October 02, 2023
I first became familiar with the phrase la bella figura from a brightly yellow book cover that read Bella Figura by Kamin Mohammadi, browsing through a Feltrinelli bookstore in the heart of Rome after having just moved to the Eternal City in the midst of a hot and, nonetheless humid, July. Dressed in gym shorts and an oversized t-shirt, which I soon would realize is a big no-no to wear in everyday life except going to the gym, I was unphased with my outfit and beyond-controllable hair. I went on my merry way with my new purchase in hand, excited to dive into a new world of cultural concepts and beliefs. After all, Rome was my new home, and I was over the moon to learn how to fit in.
Quite literally, "la bella figura" is an Italian phrase that translates to "the beautiful figure" in English. It is often used to describe someone who presents themselves in a polished manner, maintaining a positive and elegant image in both appearance and behavior. It emphasizes the importance of personal presentation and making a good impression in social or professional settings, which, before three years ago, was sometimes the last thing on my mind as my native language, English has no word or phrase to describe this phenomenon that the Italian language does so eloquently.
I began observing the rhythms, routines, and presentations of Italians around me to see what this bella figura was all about. And despite lusciously trimmed hair, tailored suits, and heavy doses of perfume, which, don't get me wrong, is one piece to the 'beautiful figure' puzzle, la bella figura goes beyond physical appearance. It has much more to do with dignity, savoring the moment, and self-respect, which I had been lacking at the time. For example, meals are never rushed or skipped. Coffee breaks are sometimes longer than ten minutes, going to the outdoor market to purchase seasonal produce is a right of passage, and sitting down for a glass of wine with a friend in an open piazza is not a threat or reward but a ritual that Italians believe we all deserve. And piano-piano (slowly, slowly), I began to think that I deserve these moments throughout my day, too, and so do you.
While bella figura includes aspects such as dressing well and having good manners, the most pivotal realization for me is that it also encompasses accepting and embracing different body types as a form of self-respect. In Italy, I started to observe beauty centering around confidence and self-acceptance rather than subscribing to a specific body ideal and physical perfection. After growing up in America and falling victim to negative body talk, I was blinded by this notion in the beginning. I failed to accept that by not respecting my body and myself, there was an ora in my presence that reflected this negativity in society: the way I spoke, the way I dressed, and the way I walked.
In Italy, I began surrounding myself with women and men who embodied this belief. I observed that Italians tend to appreciate a variety of body shapes and sizes, celebrating natural curves and imperfections, as this acceptance is deeply rooted in Italian culture, where food plays a significant role and indulgence is seen as a form of pleasure, not something we must earn and work for. It wasn't until my first Italian summer, when I was seated amongst complete strangers that I was taught this philosophy of Italian life when a box of pastries was being passed around from one Neapolitan stranger to the next, all dressed in swimwear (it is not uncommon to see women and men of different body types enjoying themselves at the beach or pool in their bikinis, without feeling self-conscious or feeling the need to cover up, which to me was beyond refreshing), smiling, and relatively high on life. Food is meant to be enjoyed without fear or judgment. It is about listening to our bodies, being mindful of what we eat, and savoring every bite, despite the number on the scale or how many wrinkles we can count on both hands.
My journey in Italy has taught me to appreciate the beauty of food, the beauty of life, and most importantly, the beauty of myself for who I am. To me this is what la bella figura truly is all about: getting dressed every morning with a smile on my face despite gaining a few extra pounds and radiating positivity and self-love, because after all, life is meant to be enjoyed, and Italians know how to enjoy life the right way.
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Words and Photographs by Gabriela R. Proietti