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, form-fitting dress with fabric slightly draped at the sides, which gave it the sultry appearance of something out of a late-1940s comic strip. She, unfortunately, 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 the fact that I'm Caucasian. “You’re so thick,” my boyfriend (also American), who has a track record of going for thinner love interests, often tells me. These can 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.
In Italy, there's a huge dissonance between real bodies and the "ideal," to the point that many Italian women avoid activities and even clothes because of their bodies.
Italian Beauty Culture
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, but I think you get the picture. You would think that the Mediterranean country responsible for putting sirens such as Sofia Loren and Monica Bellucci on screen would be intent on celebrating curvaceous women, but that’s just not the case.
While big breasts drive admiration from friends (and maybe a sleazy look from passers-by), a bigger bottom will always receive a crass joke, eliciting remarks such as “We should put you on the meat slicer.”
Italian 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). In 2017, 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're likely to find ads and service pieces focusing on thigh- and butt-slimming lotions (“Lose up to 5 cm!!!”) right next to chest-plumping products that promise your boobs will go up one cup size in a month.
The Impact of Social Media
And we haven't even gotten to social media.
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 if they were giving up along the way. A tweet that read “I found a Lindor praline in my pocket, I feel like Rose clutching the Heart of the Ocean” received the reply “Good. Now throw it away, just like she did.”
That campaign and others like it never elicit the horrified reactions in Italy they would in the United States. I can’t imagine what the backlash on sites like Jezebel would be, 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 has 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 shares.
Beauty in Italian Entertainment
The standard Benini refers to was originally set by Italian vallette, our own version of “showgirls.” A product of the TV networks owned by Berlusconi since the ’80s, they're made 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. Because of this, casting directors choose tall, slender women with medium to large breasts and narrow hips—my guess is that they are toying with innocence versus eroticism.
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.
As objectifying as this figure might be, and as grotesque as you may find it, 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 my studies centered around classics.
Nonetheless, it bothered me that my body was not considered beautiful, and I endured my own body-hatred 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 physically decay by age 27, and thought I was inching closer and closer to that doom.
Finding the Right Workout Routine
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 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” if you're about to relocate to New York?
Once I was a 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! Lapping Prospect Park or running alongside Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Columbia waterfront district became a biweekly ritual. I chose to be serenaded by the soundtrack of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and a very campy Spotify playlist titled "Assertiveness." Eventually, 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.
American vs. Italian Beauty Culture
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, as the high-waisted ones are 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 bit of self-loathing to creep back in. It turns out I did put an ocean between me and my body image issues—but 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, between career-related frustrations, art exhibits, and side projects, concerns about my lower body just melt away.