The summer in Italy is a particularly trying time for a woman, especially in the sunny South. Rome is boiling hot in July and August, and Romans clear out of the city, heading for the mountains or beaches, leaving the tourists to swelter as they plod from the Coliseum to St. Peter’s Square. Anyone who has to work is particularly miserable. Italians, for the most part, don’t believe in air conditioners. They think they are unnatural, unhealthy, and a sure source of colds and fevers. So a woman in Italy must spend her summer minimally dressed. Shorts are strictly out, almost as bad as having a cappuccino after lunch, so this means mini-skirts and sundresses.
The dress code results in all sorts of frustrations and humiliations. For example, I spend May through September in sandals. There are lovely, cheap sandals to buy everywhere, and they are the most comfortable footwear for the hot months. One summer, I was sitting in a coffee bar with a few colleagues. At the time we had a beautiful intern in our office with mile-long legs, perfectly messy hair, and a melodious voice. It was a desperately hot day. I turned to her and asked her how she could possibly be wearing closed leather shoes in the hot weather. She explained that her boyfriend could not bear the sight of female feet unless they were perfect.
For the first time in years I looked down and took note of my feet: they were crusty and callousy with red blotches. My toenails looked scruffy and I even noticed a little dirt at the side of one big toenail.
I became terribly self-conscious. I then began noticing the feet of all the Italian women wearing sandals: they were perfect. Perfectly tanned and manicured, they had no calluses or crusty skin. I began asking them how they did it. Weekly pedicures, of course. Well, how on earth is a working mamma with three children supposed to find time for weekly pedicures? I was always so happy when sandal season began because I did not have to waste any more time in the morning looking for socks. So much for that.
But it is not only feet that are a problem for the poor Italian mamma. There is the inevitable problem of hair removal, which becomes the obsession of Italian women from April until October. They wax, pluck, tweeze and get laser treatments until they look like plucked chickens in a supermarket. At any female gathering in the summer, the conversation eventually rolls around to hair removal. I vividly remember taking my children to a mamma get-together at a summer home one-hour’s drive from Rome. As our children romped on the lawn, the mammas sat around a picnic table, chatting. Shortly after I arrived, an attractive mamma in a small black sundress, with perfectly pedicured feet, began to talk about the wonders of permanent hair removal by laser treatment. Before I knew what was happening, she stood up and lifted her dress to show her flat, tanned hairless stomach.
“See,” she said, “I had the doctor permanently remove all the little dark hairs that were between my belly button and my crotch. It is perfect now.”
I suddenly felt every hair on my body standing on end. I felt like my eyebrows looked like Krushchev’s, and my legs and arms looked like I was a gorilla just escaped from the jungle. I could not bring myself to take part in the conversation. I stood up. “Caterina,” I called cheerfully, “come on, sweetie, let’s go change that diaper.” I took a step towards my toddler.
Suddenly I felt I should bend down and put my knuckles on the ground and walk away like the hairy gorilla that I must be. But if I was a hairy gorilla, what was the ideal we were aiming for? Skinny, scrawny, well-plucked legs and plump opulent breasts? Sounds more like a turkey than a woman to me.
A British friend of mine moved to Rome in the early summer and was immediately absorbed in the great hair obsession. Shortly after her arrival, when her Italian was still a little shaky, she made an appointment with one of Rome’s ubiquitous estetistas (estheticians) to get her legs waxed. She arrived for her appointment and lay down on the bed for the torture session. The estetista strip-strapped her way through my friend’s legs and then said, “Would you like me to do your l’inguine?” (L’inguine means bikini line, or crotch area, in Italian.) My poor friend, assuming that the conversation had turned, as it inevitably does in Italy, to pasta, immediately responded in her rough Italian, “Yes, of course, I like linguini.” Much to my friend’s dismay, the estetista lifted up her dress and began shoving her underwear around. “What are you doing?” my very British friend nearly shouted. “I am preparing your l’inguine for waxing,” said the startled estetista.
Every summer the great hair debate inevitably wormed its way into APTN’s office. Francesca and I would wait until the cameramen were out to lunch before launching into serious discussions of waxing and plucking and tweezing. One day Francesca claimed her sister had discovered a miracle machine. It was an electric machine that plucked hairs out of your legs. She insisted I try it and brought it into the office in a plastic bag and quietly slipped it to me when no one was looking.
That night I waited until the children were asleep and Gustavo was busy at his desk in the living room. I snuck into the bathroom with the little machine and read the instructions three times over. Then I turned it on. The noise was like a kitchen blender turned on full blast. I delicately placed it against my calf. PAIN AND AGONY. I felt like it was chopping up my leg. I thought of Francesca and her favorite word, suffering. I had to suffer. For one hour I tortured myself using the automatic chicken plucker to massacre my leg.
Finally, with one leg looking like mincemeat, I marched out to the living room. Gustavo was lying on the rug with papers spread out all around him. I went and placed my mincemeat leg in front of his nose. “Look at my leg?” I said. “Looks pretty bad,” he answered. “Didn’t you hear all that noise in the bathroom, weren’t you worried about me? I just spent an hour chopping my leg to bits with a stupid hair plucker that Francesca gave me and you don’t even care? I could have done serious damage to myself and with all that racket you did not even come to check and see I was all right!”
“Look,” he said, “when a woman goes in the bathroom and locks the door, we men do not want to know what she is doing in there.” “Well, what do you think I should do now?” I said half-laughing, half-whimpering. “I am certainly not going to turn my other leg into mincemeat.” “Per favore, Treeeeeesha, can’t you see I’m working? What the hell do I care about what you do with your mincemeat leg!!”
The next day, sweating it out at work in pants, I gave Francesca back her mincemeat maker and called a nearby estetista for a waxing appointment. “And what will you be getting waxed today?” the receptionist asked. “Give me the works,” I said, “the linguini, the tortellini, the spaghetti.” The receptionist did not understand my little joke.