Monday, June 1, 2009

The naked truth in Italy

Jane Parkin endures some awkward moments at the gym

Exhilarated by my swim, I stand, dripping, in front of a row of grey lockers. I am in Skorpion Palestra, a gym that I have joined during a holiday in Milan, Italy. Centrally located, it is almost on the doorstep of the Duomo, whose Gothic spires make their flighty ascent about 300metres away.

With its Armani-clad staff and shiny glass interiors, it is also the most chic.

So I am by the pool thinking I have escaped the workout room above, in which television presenters and B-list celebrities languidly lift weights with great attention to the image before them in the mirror. But here, also, are perils for the less-than-laissez-faire.

When changing into and out of their Prada, Miu Miu and MaxMara, the women here exhibit an abandon I have never seen in an Australian change room. Regardless of age, they fill this place drying their hair, applying make-up, chatting "tutte nude", in such a way as to display the entire perfection of their tans, obtained withtypical Italian devotion.

I am shocked and fascinated and embarrassed to be both. However, it is not the nudity that shocks me but the naturalness of it. Inevitably a Roman mosaic image, in which naked females douse one another using water-filled urns, springs to mind.

Is healthy body image and the reason why Italian women don't get fat embedded in the Mediterranean psyche?

I ponder this as I cover myself awkwardly with my towel, cursing my British heritage. I am acting in a way that the Italians would regard with a customary mix of scorn and amusement as "anglosassone". Anglo-Saxon. And I know it.

For a moment I am paralysed with inaction, teetering on the edge. Can I contemplate doing the "undie trick", the tortured contortionist act employed by Australian teenage girls when modestly changing into and out of bathers?

No, dammit, that would be ridiculous, if not outright dangerous. And really, who among these women would raise a meticulously plucked eyebrow were I to expose my full body even if, to my mind, lumpy from indulgence in tortelli di zucca and a daily intake of mozzarella di bufala?

Perhaps if I do it with enough confidence I will even be forgiven for having mismatching Bonds underwear rather than the stylish lingerie that every Milanese girl-about-town considers an absolute essential?

In the end my desire to engage in this ceremony of freedom takes over. I don't want to be Eve, banished from the Garden of Eden with a fig leaf and a look of shame.

Nor do I want to be identified as a foreigner before opening my mouth. And so, taking a deep breath, I drop the towel.

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