Differing cultural views on women teach us important lessons

The view from the top of the Duomo in Florence, Italy. May 25, 2015. 

Katherine Sproles

“You’re a bad American, because 98% of the American girls I go out with, I sleep with.”

I remember our program director telling us that a man buying us a drink or dancing with us could mean something entirely different to him than it did to us, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized the stereotype every study abroad orientation, lecture, and workshop reiterated was real.

Italian men really did believe American women were out with them for one thing only.

My friends and I had decided to go have drinks with our waiter from the night before. He showed us were the locals hung out and toured us around Rome. What we thought was an innocent, friendly evening was the opposite of what our tour guide, Lorenzo, was hoping for.

I guess you could say we were shocked when he told us he had expected sex. He wasn’t pushy. He never tried to kiss us. There was no inclination that he wanted to be anything more than friends.

But that illustrates a fundamental truth about studying abroad: each culture views and respects women in different ways.

The more time I spent in Italy, the truer the statement seemed.

If our group went out to nightclubs, we were sure to have someone try to pinch our butts. Walking down the street with any skin showing was sure to receive a catcall. Italian men had no problem coming up to us on the street and talking to us out of the blue.

Not only did our stereotype encourage their behavior, but it’s part of Italian culture for the men to ogle women. The combination of the two was like gas to a fire.

It was an intense period of culture shock adjusting to how Italian men treated woman.

Don’t get me wrong—I never felt I was in danger nor did I feel disrespected by any men in Italy. I had several Italians explain to me that their catcalls were a sign of respect for our beauty and not an insult. In America catcalls were preceded with a feeling of disgust, but Italian men wanted the catcalls to make us feel beautiful.

There’s an Italian phrase “la bella figura” or “the beautiful figure” that is not just a saying but also a way of life.

From the way Italians conduct themselves in social situations to the perfectly tailored shoes they wear— care and precision is put into their actions to make the best possible impression. It makes sense then if everything must look beautiful and composed that Italian men are hardwired to look for the beauty in a woman as if they were looking at a famous piece of art.

While I wasn’t a fan of their execution, there are some lessons to take away from “la bella figura.” Finding the beauty in every woman, every day is something I can get behind.