I had just emerged from a dressing room in a small boutique in Tuscany when the sales assistant squealed, “This dress looks so good on you. I wish I lived in a city where this bravery was allowed.”
By bravery, she didn’t just mean wearing a short, formfitting dress whose fabric was slightly draped at the sides, which gave it the appearance of something out of a late-1940s comic strip—she meant having the audacity to wear that type of garment as a woman who was not stick-thin.
At first, I felt a disconnect: I had been wearing hip-hugging, high-waisted jeans for years, and nobody had ever praised my bravery. Then it dawned on me: For the past three years, I’ve lived in the U.S., but in my native Italy, beauty standards are different.
“You have a Beyoncé body,” an American male friend told me a couple of years ago, despite my being Caucasian. “You’re so thick,” my boyfriend (also American), who has a track record of emaciated love interests, often tells me. In 2017, these could be interpreted as compliments in the U.S., so that’s how I choose to take them.
Let’s just say that my body doesn’t earn the same type of praise in Italy.
We have a real disconnect between real and perceived image, to the point that many Italian women avoid a lot of types of garments, activities, and ambitions because they feel they are not up to the task.
You see, for Italian standards, I have the wrong type of curves: My relatively small bust is offset by a narrow waist and hips that look… Rubenesque, for lack of a better term. If Botticellian were a word, I would happily adopt that as the main descriptor of my figure. You would think that a Mediterranean country that saw sirens such as Sofia Loren and Monica Bellucci on screen would be all about celebrating curvaceous women, but that’s not the case.
While big breasts elicit admiration from friends (and maybe a sleazy look from passers-by), a bigger bottom will always be the butt of a crass joke, causing remarks such as “We should put you on the meat slicer.”
Women’s websites and magazines are just as unforgiving: In 2016, a photo of Chloë Grace Moretz walking around in shorts was panned by a fashion journalist on the site IoDonna: “Unfortunately, Moretz is not thin enough to afford to wear those shorts unapologetically,” the caption read (it has since been deleted). This year, an article on the Instagram famous “Bambi pose” has a kicker that reads, “Weren’t last year’s flamingo-shaped floaters more photogenic than this?”
Whatever Italian magazine you open, whether it be general interest, fashion, or a random lifestyle publication, you will find ads and service pieces focusing on thigh- and butt-slimming lotions (“Lose up to 5 cm!!!”) right next to chest-plumping products that will promise you that your boobs will go up one cup size in a month.
Things are not so body positive on social media either.
A couple of years ago, an Italian influencer who had recently lost a lot of weight launched a “motivational” campaign on Instagram and Twitter called #civediamoaluglio (#seeyouinjuly) to encourage her followers to work on their problem areas. The participants verbally chastised each other when they were giving up along the way. A tweet reading “I found a Lindor praline in my pocket, I feel like Rose clutching the Heart of the Ocean” got the reply “Good. Now throw it away, just like she did.”
Such campaigns never elicit horrified reactions. I can’t imagine what the backlash on sites like Jezebel or the likes would be like, had an influencer famous in the English-speaking world started a similar initiative.
As the digital entrepreneur and speaker Veronica Benini told me over email, “Italian women feel ugly and fat compared to the beauty standard that TV and the media promote; yet on average, Italian women are pear-shaped.” Benini, who lived in Argentina, Italy, and France throughout her life and worked as an architect before becoming a digital entrepreneur, has been promoting the beauty of bigger butts via her blog, classes, and speaking engagements since 2011.
“We have a real disconnect between real and perceived image, to the point that many Italian women avoid a lot of types of garments, activities, and ambitions because they feel they are not up to the task, and when I say ‘up to the task,’ I refer to their [perceived] physical appearance,” she sahres.
The standard Benini refers to was originally set by Italian vallette, our own Italian-certified version of “showgirls.” A product of the TV networks owned by Berlusconi since the ’80s, they are supposed to perform basic dance routines and have a supporting role to the anchor or conductor of a TV program while wearing skimpy costumes, treading the mostly nonexistent line between irony and debasement. Their beauty is supposed to convey both “girl-next-door” and “bombshell” charm. This results in casting directors choosing tall, slender women with medium to large breasts and narrow hips (my guess is that they are toying with innocence versus eroticism).
