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Getting into shape, Italian-style

Italian women seem to have Sophia Loren's curves in their DNA. So when in Rome ...

November 25, 2009|By Nina Burleigh

Writing From Rome — As Thanksgiving approaches, my friends at home are pondering how to endure holiday feasting and still slip into their size 0s, even though the wafer silhouette is overdue to be replaced as an ideal in these dire times. I have been away from Manhattan only five months and, suddenly, I want amplitude. Living in Italy, where all the women seem genetically curvaceous and not so troubled by extra flesh, natural ectomorphs like me seem like wraiths of the financial apocalypse. I just don't fit in among these robust specimens.

I've always been thin; I was born that way. I was the 99-pound high school graduate, the butt of every sunken-chest joke from sixth grade on. People speculated about tapeworms.

Forgive me if you want to look starved, but being skinny is not all it's cracked up to be. For one thing, I'm perpetually cold in winter. For another, my children will never remember snuggling against a soft shoulder. And my poor husband -- condemned to life in bed beside a skeleton.

Italian women make me feel "meager." That is the word the Italians would use if they felt rude enough to explain how I look to them. The root of both the Italian and French words for thin (magro and maigre, respectively) is related to our word for not having enough. It is not at all a flattering word, not a pretty notion.

Frescoes of plump Madonnas suckling holy babies are on every wall here. All summer long, their rightful heiresses stroll the Italian streets, flesh spilling over necklines, hips rolling without shame. Their bosoms don't appear to be man-made either, and they are on display among all age groups up to a very ripe old age that all Italian women seem to agree on.

It's as if there is some subspecies difference between us, some Sophia Loren DNA they all share. Italian women are rounder than American women as a rule, and yet, they don't run to obesity the way we do. Maybe it's the olive oil, maybe it's the wine, the lauded Mediterranean diet. I suspect it has something to do with generations of three-course lunches, consumed at leisure.

I know I can never eat my way to Sophia Loren's curves, but in order to put some meat on my bones, I have taught myself how to consume the customary Italian antipasto, pasta and secondi (preferably a slab of osso buco or a filet), followed by a dolce and a coffee at least a few times a week at dinner. When we got here, I used to watch people in restaurants tuck away this amount of food and shake my head in disbelief. Now I know how they do it. It's a way of eating, one that involves time but also yogi-like deep breathing. Inhale the aroma, bring fork to mouth, taste, chew, swallow. Breathe deeply. Rest. Repeat.

The other night as I was practicing my newfound skills at one of these dinners, I sat next to a charming Italian gentleman of a certain age -- a diplomat, lawyer, musician and all-around Neapolitan charmer. We talked about olives, wine and Silvio Berlusconi, and every once in a while he murmured, "Grandissima Nina, grandissima" in an admiring tone. I overheard him saying the same thing to the woman on his left: "Grandissima Alessandra, grandissima."

The way it rolled off his tongue made me feel warm, extroverted, fascinating, large. I looked it up when I got home. It's the feminine form of grandissimo, a word that means "very large, tall, high, wide, deep or great."

I guess Italian women hear such compliments all the time. Today, after a month of more or less concerted eating, I notice that my size 4 pants are getting a bit tight. This pleases me, but unfortunately the weight is all in my potbelly, where I tend to pack it on. No hips, no swelling bosoms for me. Still, I feel a little less meager. By next summer, maybe I can find an old flea-market corset and push some of this new-grown flesh in the right two directions.

Ahh, grandissima Nina, grandissima!

Nina Burleigh is an American author and journalist living in Italy, working on a book about the Amanda Knox trial.

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