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Rule #4: Fare la bella figura

December 14, 2010

In my freshman year of college, I started Italian 101.  I remember in the second or third week of classes, we were learning common expressions in the vocabulary section of our textbook.  Underneath an illustration of a woman in tight jeans, designer sunglasses, and black leather boots were the words

Fare la bella figura.

I was perplexed.  The phrase literally translates to “make a pretty figure.”  Huh?

My professor explained that it’s very important for Italians to appear a certain way in public.  This need affects the way they dress, the way they behave, the way they interact with other people.

I still didn’t get it. I didn’t get it until two years later, when I arrived in Italy and realized that after a few weeks, I was living it.

Let me give you a few examples.

  1. American Beth: wakes up, showers, runs out the door with wet hair dripping onto her shoulders.  Italian Beth blow-dries her hair before leaving the house each morning.
  2. American Beth doesn’t wear makeup or perfume.  Italian Beth does.
  3. American Beth carries a backpack.  Italian Beth carries a purse.
  4. American Beth wears shorts.  Italian Beth wears skirts.
  5. American Beth wears sneakers, flip-flops, or comfortable flats.  Italian Beth wears Italian leather boots, even when she’s walking up a hill or exploring a new city all day long and getting blisters all over her toes.

I honestly did not consciously try to change myself to fit into a new country.  It just rubbed off on me.  It’s called La Dolce Vita for a reason, right?

I want to emphasize that fare la bella figura is not just about clothes.  Even though the sentiment is often conveyed in English as “keeping up appearances,” the concept is by no means limited to only physical appearances.  It encompasses social position as well, and modifiying your behavior in accordance with what looks good to others.

As I mentioned in my jogging post, Italian women usually don’t exercise outdoors because then their whole neighborhood will see them sweaty and without makeup.  One thing that really interested me when I was in Italy was the elderly women who rode the bus line with me.  They dressed to the hilt in furs, heels, pantyhose, and makeup, but without looking overdone or scary in the way that certain “well-preserved” older American celebrities look.

It occurs to me that Fare la bella figura might be compared to the American tradition of “keeping up with the Joneses.”  Have the latest car, the latest iphone, the newest technology–I sense that this concept is more connected to being on the cutting edges, getting new things first.  By contrast, fare la bella figura is adhering to well-established cultural wisdom, more or less the same values held generations ago.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 12, 2011 2:40 pm

    The clothes part of the “bella figura” sometimes can be quite stressful, because you’re always judged on your look, oh and girls usually take hours before going out (sometimes a whole afternoon, if it’s saturday night) 🙂

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