I cooked dinner last night in my bikini.
Those of you who know me well understand just how strange that is. Even before Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster reshaped my physique, I have never been what anyone would call an exhibitionist. For example, consider my wedding dress. I ordered an empire-waisted, spaghetti-strap gown with what I expected to be a very modest neckline. Unfortunately, the sales woman had taken some artistic liberties when she had pinned up the size 12 showroom dress on my then size 4 figure. When the real dress arrived I had a minor panic attack. It took my wonderful mother-in-law quite a while to convince me that a centimeter or two of cleavage was not inappropriate on a bride. Even at 23, when youth gave me something to flaunt, I was not so inclined.
Now in my mid-thirties, having born and nursed two children, I am even less inclined to don anything skimpy. I will wear swimwear at the pool, or the beach, but you can be sure I will put on a cover-up if I am not in the water or soaking up the limited sun my cancer-consciousness allows me. I’m just more comfortable fully clothed.
So what happened to my natural modesty last night? In part, I think it was the glorious lethargy that seems to have descended on my entire family the moment we disembarked on the beautiful Greek island of Tinos. The only thing that seems to move with any power in this little pocket of the Mediterranean is the enveloping wind, which alternates between caressing breezes and booming gusts that blow every thought of hurry or stress from my mind. When I returned to the villa from the pool last evening, it just seemed like more trouble than it was worth to walk downstairs to the bedroom and change clothes. Far easier just to hang my wet pareo on a chair on the patio on my way to the kitchen to start dicing chicken.
However, I do not believe that laziness can entirely account for my untraditional cooking attire. Rather, I think I am beginning to fall under the sway of Southern Europe’s casual attitude toward the human body. Bare skin is much more ubiquitous in Italy and Greece than it is in the US. Holding extended conversations in the nude is fairly commonplace in gym locker rooms (or so I hear from my expat friends who actually go to the gym). Italian parents often don’t start to worry about being nude in front of their opposite sex children until those children approach puberty. About half of the swim suits for girls up to the ages of 9 or 10 come with only bikini bottoms, and many girls who would be in training bras in the States are still topless at family beaches. Even the English school my 5-year-old daughter attends has all the children change clothes in the same room for their swim lessons. My American prejudices about modesty and decorum are definitely out-of-place in this context.
Of course, the Greco-Roman tradition of idealized beauty is part of all this casual immodesty. Physical perfection can best be demonstrated when un-shrouded, and the summer heat gives all of Milan’s models ample opportunity to display their perfection. Moreover, the modern adage that “sex sells” holds perhaps even more sway here in the Mediterranean. All you have to do is look at the window displays of any corner Farmacia in Milan to recognize that what passes for standard advertising in Italy would be pushing the borders of soft porn in the States. A few strategically placed rose petals do anything but conceal an impossibly airbrushed ideal to the women of Milan in an effort to sell us one particular cellulite cream (my fellow expats will know which one I mean).
Exposure to so much perfect, smooth skin hasn’t exactly moderated my self-consciousness, and I reserve the right to rail against the preponderance of perfect size 2, 40-something mothers in future blog posts. However, last night has given me some hope that my subconscious is also responding to all of the imperfect bodies on display in Southern Europe. Because imperfect bodies are not hidden here. The first time I saw a pair of 60-something grandmothers sunbathing in bikinis on a park bench I couldn’t help giggling. It just seemed so bizarre. But apparently this is not bizarre in the sun-worshipping culture of Italy. Despite a heritage of the Greco-Roman ideal and a present in the seemingly anorexic fashion world, in Italy you don’t have to be perfect to show your skin. If the summer heat makes gauzy fabrics ideal, then wear them; and don’t feel compelled to wear foundation garments that counteract their breezy benefit. If you enjoy the kiss of the sun on your stomach, then put on that bikini and bring on the solar smooches; cellulite and c-section scars be damned. Physical beauty might be celebrated here, but it is not mandated. Italians, and apparently Greeks as well, are not only more comfortable with skin than I am. They are also more comfortable in their own skin, whatever its texture. I have a way to go before I can really claim to be Italianized in my approach to casual nudity, but at least my reaction to it is changing. What was initially shock is gradually moving toward a cautious respect. Mediterranean culture cannot claim a perfect relationship to the human body, but it does have much to teach me.