Italy's Beautiful Obsession

Times Staff Writer

In this land where beauty is an obligation and a time-consuming chore, it's difficult to be ugly.

"Italians are overwhelmed by narcissism," complains an exasperated Telesforo Iacobelli, who organized the Ugly Club -- Club dei Brutti -- to give, as he puts it, a voice to the unattractive.

They are a distinct minority.

It is here, after all, where female garbage collectors sweep Rome's cobblestoned streets wearing immaculate makeup and chic hairstyles worthy of fashion models, and where your plumber arrives dressed better than many American business executives.

It is here that the use of cellular phones as fashion accessories began, and where you have to look hard to find an obese youth. And it is here where even in withering summer heat, men and women, perfectly pedicured, meticulously manicured, toned and tanned, seem not to sweat.

Worship of beauty has, of course, been at the heart of Italian art and culture for centuries. But today, the quest to be beautiful is changing the way Italians eat and play, and mass media are changing the very definition of what beauty is.

The plump Italian ideal of years ago has been replaced with an emphasis on staying youthful and thin. Consequently, lunches of boiled vegetables are replacing plates of pasta in many restaurants.

Gyms work overtime, and "aesthetic medicine" to prevent wrinkles and combat cellulite is no longer the purview of the rich and famous; the most humble store clerk gets her nips and shots during a break. Nor is it the purview of women; more and more men are seeking help to look great.

With these very modern pursuits of diet and body-sculpting, Italians are in fact carrying on the time-honored tradition of the bella figura: presenting the best possible appearance at all times and at any cost.

The concept of bella figura, of making a good impression, underpins nearly every aspect of Italian society. It starts with the physical and superficial but goes beyond. It governs behavior, language, customs; it directs the etiquette of business dealings and the machinations of politics.

"It's strutting your stuff, putting on the dog, looking good, and it carries over into everything," said Gloria Nardini, a writer who lectures on contemporary Italian culture at Florence's Institute of Fine and Liberal Arts at Palazzo Rucellai. "Italians tend to think of it as something their grandmothers did, not something [they] pay attention to now. But they do.

"The bella figura is the public performance," she said, "and it is deeply ingrained in Italians."

Nardini, who has found scholarly references to the bella figura dating back to the 1400s, said it also forms the basis for codes of honor that reign strong throughout the Mediterranean where Romans colonized -- but especially so in Italy.

Maintaining the honor of the family, ensuring that its members always appear honorable, is paramount. Dishonoring the family, bringing about public shame, is the opposite of bella -- it is the brutta figura.

But bella figura can also give way to hypocrisy and dishonesty: the compliment paid falsely, the promises made cavalierly and insincerely, all for the sake of appearance and in the desire to curry favor.

The concept of bella figura goes a long way in explaining Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, both how he operates and why Italians support him.

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man and one of the most powerful billionaires on the planet, wears the finest suits, is perpetually tanned and surrounded by a beautiful wife and family. He speaks with great flourish and fanfare -- even though what he sometimes says would probably lead to the downfall of a less adept politician, or one held more accountable.

Sociologist Franco Ferrarotti said Italy's obsession with appearance allows political leaders to ignore substance in favor of style.

"Ethics become aesthetics: You no longer have ethical problems, only aesthetical ones," he said. "Morality -- a set of rules -- no longer exists, only morale -- how you feel today."

Berlusconi has made some doozies of diplomatic gaffes recently, but unless he brings major embarrassment to Italy, he is not likely to suffer domestically, analysts say. So far, any embarrassment has been minimal. To the contrary, his flamboyance is approved of because it raises Italy's profile on the world stage.

"It functions wonderfully in terms of political power if you know how to make a bella figura," Ferrarotti said. "You are likely to win consensus, to smile at people. They smile back at you even if they don't have reason to smile or be smiled at. The political discourse becomes an exchange of special feelings irrespective of issues at hand."

The television stations that earned Berlusconi part of his vast fortune have helped reshape the very ideal of beauty in Italy. Blond models are as buxom as they are ubiquitous, but they're thin. On Berlusconi's flagship channel, the saucy American soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" is repackaged, dubbed and titled, merely, "Beautiful."

Specialists in aesthetic medicine say their business has grown by leaps and bounds in the last five years or so -- not unlike in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. In highest demand are procedures to counter the aging of skin, such as the injection of "fillers" in wrinkles. The service has become more affordable and more accessible over time, doctors say, and patients today run the gamut from ordinary workers to the idle rich.

