La Bella Figura

As an Italian I have been plagued by something I could not name for most of my young life. But finally in 1986 while visiting Joe’s cousins in San Francisco I was enlightened. So at age 34 I discovered the affliction I was challenged by was known as “La Bella Figura”. Although the explanations to its’ meaning might vary, loosely translated it is “the good impression” … in other words be your ‘best’ at all times, in all places and with all people.

Conversely ‘La Brutta Figura’ envelops all of your wrongdoings. That’s a lot of polite-ical pressure, particularly for a young person. 

I can’t place all the blame on my Mother. She merely inherited it from her Mother. It’s a traditional set of values passed down from generation to generation without anyone realizing it. I swear there exists a ‘Book of Proper’ that never got translated. And I believe the essence of it is not about ‘standing out’ but rather ‘not standing out’. In sharing this with friends, apparently it’s not just the Italian culture that is ruled by such constraints.


Although I choose to live my life by the philosophy “I can do, say or wear anything I want as long as I am prepared to deal with the consequences” it has been an ongoing challenge. Here are just a few examples of the shackles I have struggled to free myself from since childhood …

“But I don’t want to wear a dress. I’m not comfortable.”
“You have to. Every other girl at the party will be wearing a dress and no daughter of mine will stick out by wearing slacks. Now just be a good girl and put the dress on.”

“Did you get the invitation to the shower?”
“No and I hope I don’t because I don’t want to waste a perfectly good Sunday afternoon.”
“Oh Carole don’t talk like that. What if someone heard you?”

“You’re going to the wedding aren’t you?”
“No, I sent the reply back.”
“But you’ll send a gift right?”
“I wasn’t going to. Why should I? I won’t be there.”
“It’s only right. You don’t want them to think you’re cheap.”

“Ah figlia, you better ‘make a visit’. You don’t want people to talk.”
“Nona, who are these people you talk about? You never speak to anyone other than family. You rarely leave your apartment.”
“Ah figlia … people, attsa it.”

“Now why would you wear pink to the funeral home?”
“Ma, she was 95, it’s a celebration.”
“Oh I don’t know. How’s it going to look?”

“Tch, Carole did you have to say that?’
“Oh Ma relax I was just kidding.”
“Well that wasn’t nice. What if they thought you were serious? What will they think of you?”

“You’re not going out wearing THAT are you?”
“Why? I like it.”
“Well do what you want, I don’t care. But I certainly wouldn’t want to be seen looking like that.”

And the finale of them all …

“Carole, can’t you just try to be normal?”
“But Ma, it’s just not as much fun.”

I continue to deal with the fallout of my miscues.
In defense of my Mother and the foremothers before her I admit I have been heard to say to my own children “can you please not draw negative attention to yourself?” Albeit, slightly abbreviated, the message rings of familiarity.

PS C’mon please admit it that you too contend with similar passages from the imaginary ‘Book of Proper’. You do don’t you? Please tell me. It will make me feel so much better ~!!~

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