Foreigners who write about Italy generally notice its women, it’s hard not to – plunging necklines, extravagant accessories, spiked heels that clatter on cobblestones somehow never slipping between the cracks, a fortune of make-up on faces surrounded by every strand of hair in place – they try and succeed in being noticed.
They make us feel dumpy and clumsy and mostly envious. Ahhhhh La Bella Figura.
"But what is behind the façade", we ask, feeling slightly superior for our lack of constant attention to outer appearances. We wear sensible shoes to do our errands in Rome.
Then there is Grazia. I met her on Tuesday at a TTO open mike session organized by an American woman who works in the field of gender equality in developing countries. We had to go around the room and each tell a story about how we had done something tough, fearless, maybe a little crazy, surely gutsy and perhaps outrageous. (TTO stands for “That Takes Ovaries” to distinguish women’s bold and daring acts from those of men).
Well, the sweet, pretty, quiet Italian thirty something sitting at the end of the sofa looking very demur and proper told us where she has been for the past two months – on an oil pipeline barge with 180 men and no other women. While they lay the pipeline, she observed the effects of its construction on marine mammals in the area for a pilot project through the Ministry of the Environment. We all leaned slightly forward to hear more. While she had not been victim to any physical abuse, she had clearly suffered “mobbing” and had lived virtually in isolation for the period. But she did her job and said that, if asked, would do it again.
So the next time you think that Italian women are a step behind us in the independence field, think of Grazia and think again. The lesson from Italian women is that you can comfortably live the ambiguity of being concerned with how you present yourself within the concept of La Bella Figura while also being someone with whom men have to reckon. TTO to Grazia!