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The Beauty of the Italian Woman

“I think that to feel beautiful, it’s not the mirror that makes you feel beautiful. I think it’s love”

Monica Bellucci

Vanity, appearance, body shape  – I have written about them all but no matter how many words or thoughts have circulated through my mind, it is a topic I could still talk about for hours. Maybe because vanity is something that consumed me, one I had always set out to master – a type of unrealism because before my perception of beauty, la bellezza, meant one thing only, perfectionism. 

I admit when there are things I lack, some days self-confidence or self-love, I become fixated on others who possess what I convince myself that I don’t have. And so, I spend a lot of time observing because of my lifelong fascination with Italianisms, especially admiration for le donne. From flipping through photo albums of my Pugliese nonna in her sweet youth, watching a woman so neat and elegant in a matching tweed suit passing by on the street, or marveling at that easy Mediterranean look of Sophia Loren. “But how are Italian women SO beautiful” I would say to myself as I reach for my phone, searching, browsing, reading every article or advice column I could get my hands on, skimming for that magical formula to achieve this beauty, because “when I achieve this beauty, I will be perfect”

But what is beauty? Italian beauty for that matter. Looking at it is something that I may have lost in translation. But life here in Italy, I learn something new every day, and I would be remiss if I didn’t spotlight the strong impact the women, le donne italiane, have had on me, the secrets I have learned, philosophies I have embraced. There are the great Italian actresses, symbols of this bellezza, from Monica Bellucci to Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale just to name a few. Without a doubt there are always mamma and nonna, who embrace and pass down the same life-long reminders generationally. But these donne have many things in common: their outlook on life, but most importantly their outlook on themselves, moves far beyond any cover girl on the face of a magazine. 

Beauty to them moves beyond the reflection staring back in the mirror: it starts from within and manifests out. According to an old Italian sayingdonna specchiante poco filante” or as I read it “a woman looking in the mirror, almost too conscious of her own beauty, is not that charming”. It’s much more about caring for, nourishing, and embracing not just your body, but your entire being. And if you are my mother, who says it a bit more bluntly but nonetheless always with love and care “God made you this way, so it’s up to you to learn how you live with it.” Sometimes a tough pill to swallow if you don’t know how. 

But when it comes to these Italian women, they show me that life doesn’t need to be difficult, and I hate to break it to you, there is no 8-step routine when it comes to putting your best foot forward and embodying la bella figura. Instead, to many’s surprise, it’s quite simple. 

First things first, if Sunday is a day for prayer, let Saturday be the day for hair. Il salone di bellezza, is not just a beauty salon, but an institution for most women. If you look closely, most are small, no-frills shops, notorious for fluorescent neon lighting, and an interior that looks untouched since the 1970s. But taking an appointment weekly, or like some, bi or even tri-weekly, is not an obligation because society deemed otherwise, but rather a want, a ritual, and undoubtedly a social experience. “It’s a time to take for yourself, a form of self-care. When my hair is well-groomed, my personal preference of soft edges and pin straight lengths, I feel like my life is in order. My hair is my lifeline” a friend says to me, “I grew up watching my mother and grandmother, going to the hairdresser, never skipping a beat, the same place at the same time down to the same chair, because if one thing’s certain, Italian women aren’t known for having that magic touch when it comes to their locks, so faith and trust are put into the hands of a another. But nonetheless this social outing, it’s something that makes them feel beautiful, one that brings them immense joy.” Afterall, for them, beauty is a feeling. 

But aside from hair, what about that flawless skin, you may ask yourself? It all comes down to handling yourself with care; because for Italian women, it is not a second thought, learnt from observing others and then doing. First, there is the physical motion, and importance, of washing your face. I can still hear it now, my nonna Alice checking in every night as I nearly make it to my bed, “Gabrielaaaaa, did you remember to wash your face?!” But her medicine cabinet, and now mine, was never lined with extravagant washes and creams, nor does it need to be, just warm water, some soap if you please, and lot’s of moisturizer but never creams; instead olive oil, especially after long days under the sun, days that filled her up with pure joy. This woman put every ounce of her faith into this magical, moisturizing liquid, a few drops here, a few drops there, hands, face, hair, you name it. But she’s not the only one, just ask Sophia Loren, it was her weapon, too! 

Apart from the physical, influenced by Sophia or your nonna herself, Italian women have shown me that no matter how many times you “wash your face”, if you don’t nourish yourself internally, love yourself, fill yourself up with joy and become high on life, your skin will always reflect this. Always. And I think that is something I admire most about this bellezza Italiana. Sure, no Italian woman would ever turn down a great lipstick or a bit of foundation here and there, Miss Lollobrigida herself sees her face as a blank canvas, a space to create art. But never with an intention to transform the face, cover-up wrinkles, or aim for a younger appearance. Beauty is all about learning to love your features, enhancing them, embracing every dent and curve,  finding what works, but never to make them, or yourself, smaller. Because as Bellucci believes, confidence is more sexy than anything else. 

Ultimately Italian women have taught me that there is this innate belief that women more than deserve to play the role they have earned in society. These strong females know their opinions and contributions are valued, they embrace their femininity, personality, style, and let these attributes absolutely shine through their presence. They’re graceful, fearless, happy, and curious. A very liberating and amazingly free way to live life, no? This is what beauty is all about, afterall. It’s not perfectionism.

So when someone asks me what I want to be, who inspires me most, I say with the utmost sincerity,  honesty, and nonetheless, pride, “an Italian Woman!” 

© Pamela Hanson, 1994