La bella figura: body image, beauty, and street commentary in Italy

I've been thinking a lot about street harassment in Italy lately and I've come to believe that this issue, tied as it is to the very heart of the nation's character, is far more complex and multilayered than it may seem from the outside. When I first embarked for Italy seventeen years ago as a student I was in the throes of an eating disorder and did not like my body very much. I mostly blamed the media for making me feel like I had to live up to its impossible standards of beauty, so one small way I felt I could take back some power was by rejecting those standards and almost anything fashionable and/or “feminine.” I owned maybe three pairs of (flat) shoes and zero purses, wore baggy clothes to hide my body, and had four body piercings (when that was decidedly not yet mainstream).

Arriving in Italy was a shock. I was mortified by the eyes that roved up and down my body wherever I went, shrinking from what I perceived to be disapproving glances from the women, confused and annoyed when the looks led to catcalls from the men. I was amazed an entire population could be so slavish to appearance and fashion, with everyone from infants to seniors dressed in the latest colours and trends. And the Italian media was like a grotesque caricature of everything I’d bemoaned back home. By the end of my stay I was quite sure Italy and I were completely mismatched.

Ironically, this national obsession with la bella figura became one of the things I love about Italy. Almost from the moment my plane landed back in Toronto all those years ago, I began conspiring to move back. I think I had been so focused on my insecurities that I hadn’t truly processed all the beauty around me, not to mention the impassioned approach to life (especially work-life balance) that paralleled my own. With the perspective afforded by transoceanic distance, I realized I’d fallen in love with Italy despite myself.

When I finally moved back four years later, I was a different woman--far more confident and ready to let Italy’s charms sweep me off my feet. In the process, I wound up discovering a "femme" side of myself that I’d suppressed for years. I had actually been rather proud of how masculine I was in many ways; this and my rejection of fashion had felt very feminist (even if I still didn't identify as such). Now I discovered how empowering it could feel to creatively control how I presented myself to the world. I also befriended strong stylish women who showed me embracing fashion didn't have to equal being shallow.

I’ve now lived in Italy for a total of ten years and the collective experience has left me ambivalent. While I find it gloriously liberating to have entered the signora phase in which my appearance is no longer hardly ever commented upon by male passersby, I’m ashamed to admit there is a part of me that also misses the validation. There, I said it. It's true I’m more confident now, especially since becoming a mother, but I’m also a western woman living in the 21st century, which means I’ve been raised to measure my worth by my appearance and apparent youth, whether I like it or not. The yawning absence of attention that comes with a certain age for women in Italy makes it impossible to ignore that we’re getting older and therefore losing our primary source of cachet and power in this society.

That's why, last year, when a not-unattractive man on a bike paid me a compliment as I rode past him, I couldn't help it: I was flattered. I mentioned it [on a previous blog], saying my reaction confused me. A fellow expat friend left this comment:

Don't let it confuse the Feminist in you. We are a different breed of Feminists, those of us here in Italy; we are descendants of an offshoot of Neoplatonists and we love admiring our beautiful men as they whisk by us on their bikes.

She nailed what's at the heart of my ambivalence. As a connoisseur of beauty, of course it's pleasing to know others see it in me too. Unabashedly assessing appearances is literally a centuries-old practice here. Was Michelangelo’s profound appreciation of the ideal male nude superficial? Is it shallow to swoon over a gorgeous view of the Tuscan countryside? When I was back living in Toronto--where the pavements, the sky, the relentless grind of the rat race often felt so grey--I realized that for me, beauty helps make the banality of daily life bearable. When things are tough, beauty lifts me up, acts as a balm.

I find something noble about the Italian appreciation for beauty. Calling something bello is the highest compliment, and it's just as often used in reference to the non-physical realm. As Tracy Wilkinson wrote in Italy's Beautiful Obsession, here, beauty "governs behavior, language, customs; it directs the etiquette of business dealings and the machinations of politics." Ciao bellache bello--everyone's familiar with these classic Italian expressions, and that's because beauty is inextricably linked with seemingly every aspect of life in Italy.

There is also something--dare I say it?--respectful about how some Italian men deliver their admiring words on the street. (Note I did not say all). This would probably horrify activists like Holly Kearl, author of the book and website Stop Street Harassment, who would say there's no such thing as "respectful" "street commentary."  She even singles out Italy as one of three examples (along with Egypt and Japan) that "[stand] out because of their growing bad reputation for harassment." However, Kearl also says elsewhere in her book that the rate rape in the U.S. is 23 times that of Italy--another sign things are far from cut-and-dry here.

Through Kearl, I learned I have something in common with the woman in this iconic 1951 photograph by Ruth Orkin, An American Girl in Italy (taken near Piazza Repubblica in Florence):


As it turns out, 83-year-old Ninalee Craig now lives in my hometown of Toronto. And while people like Kearl insist on making Craig their poster girl, she will have none of it. As she told the Globe and Mail:

In my history with the picture, many women resent the image. They think it’s insulting. They think I couldn’t walk down the street without being bothered. But I call it being appreciated. I wasn’t being harassed.

It's a VERY tricky, sticky issue. One could argue that it's not harassment if the woman herself says she doesn't mind it. The problem is that the line between innocuous and bothersome is hella tenuous. And if public space is hostile to one woman, it's hostile to all women. Just because some women aren't bothered by it does not make it acceptable. More importantly, just because some Italians are gentler about it, does not make it OK. In fact, I suspect if I were blond or a woman of colour I would feel decidedly less ambivalent about the situation in Italy. Yes, women may also appreciate the beauty of men on the streets, but they would never dare call out to them. This common Italian practice is profoundly intertwined with this country's machismo culture, which renders its public space intensely masculine. As Emanuela Guano says in her article "Respectable Ladies and Uncouth Men," (Journal of American Folklore, vol 120, n.475, winter 2007):

There is little question that Italian streets are a male domain. ... Polemical though they might be, the messages sprayed on the stuccos, marbles, and frescoes ... invariably posit a hypermasculine and mandatorily heterosexual subject for statements such as "I want pussy not war" (Voglio la fica non la guerra), or "The supporters of Genoa [soccer team] are all fags" (Genoani froci).

Guano also includes a quote by Donald Pitkin about the passeggiata, the ritual evening promenade Italians regularly take dressed in their "Sunday best," that I think explains a lot:

In the ritual of the passeggiata the ordinary citizen is making a [bella] figura, an impression, in a manner analogous to that once undertaken by the circulation of the well-born and nobility in the grand salon of patrician palaces. That aspect of personhood which figura refers to is an expression of the interaction between personal aspiration and assessment by others.

This is not to say Italians can't make progress, however incremental. In 2005 the Italian Supreme Court decreed the infamous national pastime of bum-pinching a form of sexual assault. This was followed by some outcry, of course. Italian social justice for women is still a few decades behind North America. But let's face it, Italians will never stop blatantly checking each other out and exalting la bella figura. So rather than expecting this to change, I'll fantasize about the day Italian public space is neutralized to the point that women feel comfortable making (respectful) street commentary--Che figo! (What a hottie!)--right alongside the men.

(Update: Holly Kearl herself responded to a link I posted to this piece: "Hi - this is Holly Kearl! For me, street harassment is about lack of consent, as long as there is consent, no prob w/flirting, etc, on the st." Isn't the Internet amazing?)