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  • Italy Tries to Redefine Beauty
    Government officials and fashion industry insiders address obesity and anorexia by changing their ways and rules
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    JANUARY 7, 2007 - From the window of my room on the Neapolitan island of Ischia in Italy in October, I saw the women in their mini skirts and ballet slippers, perfectly plunging necklines and statement-making baubles as they passed through the center of town. Some of them were tourists. Some of them were natives. All of them wanted to be unforgettable. None of them were the same size.

    The larger, more curvaceous among them say they are pretty much ignored by the designers whose shops line the street on which they walked. "Fashion dictates to thinner women because over the years, society has always catered to thinner women and fashion has followed the demand," says Lucia Corvelli, a lingerie designer and former model who spends much of the year living in Italy (and hired this author to work with her on the online publication Nuda). But, thanks to a growing number of women with thicker middles and money to burn, times they are a changing. Italians, even the country's fashion elite, are doing something to help women feel good, dress well, and be healthy.

    As emerging economies take shape and take on the hectic American lifestyle that is often fueled by fast food, the waistlines of their people are expanding along with their wallets. Reports have already surfaced that Europeans are starting to have a problem with obesity, too. The fashion industry knows that this untapped market has the potential to be a profitable one. After all, in 2005, the plus-size clothing market in the United States hit $32 billion, up 50 percent from the five years previous, according to the Chicago research group Mintel as reported by in March 2006. That's why plus-size fashionistas - even in the land of the bella figura where everyone is a diva - have newfound hope.

    In late September 2006, a dozen Italian designers put on a fashion show in Milan featuring plus-size models. The first salon at Milan's fashion trade fair to showcase items for average- and larger-sized women, the show demonstrated that Italy's top-rated fashion industry is realizing it can't afford to neglect this growing part of the population. But not everyone has caught on yet.

    Traditionalists are hoping that Italians stick with their dietary values by maintaining McDonald's-free lifestyles and larger, sensible lunches at home followed by light dinners and a passaggiata in the evening. They're clinging to images of curvaceous national icons like Sophia Loren and Monica Bellucci. At the same time, however, the country's major fashion houses - from Armani to Versace - cater to super-skinny models and not necessarily the real women on Italian streets.

    Many Italians are saying that there is such a thing as too thin. "Sixty percent of teenagers in our country would like to be skinnier than they are," said Giovanna Melandri, minister for Youth Policy, according to reports from Reuters. "This is also the consequence of the idea that the only aesthetic model is being very, very, very skinny."

    On one end of the spectrum, obesity is creeping into a nation once known for its well-proportioned women, and on the other you have anorexia, a devastating eating disorder that recently took the life of Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston. The death sent shockwaves through the industry, and many say young people are getting the wrong message about beauty. And it just might be up to the world's most powerful arm of the fashion industry - Italia - to do something about it.

    The fashionistas in Milan heard the people's cry. On the heels of Madrid's ban of runway models with a body mass index of less than 18.5, which was set by the World Health Organization as healthy, the Italian Camera della Moda and Milan Mayor Letizia Moratti recently presented an "ethical code of self regulation" for the industry. Having no legal bearing whatsoever, the guidelines ask fashion houses to get licenses for runway models, who will have to meet certain requirements. Italy's models will have to be at least 16 years old, and they too will have to have a body mass index of 18.5, or at least a doctor's bill of health, to participate in runway shows starting in February 2007.

    A committee of city officials, the Chamber of Fashion Services, which includes major Italian fashion houses, and a scientific committee of doctors, nutritionists, psychologists, and other experts, will issue the licenses, according to the Associated Press. But, unlike Madrid's policy, the Italian code will take into consideration geographical and ethnic factors that may define different body types when assessing the health of these women.

    One designer, according to the Chinese Web site, People's Daily Online, is not sure these efforts will make much of a difference. “I don't think the code will change fashion, and fashion is not the cause of juvenile problems,” said Designer Roberto Cavalli. “There are other ways to take care of our young generation: Stop showing half-naked starlets on television, ban silicone implants if one is not at least 25, for example.” The publication went on to point out that the renowned designer would like to raise the age of runway models to 18.

    Maybe the Italian code isn't perfect. No one misses the irony that Italy is at the same time responsible for size 0 Armani skinny pants and lasagna, prosciutto, and a slew of other fattening treats. Not long ago, in fact, the stereotype of an Italian woman was round and waddled and cooked all day.

    The country certainly is at a crossroads for many different reasons – and women all around the globe are having a hard time meeting impossible standards of beauty and staying healthy in the face of so many temptations. But image is everything in Italy. For goodness sake, everyone is expected to make a bella figura or "good figure" in both their appearance and action. Sometimes, it's enough to make the most beautiful among us sick, never mind we average folk. The fact that officials in the government and fashion are at least trying to address the issue and undo some of the contradictions is heartening. If a variety of sizes and images becomes beautiful in our eyes, then someday all of those women who walked past my window in Ischia will be belle figure. That's my dream for 2007.


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