Personal Space, Staring and Sexism: An American’s Grievances about Living in Italy

In two days, I’ll have been living la bella vita for exactly one month.

Although I’m very familiar with the Italian way of life, there are still some societal norms and aspects that I always have a hard time accepting. Since I enjoy reading similar lists from expat and travel bloggers, I thought I’d create my own. Keep in mind that sharing the below does not in any way mean that I completely hate Italians, or living here! These are just my opinions and observations as an American-born, Italian-made woman now living in Italy.

Let’s get started!

1. Disregard for personal space

This has to be my biggest pet peeve while living in Italy! ! ! When Italians gather among family and/or friends, they enjoy being in close proximity to each other. There will be a lot of kissing, hugging and overall affection for one another. I usually don’t have an issue with this, but sometimes it does get overwhelming when the person with whom you’re speaking is literally two inches away from your nose.

The more problematic situations, for me at least, are when I’m out and about among a sea of strangers. I think most North Americans can agree that back home, we try to avoid touching people we don’t know in public. On the other hand, in Italy, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten shoved, nudged and patted by complete strangers. Just the other day, I was sitting on a bench in the mall–minding my business–when two teenagers sat so close to me, I felt one of their coats on my arm. I looked around; the other nearby benches just had to be occupied for these two girls to sit right next to me, no? The benches were empty. For Italians, the concept of personal space is just not as revered as it is in North America, and if you ever visit southern Italy, it’s an entirely different ballgame….

2. Terrible customer service

The services industry comprises a hefty chunk of the U.S. economy, and many service workers within the tourism, hospitality, restaurant and beauty industries depend on tips to make a living. These employees work hard to ensure that the consumer enjoys a stellar experience once he or she steps foot into their place of work. Foreigners may deem the entire business transaction as fake and insincere, and some may find our wide grins and cheerful dispositions incredibly annoying, but that is what it takes to earn great tips! In Italy, the same workers are not paid gratuities, since they are able to live off the working wage (though, some say this is debatable!). I like to think that this is the reason why I’ve never encountered an attentive waiter or friendly hairdresser in Italy; but what about the workers who do not depend on tips to pay their bills?

What about the employees from TIM, an Italian telecommunications company, whom only responded with raised eyebrows and one word answers to mine and my boyfriend’s pressing questions when I needed an Italian SIM card? Or the receptionist at the municipal office last month who sarcastically told me that she wasn’t a cash register when I had asked for change? I can guarantee that back in the States, these situations rarely occur, and–when they do–the customer has the right to complain to management. See, in North America, the customer is almost always right, regardless of industry. In Italy, in my experience, customers are pretty powerless.

3. Incessant staring

As a New Yorker, there is an unspoken rule among us that prevents someone from staring at others in public. I know in Italy, however, staring is considered neither rude nor offensive. Milano is one of the major fashion capitals of the world, so it’s a given that people enjoy gawking at others’ outfits and whatnot. However, as someone who hails from another fashion capital, I still become unbelievably bothered when I feel the cold, extended gaze of a complete stranger. Sometimes, the a-hole in me escapes, and I turn to the curious onlooker to deliver a cazzo guardi?! I know, I know; I shouldn’t do that! I promise, I’m getting better, though. Last week, I caught a woman staring at me and, instead of becoming self-conscious and anxious, I stared her down, too. We battled it out for about ten seconds, then I eventually emerged victorious once she lowered her eyes. Baby steps, baby steps.

4. Beauty and body standards

Italians take great pride in creating and maintaining slender physiques. On any given day, rain or shine, you will see plenty of Italians taking to the outdoors to walk or jog. Although gyms do exist here, Italians do not frequent them as often as North Americans do, but–ironically–seem to be in better shape than we are.

Back home, there still exist certain beauty standards for women, as promoted by the media and–obviously–beauty industry; but, over the past ten years or so, there’s been a drastic shift of what we perceive as beautiful. Today, all types of bodies–slim, curvy, short, tall and anything in between–are celebrated in the media and beyond. Additionally, we are also seeing more beauty brands cater to all skin colors–not just white ones. (Thanks, Rihanna!) Of course, we still have a lot of work to do in the States; but I’m proud of how far we’ve come as a society. In Italy, the perception of female beauty is extremely different.

The body-positive revolution that is occurring in the States hasn’t really taken off in Italy, and many Italian women still work very hard to avoid gaining weight through regular, physical activity and eating a healthy diet low in refined carbohydrates. From my experience, in Italy, you are considered far more attractive with a lower body fat percentage. The ideal body for women is tall and slim, with perky boobs and a small, round butt. Regarding the beauty realm, I’m no makeup enthusiast, but I’ve seen much less representation by Italian brands and within the industry as a whole. Race is a delicate issue here, but perhaps I’ll save that for another post!

As for male body standards, huge North American-style muscles are not popular here, although many Italian men do lift weights. Actually, popping muscles are not popular among women either. I couldn’t count on one hand how many Italians have asked me why I lift weights, and then proceeded to tell me I don’t need to because I’m a woman, which brings me to my next point….

5. Sexism

Having been engulfed in Italian tradition since birth, I’ve seen first-hand how deeply rooted sexism is in Italy. Traditionally, the women in the family are expected to cook, clean and tend to the house/children. Even though times have changed, the patriarchy is still very strong here. Ever watch Italian TV? The programs and advertising scream sexism. There’s this one show called Striscia la notizia, where the opening credits every night include two barely clothed, young female dancers who seem to be performing for the sole pleasure of the two male hosts. From weather anchors to presenters on variety shows, women in TV are usually forced to wear high heels and cleavage-baring, short skirts or dresses.

Back home, sexism is still rampant across the board, but on a lesser scale; and not only because we’re more prude as a society (sorry, it’s true!), but because we’re growing more aware of the repercussions of such sexist and demeaning portrayals of women. Especially with the establishment of the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’ movements, I think the U.S. is headed on the right track. I’m not sure how far along Italy is, but I hope they follow suit.

…and that’s all, folks!

If you’ve ever visited or lived in Italy, what would you add to the list? I’m curious!

I think every country has its flaws, including my own, and it’s perfectly healthy to complain about them once in a while. In fact, I think a future post will cover my grievances about the States; that’ll be a fun (and long) one…

 

2 Comments

  • Paul Spadoni

    Very interesting to hear comments from the point of view of a young American woman. I started living in Italy part time in 2001, and TV was much worse then. Semi-nude women dancing around on many shows, and I had two of my teenage daughters with me in 2001. It was not a good example on the role of women. I’m glad it’s improved, though still far from the way it should be.
    Anyway, best of luck on your adventures in Italia. In bocca al lupo!

    • Rosa P.

      Wow! That’s unbelievable. You’re right, and I’m glad it is changing. I also think younger Italian women are changing the status quo! Thank you so much for reading and your input 🙂

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