Why you should care
Because there’s a lot more than looks to a pretty face.
Barely 15, the young contestant strutted up the catwalk toward hundreds of guests and reporters at the 1950 Miss Italia beauty pageant. She looked like a typical postwar Mediterranean ideal: voluptuous, with rounded hips and a full bosom.
Clad in a tight swimsuit that revealed her hairy armpits — real woman didn’t need to wax — the teenage Sophia Loren exuded confidence. But she still lost, because while the actress would become known as one of the world’s sexiest women, she first had to change Italy’s perception of pretty.
Plus sizes meant a woman was not just beautiful but also in good shape.
“Her body reflected the standards of a fertile, healthy woman whose generation had survived war hunger,” says Patrizia Mirigliani, Miss Italia patron and the daughter of Enzo Mirigliani, the pageant’s founder. But Loren’s features were “too modern [and] irregular for the time,” she notes. Women back then had heart-shaped faces and small mouths, unlike Loren’s full, sensual lips, square jaw and high cheekbones. “But we created a special title just for her: Miss Elegance,” Mirigliani explains.
The ideal and understanding of beauty has evolved in Italy, changing standards and body sizes, but one thing remains constant: All Miss Italia contestants reflect a “girl next door” image of someone longing to fulfill her dreams, says Mirigliani. “Miss Italia symbolizes Italy’s national pride on the world stage, just like Marianne for France,” she adds.
In the 1950s, the beauty pageant became the symbol of postwar Italian opulence. Gentlemen and ladies invited to the contest would come dressed in their best cocktail attire and furs, wearing fine jewels, smoking cigars and drinking whiskey.
Setting a beauty standard, the organizing committee introduced the 90-60-90 body rule — the standard size, in centimeters, for a woman’s bosom, waist and hips — requiring all contestants to be curvy, bikini-clad pinup types. It was considered scandalous to display even a tiny bit of belly button. Actress Lucia Bosé, who symbolized the ideal “roundish” feminine woman, won the Miss Italia title in 1947 clad in an unrevealing bikini. “A bit of fat was considered sensual, natural,” says Mirigliani. “Plus sizes meant a woman was not just beautiful but also in good shape.”
The Miss Italia pageant reflected societal trends that, for decades, remained deeply Catholic and sexist. Divorce and abortion were only legalized in the 1970s, for example, and Italian women had long been considered the “property” of either their fathers or their husbands. In 1976, a scandal rocked the pageant when a contestant was caught topless at the beach. She was eliminated; a few years later, another contestant was kicked out because she was a single mother. In 1997, Cuban-Italian Denny Mendez became the first “Black” Miss Italia. The jury had another winner in mind, but the public voted for Mendez, forcing open the doors to multiculturalism.
But the biggest changes were reflected in beauty standards, Mirigliani says. By the end of the 1970s, “sizes started to shrink, and by the 1990s we had ‘Barbie-style’ queens like Martina Colombari” with long legs, flat bellies, small breasts and tiny waists. Such contestants were influenced by Miss America and Miss Universe, Mirigliani says, noting that winners dreamed of becoming international supermodels.
Changing perceptions of beauty prompted the jury to abolish the 90-60-90 rule in 1993. But then judges faced an onslaught of anorexic contestants, which forced them to establish strict rules against contestants being too skinny, thus reopening the door to curvier women. Today, Italian beauty queens are a mix — some thin, some round. The public’s perception of beauty has changed, Mirigliani explains, noting how it’s not just about standards and rules but also about feminist strength. The pageant was launched in 1946 — the same year Italian women were granted the right to vote — and “Miss Italia has supported women’s emancipation since then,” Miriglani says. “A pretty face and body are instruments to becoming independent and turning into a self-made woman.”
Contestants today have gone back to wanting a more gratifying cinema career, such as Loren had. In 2003, the winner was a slightly stout Sicilian, Francesca Chillemi; while she may have been shorter than the other contestants, Chillemi was considered sensual, and funny: When the jury asked her what she disliked most about her body, Chillemi started laughing and covered her ears. “They’re huge and stick out too much!” she exclaimed. That response landed her the victory, and today she is one of Italy’s most popular TV actresses.
Whatever the beauty recipe of the day, one objective aspect has remained throughout, says Raoul D’Alessio, who carried out a scientific study of beauty queens’ facial traits: “They all have that particular winning gene that comes from being Mediterranean — a mix of races from four continents, which enhances a woman’s attractiveness.” Whatever their size.