(Photo Courtesy of Michele Bommezzadri)
When I first moved to Italy a friend of mine asked half joking, “Are all of the women fat and hairy?”
He had no idea how untrue this image, perhaps perpetrated by Italian-American movies with plump and happy Italian mammas shouting, “Mangia! Mangia!” is.
Italians are skinny. Both the men and the women. The majority of bodies that walk past me in every city and village I have been too are often model-thin from ages 15-40, and healthfully slender or well-built past the age of 40. Yes, there are obviously many exceptions to the rule, but as a whole this is a slender country.
It was a fascinating mystery to me when I arrived in Italia, being that its main product, aside from beautiful bodies, is the most delicious carb- and fat-based foods. I mean, they eat chunks of seasoned lard (lardo) for God’s sake.
So how do they do it?
I liked to lie to myself for a while by thinking that maybe they have these exceptional genes that simply process pasta and pork fat in a way that we non-Italians could only dream. And we Americans also like to pass it off as, “Well, they walk so much more than us.”
It’s not true.
Here’s the secret of the thin Italians: They don’t eat. Or, more truthfully, they’ve learned to watch what they eat, and they don’t over do it.
Why? Well, perhaps if everyone from your mother to your neighbor to the guy at the local butcher shop has no problem with telling you when you’re fat, you would quickly become thin too.
This is no joke.
It is perfectly normal for an Italian to tell you in polite conversation that you have gained weight, or you have become a “Ciccione” (literally a fatso or chubster).
At the dinner table, the chubby ones are told by their mothers, aunts, cousins, and siblings that they’ve had enough and they need to lose weight.
"Basta per lei!" (Enough for her!) was once said to the person serving the pasta at a dinner gathering in regards to my plate. This then led to a multi-person discussion about how I needed to lose weight. I smiled, and nodded, and took my spoonful portion with grace. Then I went home and pulled the covers over my head determined not to wake up until I was 10 pounds thinner.
It’s not just directed at women. My boyfriend saw a high school classmate he hadn’t seen in 20 years at the train station not long ago. The first thing the man said was, “How are you doing? You got fat.”
And keep in mind that their idea of “fat” is not remotely close to our idea of fat.
Calling someone fat, or telling a person they need to lose weight, is tantamount to a brutal slap in the face for an American. If this was said to a person, everyone in the room would be horrified, the speaker would be publicly shamed, and the victim would be comforted with statements like, “You’re beautiful. Don’t listen to her/him.”
As for Italians, they really think it’s their duty to tell you. They see it as only being helpful. A public service announcement, if you will.
I suppose it makes some cultural sense. Italy itself is aesthetically gorgeous, and to Italians one’s appearance is so very important. A person is described as beautiful or thin before they are described as good. When seeing someone after a period of time has gone by, one of the first things that is discussed is whether or not the person has gained or lost weight. And when you do lose weight, you are complimented more than if you landed a new job.
Obviously the technique works. Italians, compared to Americans and every group of Europeans I have seen (including the ever-lauded-by-the-American-media-for-intelligent-eating French), are by far the thinnest in my observation.
If Italians don’t take such statements as insult, and none is hurt by these words like we would be, then I suppose it’s a very successful diet method.
But if they are pretending the ever-present Weight Police doesn’t bother them, and are being bullied into denying themselves the best food on earth, well that really is a shame.
Va bene. At least that means there is more pasta and lardo for us.