Naked in Italy

27 May
That title should make the read-rate for this blog go through the roof.
The other day I was in the gym. Having finished my workout I went to the very small locker room, where my first act is usually to wash my hands since I’ve been touching all sorts of equipment. Right in front of the sink was a naked Italian woman, chit-chatting with a couple of other women while she donned her black lace panties. I was not going to ask permesso to go to into the very small area by the sink, squeezing past her naked self. As she went to put on her bra, her cell phone rang and – I kid you not – she took a 5 minute call with one boob in the bra and one boob out, still blocking the sink.  I changed my clothes and went on my way, shaking my head.
Venus After the Bath, a stunning nude by Giambologna, on display at the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

Venus After the Bath, a stunning nude by Giambologna, on display at the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

Body image and nakedness in Italy is a culture shock for American women I have spoken to. The attitude towards the body is much more open in Italy than in North America. Whether in the locker room at the gym or at the doctor’s office, unabashed nakedness is taken for granted.
Most North American men – or men from anywhere for that matter and as far as I know – don’t give a rip about taking off their clothes in front of other men. Man boobs or not, they change and shower openly from what I am told. Not so women in North America, right?
I respect the openness with which Italians treat the body. There is little or no modesty or self-consciousness, which is somewhat refreshing, but frankly I don’t know where to put my eyes when confronted with the naked conversation.  
Another time I came into the locker room to get changed before working out and a young woman came out of the toilet stall, naked but for her shower flip-flops. (God- forbid she should get a fungus while walking around the locker room naked.)  I tried to suppress my surprise but I am certain my jaw dropped a bit. As a hung-up Americana I don’t even potty at home completely naked. Naked is for the shower and certain bed-time activities. “Buongiorno! Come vai?” she said.  Where do I put my eyes?  I think I chose a corner high and to the right.
Is this narcissism? “Look at me! I am in your way and I am naked!” She may or may not have a body one wants to see naked…. And regardless, where the heck am I supposed to put my eyes?
I have become somewhat used to doffing my clothes in a medical situation, although luckily I have been able to take care that my mammographer is not a man. (Yup, many of them are in Italy. See Things Are Different Here.) When I expressed a desire to NOT have a male mammographer the nurse said to me “What do you care? They’re only breasts.” Yes, but they are my breasts, and I like to be the one to select who touches them.  After last year’s experience I made a point of selecting a facility where the doctor herself does the mammogram and sonogram. Still, when one gets a mammogram here there are no little pink capes over your shoulders. You enter the x-ray room, strip to the waist and belly-up to the machine. This is followed by a walk to an adjacent room where you get a sonogram, sometimes involving two specialists if consultation is required. And no one explains what’s going happen. In the U.S. one would expect the doctor to say “I’d like to call in Dr. So-and-So to have a look. Do you mind?” and she would buzz someone to come in. Here, a door to a busy hallway will suddenly open and someone you’ve not met while clothed will walk in and start examining your breasts with no introduction.  Thorough, though: No one is taking chances that they will miss anything. After the exam you sit there bare-breasted while having a conversation about what was or was not found.
Perhaps Italy's most famous nude, David.

Perhaps Italy’s most famous nude, David.

Whether for skin cancer checks, a visit to the cardiologist for an ECG, or to the vascular surgeon, one just slips out of the appropriate garments while chatting up the doctor and perhaps while dressing after the exam has a conversation about vacation, or family, or life in an embassy. Very convivial. Actually I like the system a great deal in that one has the full attention of the physician. But it took some adjusting to not having privacy for undressing and dressing and occasionally having a door unexpectedly open and others arrive on the scene unexplained.
The lack of privacy also extends to the pharmacy. Hell, there isn’t even a word for privacy in Italian.  Everyone hears everyone else’s symptoms and problems. You do not walk into a pharmacy and peruse the shelves looking for your own solutions or symptoms. You have to ask the pharmacist for whatever you might need. Everyone in the store will know what you came to buy. Sort of a different form of exposure.
In the U.S. we are so concerned about privacy. God-forbid someone would overhear the pharmacist give instructions on how to take an antibiotic or how to apply that anti-fungal cream! Once I had to sign a privacy statement when they gave me instructions at the people pharmacy on how to administer a medication to my dog. In locker rooms we are shy and at the doctor’s we expect gowns and drapes, introductions and explanations before anything is looked at, probed, or handled.  
It’s certainly not that either approach is wrong. It just takes some getting used to flaunting your “stuff” in public. And I still don’t know where to look when chatting up naked women in the locker room. 

22 Responses to “Naked in Italy”

  1. Gayle Seely February 2, 2016 at 22:31 #

    It’s true: its a classic!


  2. gooddayrome June 17, 2014 at 15:56 #

    Ah yes, my friend…. I try. I try….


  3. Nicholas DiStefano June 17, 2014 at 15:44 #

    Just look into their eyes!! But this is just proof that I am Italiano!!!