As objectifying and grotesque as this figure might be, being a valletta is the ultimate springboard in Italian entertainment: The most successful ones date soccer players, become TV and radio hosts, and, in rare cases, get important roles in movies.
Looking like one of them becomes an aspiration, in all its aspects. Personally, I never fantasized about being in the entertainment industry: I was a nerdy teenager who liked to write, read, draw, and play video games, and I had chosen classics as my major.
Nonetheless, it bothered me that my body was not considered standardly beautiful, and I endured my own body-hating drama with a lot of self-loathing and a lot of passivity: By 2013, my severe allergy-induced asthma worsened, thus preventing me from doing any type of cardio activity. “You lost weight, but your butt is still big and fat,” my ex would half-jokingly reprimand me. He was convinced that women would experience physical decay by age 27, and he thought I was inching closer and closer to that doom.
To make up for the lack of cardio in my life, I purchased the Ballet Beautiful DVDs. Pilates-inspired toning exercises seemed promising, but too many reps, a lack of variety, and the instructor’s sing-songy voice coupled with music box–like background music eventually creeped me out. Eventually, I flushed my dream of achieving a dancer’s body down the drain.
Not that I had much time for that: I was about to move to the United States for my graduate studies, and who cares if people tell you in your face that you “look like a Grecian urn” or call your thighs “hams” (as in the pork leg) if you are about to relocate to New York?
“You lost weight, but your butt is still big and fat,” my ex would half-jokingly reprimand me.
Once I was a new starry-eyed transplant in New York, I tried to partake in a more American lifestyle by developing a workout routine. Having a commitment made me feel less lonely. Plus, my allergies were somehow nonexistent on this side of the Atlantic. This meant I could take up running in the park! One lap of Prospect Park or running alongside Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Columbia waterfront district became biweekly rituals, and serenaded by the soundtrack of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and a very campy Spotify playlist titled "Assertiveness," I started craving my early-evening run. I purchased a gym membership expensive enough to force me to attend group fitness classes four times a week. I still silently curse whenever the instructor commands we do a set of burpees, but I ultimately always have fun.
Seeing what my body could do once asthma was no longer a hindrance shifted my perception of it. It was not a piece of flabby, unsightly matter: It could actually do things, accomplish tasks, and reach goals! (The fact that I managed to break things off with my ex also gave my self-confidence a boost.)
I now have muscle definition, especially in my legs and abs. All the squats, donkey kicks, attitudes, and lunges reshaped my butt, though not in the way my native country would find attractive: Rather than shrink, it became rounder. Let’s just say that had I ever participated in the #seeyouinjuly campaign, the creator would not have been impressed. But for the first time in years, that didn’t matter to me.
What’s more, clothing stores in the U.S. are noticeably more forgiving of heftier derrieres than they used to be. Remember when the Seven jeans squeezed butts (in an effort to minimize them) in a way that tush cleavage just poured out of the waistband? And what about the Abercrombie jeggings? Fifties-style skirts were my preferred garment for a long time, as I thought it “concealed” my shape before I realized that wearing them year-round made me look like a Grease cosplayer. Now I can easily shimmy into a pair of Madewell jeans, whose high-waisted models are the most flattering on my figure.
On my last visit back home, I wanted to try on a loose silk skirt in a tiny boutique, and when I picked the sample size (Italian size 38, circa U.S. size 2) from the hanger, I asked the owner of the boutique for an Italian 44 (it corresponds to a size 8). She said she would check, but she’d rather I tried the sample first. “I sold a 40 (U.S. 4) to a woman that was, well, you know,” she told me while outlining the shape of a bottom-heavy woman with her elbows. “And it fit her!” The size 38 clung to my hips like plastic wrap.
As much as I found my stride in the U.S., every time I fly back to Italy, an experience like this inspires a hint of self-loathing to creep back in. It turns out I did put an ocean between me and my body-image issues—and they still linger in the old continent. Spending time in Italy brainwashes me into shrinking myself, but that inner critic only lasts for a week or two. As soon as I resume my everyday life in New York, among career-related frustrations, art exhibits, and side projects, concerns about my lower body just melt away.
Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
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Opening Image: Forever 21