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Food culture

How Italy Changed My Body Image

“Discovering the true meaning behind “bella figura” and rebuilding my relationship with food.”

I was fortunate to grow up in a household snuggled in a colorful, culturally diverse neighborhood of South Philadelphia, known for its Italian communities. I am the daughter of 1st generation Italian-Americans and was reminded each day of where my family came from, the importance of my Italian heritage, history, roots, and sacrifice. I was surrounded by people of pride, traditions, determination, and of course, food. 

Our recipes and dishes were some of the only things left from the homeland; my family clung to them as a constant reminder of their culture and memories they continued to carry while finding new life in America. From big Sunday lunches, to holidays and celebrations, hours were spent in the kitchen watching my grandmothers work hours on end to perfect each and every plate. Undoubtedly it was labor, but a labor of love. Food was not only something we ate, food became a part of our identity.  

As my youthful years quickly passed, my perception began to shift and my views around food became blurred. There was a big “healthy” movement in the United States that became consuming in my teenage years that would stay with me up until my early adulthood. Suddenly pasta was evil because society said it was. Carbs were evil. Food was no longer simply food, there were moral repercussions. I remember the disbelief on my Italian mother’s face the first time I told her I couldn’t eat pasta anymore. All the foods I loved, foods that were symbols of my family, their life and love, and our heritage, were off-limits, untouchable, and unfathomable to even think about eating once more. 

“But Gabriela, you love pasta! We eat pasta every week, every day. It’s only water and flour, why all of a sudden is pasta unhealthy?” The narrative of health and wellness is a slippery slope in America that I quickly fell down. It wasn’t until I moved to Italy when culture shock began to settle in, not necessarily from the way Italians dressed, moved, or spoke, but how they ate, their mindsets, life philosophies, la bella figura. I was experiencing an existential identity crisis, I didn’t know how to eat, I had lost a relationship with food, body, and self. 

Here in Rome, I became consumed with the daily rhythms of life around food. The way Italians view food, pick food, cook food, eat food goes completely against everything I had believed and convinced myself of for the past 10+ years. Spending hours at a local bar, fixated on how coffee with real, whole milk and a lightly sweetened pastry was an everyday norm, even more so a ritual and social experience, without a second thought. The pleasure Italians had with each and every bite or each sip from their perfectly frothed cappuccino was palpable. But for me after living in Rome for nearly 1.5 years, I never once found the courage to order a cornetto con crema or cappuccino without battling the war going on inside my head. 

There was guilt and shame. Shame for eating food that I loved, but wasn’t “allowed” to have. I had to earn the food. Food isn’t earned here in Italy, food is celebrated. The mealtime is sacred, and there is no magical equation involved. Indulgence is allowed because Italians honor their intuition, trust, and peace. There was the voice, replaying the same narrative in my head, calories in, calories out. You didn’t exercise enough today, so there’s no way you can ever eat an entire pizza! 

It wasn’t until a trip to Naples that I realized that maybe the voice in my head doesn’t always exist. Or if so, there is a different voice that exists. Health and wellness are at the root of the culture, but the perception is completely reversed. Instead of thinking of pasta as rich in carbs, the voice buzzing in an Italian’s mind thinks how long should it be cooked, which vegetables are in season to compliment the dish, or what is the perfect pairing wine. 

I was sitting in Naples, on a few rocks along the Borgo Marinari, surrounded by laughter from local Neapolitans, sunshine, and a decadent smell that will never leave my memory. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a Pasticceria box full of Graffa Napoletana, the lightly sweetened fried donut ring carefully dusted in a thin coat of crystalline sugar. After befriending the men and women around me, they insisted for me to enjoy one too – the warm hospitality I cherish. Without hesitation, I reached into the box. So there it was, one of the first moments after a nearly 12-year hiatus, the moment I ate the decadent pastry, savoring every bite, tears in my eyes not from guilt or shame, but celebration and breakthroughs. 

I quickly struck up a conversation with one of the Napoletana women sitting in front of me while eating our sweet treats. Her radiance and grace was magnetic; not just her looks, but down to the way she took each bite, without a flinch. I quickly told her I was on a diet, but the pastry was worth every morsel and I thanked her. She quickly eyed me up and down and looked at me. 

“You need to love yourself, you don’t love yourself. But try to.”… “guarda” she continues ‘Look at these flaws. There are imperfections everywhere. Our bodies are our homes. Our bodies hold memories, stories. What is beauty? It is not vanity, it is self-love. We women never ever leave the house without our confidence. If you love yourself, you will eat what you want without fear and be thankful for it.” 

Her words, so pure and raw, echoed in my head. This was the realization I had been searching for, coming when I least expected it, and that is this: Attitude is everything. The Italian diet is more than the physical food itself. It is a lifestyle, a lifelong ebbing and flowing philosophy. It’s how you listen, feel, speak, walk, talk. The emotional, physical, and mental parts of being human. It’s mindfulness. 

There is a confidence that Italian women and men profoundly exude. In my past, the months leading up to summer was a time for deprivation, strictness, rules, and negative self-talk. Here in Italy, the body is sacred, celebrated no matter the age, size, or number. My moment of truth was here, amongst complete strangers, who showed me that life is meant to be lived and enjoyed, something I couldn’t fully embrace because of my insecurities. A body is a body, and a bathing suit is something you wear, not something you have to earn. Weight is only a number, not a burden. 

There is a beautiful flow in Italy that I have come to realize and adopt, although slowly and skeptically. Thank you Italy, and more importantly, the beautiful souls I have met thus far for teaching me how to eat again and see my body in a different light. Food is not macronutrients, shame, guilt, morality, or evil. Food is love, food is tradition, food is pleasure, food is nourishing, food is seasonal.