  4. scarter1995 May 31, 2014 at 19:15 #

    Hi Laurel – I met you in Varenna today. You showed me the way to the ferry. I adore your blog and “Naked in Italy” was hilarious and informative!

    I’m looking forward to following your adventures and astute observations!

    Suzanne Carter (On Becoming an Adventuress



    • gooddayrome May 31, 2014 at 21:48 #

      Terrific to have you as a follower! Keep in touch Suzanne!


  5. Terah May 28, 2014 at 21:34 #

    Laurel, you are beyond delightful. I was laughing so hard at the naked lady and your distress. I do think it’s funny how “private” Americans pretend to be and then post everything on Facebook and talk on their cell phones while in a public toilet! I mean really…having a conference call while toilets flush??? I think I’d handle the naked lady better! I had an even greater laugh reading the comments. My favorite…”Is that nipple larger? Brava, Laurel. Keep these postcards from Italy coming! BTW, you’re right…as soon as I saw the title, I read you first before doing the rest of my email!


  6. Marcia Kakiuchi May 28, 2014 at 17:30 #

    I do think that Americans have gone too far with body imagine and privacy. But I wouldn’t like everyone in the pharmacia knowing what my problem is and the meds I’m taking. I don’t mind taking my clothes off in the women’s locker room in front of other women, but walking around naked after that, nah. Not for me.

    You certainly have some great stories here of culture differences. Loved reading this blog.


    • gooddayrome May 28, 2014 at 17:48 #

      Well said Marcia! I agree about the pharmacy: I really would hate to have to divulge a sensitive condition so everyone could talk about remedies much like they discuss recipes! But the privacy for my dog’s meds, well, that was amusing, My feelings precisely on the locker room scenario. Glad you are out there chuckling along with us!


  7. ckleonard May 28, 2014 at 02:46 #

    Up and to the left or over their head – they will think you are looking straight at them without your making eye contact. Something very weird I am finding about myself. As I am getting older, privacy with doctors takes a lessor place in my mind. Even mamograms.


    • gooddayrome May 28, 2014 at 03:55 #

      I agree Carolyn, but I do draw the line at people wandering in and out of the exam room when I am “exposed!” One of my colleagues was sent for a scan of some sort and was expected to wait half-nude in a room of mixed gender persons. She “luckily” was allowed to wear her panties and a tank top. Ha!


      • ckleonard May 28, 2014 at 17:44 #

        I do agree about people (unknown or introduced) coming into rooms.


  8. gayleseely May 27, 2014 at 22:18 #

    I think up and to the right sounds good, Down and to the left might be fun, too. But then, if you decide to confront the cultural differences more fully you could stare at a nipple, and ask, conviviably, is that one larger? Seriously, this would be a challenge for me too. I wonder if women who move to the US for a while also feel more private when the go back.
    I love that there is really no word for Privacy in Italian. That says so much.



    • Michael Horne May 27, 2014 at 23:00 #

      Ciao Laurel — I’ve heard vita privata before, or “private life”, but yes, I’ve never heard of a direct translation of privacy into Italian. A few other words seem to beat around the proverbial bush like riserbo, but none quite like the quality of privacy.



      • gooddayrome May 28, 2014 at 03:52 #

        Yes, they have adopted many English words and privacy is one of them. I do think we Americans focus a lot on privacy, almost to a distraction. An Italian teacher once told me that Italian has no word for privacy because it is such a close -knit society and in the small villages everyone knew everything about everybody anyway. Chissa?


    • gooddayrome May 28, 2014 at 03:49 #

      Italian has incorporated the English word as “privato” or simply uses privacy. I do think we go too far in the U.S. worrying about privacy in many areas, whether hiding our naked selves or with HIPAA.


    • Terah May 28, 2014 at 21:28 #

      I adore your reply! Is that one larger has me LOL!


  9. Ruth May 27, 2014 at 21:22 #

    I will never forget the Cinque Terre train trip when on walks a man wearing a small “sock” suspended from his waist by a “string” and NOTHING else. (Last time I put my lunch on a train seat…)


  10. Sharon May 27, 2014 at 20:59 #

    Although, I have never noticed a naked MAN at the beach…..except the nude beach near St. Petersberg, FL.


    • gooddayrome May 28, 2014 at 03:44 #

      There’s that double-standard…. But I’d guess most of the women were topless only, not fully nude? (Like it matters!)


  11. Sharon May 27, 2014 at 20:57 #

    No word for privacy; that is very interesting. Do they hold every woman to the stick thin image of beauty as well? My experiences tell me they do not. I say BRAVO!!
    I saw many naked women on the beach at Cinque Terre – a couple who were VERY pregnant!


    • gooddayrome May 28, 2014 at 03:43 #

      Ciao Sharon! I am not sure about the stick-thin image of beauty being a standard. Many Italian women are very tiny, though. While on one hand women are very much appreciated, it is still a sexist society, much more than in the U.S.


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