It is not just long, luscious, hairless legs that are required in Italy, women are expected to have perky, plump breasts. The Italian ideal is more or less the Sophia Loren look (another blog post on her coming soon). I never could cut it.
As a working Mamma, I have always found it hard just to keep a minimal standard. But Italian appearance standards are so much higher than American standards. My roughest moments were during the big news stories, like the death of Pope John Paul II. But I think my humiliation reached an all-time low during the war in Kosovo. I was working around the clock, handling crews and coverage, equipment and money. I had three young children at home. It was exhausting. For several months I did not worry about what I looked like. I got up in the morning, threw on the first item of clothing I found, and went to work. One day I found myself alone in the office, during an unexpected lull. It was lunch hour. I decided to slip out of the office and walk down the street to Rinascente, the department store, and buy myself something to wear.
I wandered into the store and eventually found myself in the underwear section. “Maybe I will buy myself a pretty new bra,” I thought. I strolled through rows of slinky, sexy displays but I could not find any in my size. The store was empty and the clerk was not busy, so I asked for help. I told her my size, “What?” she said incredulously, glaring pityingly at my chest. “We do not have any bras that come in a size that small.”
I felt myself shrinking. After having breastfed three babies, I was pretty much as flat as a pancake, and apparently no Italian woman would ever admit to such smallness. “Wait a minute,” she paused, “maybe I can find a French or American brand that makes bras that small.”
I am not sure how it happened, but minutes later I found myself standing in front of the dressing room mirror in a ‘Wonder Bra’. A ‘Wonder Bra’ is a complicated affair that is designed to take the most meagerly endowed woman and pump her up and push her out so she can look like Marilyn Monroe.
Then the inevitable happened. My telefonino rang. It was our every-serious, ever-competent London editor, Sally Arthy. She needed to discuss crews in Albania with me. We had to get two cameramen out, and two new cameramen in. I needed to arrange flights, drivers, hotels, and equipment repairs as well as getting them cash. I plopped down on the floor of the dressing room, pulled out my notebook and began to take notes. Minutes later a knock came on the dressing room door,
“Is everything all right?” It was the clerk. “Yes, fine,” I called out cheerfully, “I have just received a call on my telefonino.” “Bene, bene,” muttered the clerk. Italians understand telefonino interruptions, I have Italian friends who even answer their cell phones in the movies.
“Is this a bad time, Trisha?” asked Sally. “No, no,” I said, glancing up at my ‘Wonder Bra’-encased chest in the mirror, and thinking what international television news agency producer worth her salt would ever be caught dead in one of these things. “It’s a perfect time.”
If one works for a television news agency, Rule Number One is that there is never a bad time. One must always deal. We wrapped up our conversation and I threw back on my clothes. I shoved the ‘Wonder Bra’ back in its box, grabbed my bag and strode out of the dressing room. The clerk looked up as I approached. I plopped the ‘Wonder Bra’ box down in front of her, gave her a huge smile and said,
“The ‘Wonder Bra’ does not quite do it for me. I think I will just have to go with silicone implants.” She nodded and smiled approvingly.”
Over the years I have felt extremely lucky not to be an Italian television journalist. The women journalists who appear on Italian TV are under enormous pressure to be beautiful and sexy.
One night back in the 1990s when I first arrived in Italy, my husband was watching a soccer program with the usual scantily clad female soccer expert, I asked him: “Why on all the soccer programs in this country are there five men sitting around in suits and ties talking about the game and one woman with a mini-skirt and a transparent top that acts like an idiot?”
“What are you talking about?” my husband answered, without taking his eyes off the TV and the sexy, busty soccer expert. I gave up.
My friend Greg Burke, who is the Fox News TV correspondent in Rome, told me that he remembers watching one of these soccer shows where a busty woman was wearing a blazer with nothing underneath. At a certain point the male host said, “Let me take a peek,” and did just that, lifting up a bit of blazer and looking underneath. Greg said everyone in the studio laughed and the woman seemed to accept the humiliation in good fun. Greg told me, “All I could think was that, if I had dared to do something like that, I would have been out of a job the next day.”
A few years later a male colleague left his girlfriend. He seemed a bit down in the office and I asked him, “Well, what kind of women do you like? Sporty? Intellectual? Maybe I have a single friend you might want to meet.” He perked right up and answered cheerfully, “I like women with melons.”
Help. What’s with Italian men and Melons? I asked 50-something cameraman, Enrico Pergolini, if he could shed some light on the melon question. “Trisha we want melons because with melons we feel cuddled, they give us the sensation of being with our mamma. At the end of the day, you know, we are all mamma-boys.”
Fast-foward to September 2011. I guess I must be getting a little sloppy in my old age. I have stopped trying to chase the long-leggy, buxom Italian look. The other day was another hot one in Rome and I wore a light, flowery, cotton dress to work. I couldn’t be bothered that my saggy old bra was visible. But I have a boss who doesn’t mess around. Francesca gives everyone her opinion on everything (personal or professional) and doesn’t take back talk from anyone. She will send a cameraman back to do an interview a second time if the microphone is showing up in the shot. She told a female intern once if she wore pants where we could all see her butt crack one more time, she would lose the internship. So, it didn’t take long for Francesca to pull me aside and say “what’s with the “reggiseno di suora” (nun’s bra). Look there is a sale on bras down on Via del Corso, they have all different colors and they are push-up, which will give you a little boost. Take a break this afternoon and go buy a whole bunch.”
I followed Francesca’s advice and bought myself six new bras in a variety of colors. A few days ago, I put one on and cheerily headed out the door. All of a sudden I got a weird sensation. The new bra was seriously pushing me up and out. It wasn’t just a little booster. I’m talking a rocket booster that could send off the space shuttle. I felt like I was ready for take-off. Mamma Mia!! And now I have six of them. Well, watch out NASA, with these rocket launchers, I’m headed for the moon!
And, by the way, what’s wrong with the Keira Knightley look?