Do women in Italy wear underwear? an unknown person typed in a search engine and, somehow, landed on our blog. Among the more prosaic search terms that lead to Campari and Sofa, this question stood out. What prompted someone to wonder? Was it a woman embarking on her first trip to Italy, wishing to blend in with the locals? Or a man, plotting his way to second base on his upcoming vacation? And what kind of reputation do Italian women have? (for the record, I believe most do wear underwear. In fact, cute underwear stores abound).
Interestingly enough, I have been thinking about the difference between American and European women in matters of body image and perception since my recent experience at a fancy spa in Las Vegas. When the girl who was showing me around the facilities mentioned that in the women area clothing was optional, I was both relieved and surprised, as the thought of bringing along a bathing suit to wear in the sauna or the jacuzzi didn’t even occur to me. Armed with the thick robe I was given and the occasional towel to wrap around my waist, I pranced around, without worrying for a second about being in the buff in front of other women. Apparently, I was very much alone in my line of thinking as everybody else was wearing swimwear. Was I so off base?
My friend Silvia, a frequent visitor at a spartan spa in the Alps, recently mentioned to me that men and women mingle in the sauna and the baths, and everybody is naked – she swears it’s mandatory although I am hard pressed to believe they would turn away the lonely prude who insisted on wearing swimming trunks. And no, nothing untoward ever happens.
Since I can remember, on most European beaches topless sunbathing is allowed and nudist beaches are not hard to find. Women of all ages mostly favor being on the beach without their tops on and nobody stares. In Italy in particular, for all the catcalls and sexual innuendos women have to endure during the course of their lifetime, nobody ever makes them feel uncomfortable or self-conscious for skinny dipping. Incongruities of a society where gender equality is still an uphill climb and sex, directly and indirectly, is still front and center on very many levels: on tv, in print, in daily interactions.
If feeling comfortable in one’s body is considered a mark of gender equality in Northern Europe, in the South, where women are still heavily objectified, a girl grows up to quickly realize the powers of her charms and how to put them to good use: flirting, showing some skin are often par for the course of her life. If there is a plus side to such an objectionable custom it is that Italian, French and Spanish women are, by and large, fairly comfortable in their skin. Or, at least, more comfortable than your average American.
On a macro level, in the United States maybe religion pervades popular culture more pervasively but, even among my very liberated American girlfriends, I have always noticed a certain reticence to bare all in front of each other when getting dressed, or trying on bikinis or sharing a living space when vacationing, in a way I have never experienced with my Italian girlfriends.
I have often wondered how much this reticence has to do with social mores and how much can be attributed to the fear of being judged by another woman. And this latter thought saddens me because if we cannot champion each other, if we can’t be supportive of each other’s cellulite or funny knees, who can?