Often, women come in with a picture from a magazine or of a local TV personality, and that's what they want to look like, said Dr. Vittorio Gennaro, who runs a clinic off Rome's Via Condotti, in the city's toniest shopping district. There, he obliges dozens of women -- and a growing number of men -- each day. Many work in the area and show up for 15-minute appointments during their lunch breaks.

"Now there's this cult of how to appear. It's almost a must to be perfect," Gennaro said. "There is a tendency towards homogenization. The same lips, the same nose, the same forehead. I think it's bad, a perverse aspect of globalization."

Some parents give their daughters breast jobs for their 18th birthday, and mothers bring 16-year-olds to doctors for advice on how to prevent their skin from aging.

A recent newspaper survey showed that another operation -- the derriere lift -- is quite popular, especially with men.

"Most people want miracles," said Dr. Emanuele Bartoletti, a plastic surgeon whose top requests are for nose jobs and liposuction. Italians are reluctant to get full face lifts, he said, because of the tell-tale tautness that follows surgery. The bella figura requires looking better, but without anyone knowing what you've done to get that way.

Italian men and women are the slimmest in all Europe except for exceedingly health-conscious Switzerland, according to data compiled by the International Obesity Task Force. Just under 10% of Italian women were judged obese; in the United States the number was 34%.

"We always want a good image, especially compared to other countries and especially northern European countries," said Carlo Pinca, an extraordinarily fit 48-year-old hairdresser and father of three adult children.

"It's like a competition: Germany, Norway -- they may be more professional in other things or have more organizational talents, but we are better at fashion and at fantasy."

Pinca owns the chichi Studio 3 beauty salon on Rome's Piazza di Spagna. He was styling the hair the other day of a parade of models who were performing in an open-air summer show in the square.

Pinca goes through periods of eating nothing but rice or lean chicken breast, and he weighs himself every morning, acutely aware of any extra fraction of a kilo. He kite-surfs and works out regularly at a gym. Gyms in Italy were once used almost exclusively by body-builders but today, as in the U.S., they attract a huge crowd of people who simply want to get and stay in shape.

Roman bars and cafes are increasingly adapting their menus to cater to Italians like Pinca. At the nearby Bar Frattina, owner Mauro Valentini says about 70% of his customers today eat boiled vegetables, green salads and yogurt with fruit for lunch, instead of the traditional pasta and secondo piatto, or main dish.

"I can see they are still hungry," he said, "but they do it for their figure."

While Iacobelli and the members of the Ugly Club see an Italy slavishly obedient to the tyranny of beauty norms, others see the regard for the bella figura as a standard that gives order to an otherwise unpredictable world.

You don't see Italian parliament members seated in shirt-sleeves questioning the prime minister, also in shirt-sleeves, as happened a few weeks ago in London during a House of Commons committee interrogation of Tony Blair. Never mind the interrogation part; it's the informality of it that would be anathema here.

You don't see Italian women walking to work in white tennis shoes, nor will you see Italian men or women in shorts in public, even when the temperature soars well into the 90s -- unless it's at the gym. Wearing such attire is like wearing a huge sign saying, I'm a foreign tourist.

The rules of business etiquette are just as strict in their adherence to decorum, hierarchy and status.

"Whether you are worth knowing and doing business with may be more important than the actual details of your proposal," advises the Italy section of executiveplanet.com, a Web site dedicated to how business is conducted in various countries.

In business meetings, it adds, materials and packaging should be pleasing to the eye. "In this culture, it's essential that things (as well as people) look good: Appearance is frequently considered more important than 'what's inside.' "

Use titles, the Web site instructs; everyone in Italy who has studied beyond high school is Dottore or Dottoressa. Don't mistake an invitation that states "informal" as really meaning jeans or T-shirts; at most, it means men can forgo the tie.

Performing the bella figura surely creates a harmony of colors and a music of movements, a seduction, an enchantment. But it is also used in Italian society to erect a facade that may conceal a different reality.

"Ugly things must be hidden, unpleasant and tragic facts swept under the carpet whenever possible," wrote Luigi Barzini in his classic 1964 psychological portrait, "The Italians." "These practices were not (as many think) developed by people who find life rewarding and exhilarating, but by a pessimistic, realistic, resigned and frightened people.

"They prefer," Barzini said, "to glide elegantly over the surface of life and leave the depths unplumbed."

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Maria De Cristofaro of The Times' Rome Bureau contributed to this report.

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