Sunday, August 03, 2014

Lessons from an Italian beach

The Internet keeps bringing these alarming stories about the scrutiny and control women's bodies are under, and this summer brought great stories like this about how 38 year old celebrities feel it's time to stop wearing a bikini. This is something I keep seeing repeated online, particularly from the US - how important it is to have an absolutely perfect bikini body in order to wear a bikini.

Going to Italy was, in that context, amazingly liberating. At the beaches I found there, a bikini body was defined by a body wearing a bikini. Of course, we all know Italians know about style, about beauty, and worship the beautiful body shamelessly, so it might seem a bit odd that an Italian beach would be such a liberating experience. However, going to the beach there isn't mainly about the body. It's about the beach.

They will flock there in groups of the young and the beautiful, or in families with grandmothers and toddlers, they will slip in between lunch and work, or they will move down to the beach with everything from a full kitchen to the evening gown. They will swim, read, tan, talk, shop (you know all those vendors that walk the beaches? They get a lot of eager business.), and generally get on with their lives right there on the beach. And they will wear bikinis, and they will be nice to each other.

An Italian beach will be crowded, people will be carefully making their way to and from the water on the few free centimeters of unpopulated sand between the towels and chair. They will be engaging in their conversations and occasionally invite the neighbours in on them. And since so much of an Italian beach will be taken up by the commercial beach clubs with their organised chairs, and the locals prefer the narrow strip of communal beach, they will be surrounded by their local community, all the time, and know to keep it light and happy. Civility is the rule.

And in this delightfully diverse crowd, you put on your sunglasses and lean back to watch life walk by, because it will. On the firm strip by the water you will see them all: The ancient ones, moving with calm dignity and delight in their designer swimwear and dripping with gold, or in a cheap bikini and worn flip-flops. The young ones, sleek bodies and firm skin, like seals playing in the waves. The frustrated parents, watching over children, the tired mothers, pregnant or recovering, with a baby at the breast. The thin and the fat. The pale and the brown. The reader hiding under the umbrella with a book. The poser, perched on the only rock that will elevate him for display. And there will bikinis, everywhere. And if they don't like the one they are wearing, soon there will be a vendor with a huge bag of bikinis, and he will open it and offer his goods, and the women in all ages will sort through what he offers and add to their collections with colours, shapes, buckles, frills, patterns, a wonderful riot.

So next time you worry about the way you look in that bikini, just stop, and rather think about how to make yourself comfortable, the Italian way. Towel, parasol, book, water, sunscreen, snack, bikini. That's the only right thing to worry about anyway.

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