June 15, 2008

Bella figura

Angela likes to emphasize the fact that I live in Italy, "where EVERYTHING is bella figura." The term translates as "keeping up public appearances," but also applies to the literal figure they present. Italian women are more concerned with their figure than their face, and facelifts in Italy take a back burner to liposuction, breast implants and other body-based interventions. The one facial plastic surgery that is very popular in Italy is a nose job; maybe Roman noses aren’t as fashionable now as they were in ancient times?

The reason for the predominance of body-oriented cosmetic surgery is simple: if asked to name the defining element of their beauty, Italian women are likely to mention "elegance" or "style" more than a specific physical feature like eyes, teeth, or hair, and they follow the fashion trends of the moment more slavishly than their counterparts in other countries. Clothes look good on Italian women because they are well-built. They are taller and curvier than they were as recently as 20 years ago, as measured by the ratio between waist and hips, but they wear on average one size smaller than they did back then. They are also thinner than the European average, and about half as likely to be obese. In fact, they are in better shape than their French counterparts, in spite of the latter’s celebrity from the book "French women don’t get fat."

Much credit for this health and beauty is due to the famous "dieta Mediterranea", a diet emphasizing olive oil, complex carbohydrates such as pasta and rice, fresh fruit and vegetables, while low in red meat, animal fats and refined sugars. Junk food takes up entire aisles of American supermarkets; in Italy you have to look hard to find the junk food area. It exists, of course, and is expanding thanks to globalization, but is still a fraction of what you will find in the United States. The Mediterranean diet has a lot to do with good skin, attractive bodies, and general health: Italy’s population is the most aged in Europe, and Italian women live longer than women anywhere else on the continent.