into being a female in Italy. And for those of us not born here, there’s a lot to learn. Even if it’s to run to the vegetable stand or take out the trash, “Una donna deve essere sempre una donna,” that is to say, “A woman should always be a woman.” So what does it actually mean to be a woman in Italy? Italian women are known around the globe for their beauty, grace, and unmitigated style. And there’s a good reason for that. They work hard at it, and training begins at birth. The importance of a “bella figura” or “good image” is everything. A “bella figura” is not limited to physical appearance, but it certainly starts there. The way one displays oneself visually is how they introduce themselves to the world, and if the image one presents is one of a well dressed, elegant, and proper lady (or gentleman for that matter), then the battle for the “bella figura” is all but won.
And if you make a mistake, there is a good chance that you might be told. When I arrived in Italy, I had just spent the previous four and a half years as an art student. For me, quirky was cool, and the fashion philosophy that I had adopted at University, I was to learn, stood in direct contrast to Italian standards. One eye-opening Sunday evening for me, I was standing in the piazza talking with friends, and taking part in the Sunday evening tradition of the “passeggiata,” where everyone in the town comes out to see and be seen. At a certain point, I noticed an elderly man looking at me rather intently, but being quite tall, I found myself being stared at fairly regularly, so didn’t really give this man’s fixed gaze much heed. That is until he walked over to me, pointed directly at my shoes and in a voice that sounded like a stern teacher correcting the mistake of a young student, he ordered me to go home and change. I was speechless. He stated in a rather loud voice, “Those shoes do NOT go with what you’re wearing, young lady!” I felt my cheeks go red as numerous faces all around the piazza turned in my direction, looked me up and down, and with disapproving shakes of their heads, returned to their interrupted conversations. The aged gentleman’s daughter came running up to him, and taking him by the arm, said, “Papà! Let’s go…come on now.” She looked at me, apologetically tried to smile, and started to lead the old man back to their group. She reprimanded him quietly, but I could hear him defending his position as they walked slowly away. “Yes, yes, I know…but just look at her! She’s a mess!”
I was left in the uncomfortable position of trying to pretend that this little scene hadn’t just struck a very deep chord in me. My insides were vibrating as if someone had just hit a giant gong in my abdomen. I hadn’t felt this publicly embarrassed since the horrors of my ineptitude in grade school gym class. A mess? Me? I was at a complete loss. All this fuss over my shoes? What was wrong with wearing clunky, dirty hiking boots with a long velvet skirt anyway?
Well, in the halls of a college art school, there was nothing wrong with such a combination. But on a Sunday-best evening in a piazza in Italy, it was a fashion faux-pas that was to begin a radical change in how I looked at femininity, and myself.
In America, I always felt that I was a person first and a woman second. Here in Italy, the line between the two is blurred, and what I had always seen as two separate things, blend together as one, but with perhaps a greater emphasis placed on being “woman” more than anything. However, for many looking in from the outside, it may seem that Italy is behind in its feminist doctrine. But is it ethnocentrism that drives their judgment, or are they right?
One example of what some would call a feminist failing, are the omnipresent, scantily clad dancing girls that bounce around, flipping their hair and pouting into the camera on every game show on Italian television. They have no relevance to the game by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve yet to hear any of my Italian female friends complain. On the contrary, they find the girls adorable. In an article in the Financial Times (July 13, 2007) entitled “Naked Ambition,” author Adrian Michaels asks “Do Italians, particularly Italian women, really think it acceptable to sell primetime quiz shows on terrestrial television by trying to stir the male genitalia instead of viewers’ brains? Or are they instead happy with life as it is – beautiful, flirtatious and with a supply of great shoes?” The article goes on to explore the two sides of the issue, that on the one hand, the idea of a feminist movement in Italy, ended some time ago and shows no sign of reviving, leaving many problems for women as a result. On the other hand, it shows no sign of reviving because for the most part, people seem to be happy with (or perhaps simply accustomed to) the gender roles in Italy.
It is more than certain that there is much progress to be made in terms of women’s roles in business and politics, but a woman’s role in the culture of Italy is, without a doubt, central. Italian culture is founded on art, beauty and aesthetics, and the Italian woman reflects that part of her culture with such refinement and sophistication, that despite the go-go girl mentality of Italian television and advertising, I don’t see them as being repressed at all. Every Italian woman that I know personally, I envy for her strength of character, her resilient nature, her patience, sense of humor, and her beauty, both inner and outer. They know the power that their femininity brings them, and they use it skillfully and wisely, not seeing themselves as victims at all, but quite simply and honorably, as women.
Personally, I don’t see myself as having changed dramatically in my feminine views since living in Italy, as much as grown. For whatever pros or cons are involved, I think I’ve finally discovered that it’s fun to be a girl.