The trauma of underwear shopping in ItalyPosted on January 12, 2019
The scene played out something like this: I was in Intimissimi, enclosed in one of those woefully undersized changing compartments harshly lit by hot and unforgiving halogen bulbs and closed off from the rest of the store by a single strip of beige canvas that left a two-inch gap on either side no matter how firmly I tugged on the fabric. I was also in the middle of trying on a new bra, which is always a traumatic experience in and of itself. So I was standing there in that tiny cubicle, undressed, wincing at the effect of the world’s most unflattering lighting, when the curtain suddenly whipped open – the salesgirl standing there in front of me, the entire store and the street beyond it visible behind her.
I was aghast; she was indifferent.
She wanted to know how everything was fitting. I assured her, while simultaneously trying to surreptitiously hide myself behind the curtain without looking like I was overreacting, that everything was just great, tutto bene, definitely no need to worry about me. She smiled in the way salespeople do when they think they’re about to make a sale, I smiled in the way someone does when they’re dying of embarrassment and angst and trying very, very hard not to show it. The curtain swished closed.
A minute later, it whipped open again. The same salesgirl stood there.
“Senti”, she began, leaning casually against the door frame. “My colleague and I have a question. We need to know how to say reggicalze in English. You speak English, right?”
And that is how I ended up translating “garter belt” – and then “stockings” and “socks” – while standing in a particularly ill-fitting bra, clearly visible to anyone in the store at that moment.
I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident. The translation part of it was – or at least I certainly hope it was. But the part where the change room curtain (and it always seems to be a curtain in stores that sell underwear, never a solid door that actually locks or at least comes close to closing properly) is unceremoniously opened at an inopportune moment at least once? That, unfortunately, appears to be an integral part of the underwear shopping experience.
Look, I get it. Italians are just less uptight than most anglo-saxons when it comes to nudity. They’re more comfortable in their skin – and more comfortable showing large amounts of that skin – than we tend to be, and that’s great. Really, it is! But as much as I may love or loathe my body on any given day, I’m just never going to be comfortable flaunting the parts of it that are normally covered up. Bikinis? Great. Thong bikinis? Emphatically no. Topless on the beach? I’m cringing just imagining it. The kind of spa where you’re supposed to comfortably lounge around stark naked with a bunch of other women? I honestly can think of few experiences that would be less relaxing.
For a year or so, back when I first arrived in Rome, I went to weekly power yoga classes in a little gym just metres away from the wall surrounding the Vatican. The class was difficult – fast-paced, un-airconditioned, and a crash course on both yoga itself, which I had never attempted before, as well as the Italian words for various body parts and all the ways that yoga could twist, stretch and contort them.
But as difficult as the class itself was, it was the change room that I truly feared. Because it was in the change room that I had to make small talk, in Italian (in which I was still very far from anything remotely resembling fluency), with my classmates – who were all, inevitably, naked. And I don’t just mean that they would be in the middle of getting changed. No, they would be drying their hair or applying mascara in the nude, slowly rubbing body lotion over themselves in the nude, sharing anecdotes from their weekends and lamenting their work weeks in the nude. For an admittedly uptight and awkward Canadian, it was intensely intimidating. Was I supposed to be as carelessly free as they were? Did they all possess shockingly high levels of self-confidence, or was I just a total prude? I never got out of the habit of wedging myself into the most isolated corner of the change room and peeling off my sweaty yoga clothes at breakneck speed.
I eventually got used to seeing a lot of flesh on display in any sort of group change room or beach situation – you can’t live in Italy for more than six years without becoming totally desensitized to a lot of different and formerly shocking situations – but I still dread the moment I need to go underwear or swimsuit shopping. Getting changed in a gym change room along with a bunch of other people all doing the same thing is one thing, but being suddenly exposed (with the expectation that you’re completely cool with the situation) while in various stages of undress is another thing entirely. And so I’ve developed a couple of guidelines for minimizing the trauma of underwear shopping in Italy:
Change very quickly, and… expect the unexpected.