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  • How To Be As Beautiful As an Italian
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    From the moment one steps onto Italian turf, she is surrounded by beautiful people -- or average people who were told by their mammas that they were beautiful all their lives and now believe it. That's why, despite living in a country the size of Texas, Italians send 100 girls to compete in the final round of Miss Italia every September. The 2003 winner, 18-year-old Francesca Chillemi, is stunning -- tall and dark and smiley. She is the picture of youth for which we all strive, long after our youth is gone.

    There are many obligations that come with being born Italian but none so potent as fulfilling the "bella figura" mandate, the requirement that you look your best at all times. But what happens when you're not so pretty? What happens when you are nowhere near the beauty of a Miss Italia?

    If you are from the small town Piobbico in the Marche region of Italy, then you turn your ugliness into a thing of beauty by hosting a festival to celebrate your crooked nose, pot belly or thin lips. The town annually hosts a get together for the Club dei Brutti (Club of the Ugly) to elect its new president. Ever year Telesforo Iacobelli wins, "partly because he has a small nose in a culture where large noses are considered beautiful," according to a recent BBC article by Rebecca Pike. The club dates back to 1879 but was re-launched about 40 years ago as a marriage agency for the town's single women. According to Pike's article, 20,000 people worldwide claim to be members of the Club dei Brutti. And why not? Most of us spend large portions of our life feeling inadequate, so making our flaws something worth flaunting is a gift from God. Perhaps, it is the one way to free ourselves from the constant disappointment about not being tall enough, bronze enough, trim enough.

    In Italy, looking good -- in physical appearance and style -- is the key to being successful. There is little discussion about discrimination. Classified ads can still request that unattractive applicants need not apply. Women are hired to appear on TV programs just to stand half-naked in the background. Men brazenly worship gorgeous women from Sophia Loren to Sabrina Ferilli just for their good looks. Feminism certainly has had a difficult time getting through to Italians.

    The tide might be turning, however, and not just thanks to the brutti in Piobbico. While the sexy Miss Italia contestants were strutting their stuff in bikinis, a group of fully-clothed grandmothers did the same on the show "Velone," a dance and comedy contest for women over 65 that was aired on a rival channel. The nonne won the ratings war by scoring 4.94 million viewers, compared to Miss Italia's 4.82 million. The difference may seem small, but it speaks volumes in a country that honors beauty as much as integrity and kindness. Perhaps, the new message is that beauty is defined by more than smooth skin and a taut body. Substance wins over youth.

    In Italy, this is tantamount to a revolution. And I for one couldn't be happier. Don't get me wrong. I too appreciate a pretty face (just read my last column on Italian men), and I hope I look good when I leave the house. But the real beauty of Italians as displayed by everyone from the self-proclaimed "ugly" people in Piobbico to Miss Italia in all her splendid glory is their confidence.

    Perhaps, this self-assurance is drawn simply from mamma telling her Italian child she was all that and a bowl of pasta. (I know I certainly never tired of hearing my relatives tell me how gorgeous I was -- no matter how many zits sprouted on my face or how fat my thighs got.) What's the difference why you feel good about yourself! Mr. Ugly Iacobelli and Miss Italia are basically the same because they are both celebrating their individuality. And, yes, having at least 100 girls in the race for Miss Italia is perfectly fine. In fact, such a contest makes more sense than the significantly smaller (and shorter) Miss America pageant, which also takes place in September. After all, there is something beautiful about all of us, and we should make the most of whatever our unique beauty is. My mamma told me so!

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