Fat chance

An Italian will tell you if you put on weight. Are we too coy?

Five years ago I went to visit my relatives in southern Italy after an absence of some years. In that time I'd written a book and won an award and built a house. Admittedly, I didn't accomplish that last feat entirely alone, but the point is, I'd done lots; so, I thought, conversation would stray beyond the Pope. I was right - it did.

"Haven't you put on weight," came the first comment, on the first day, within the first five minutes of me getting there. I shuffled uncomfortably. "No, but haven't you?" the offended relative pressed. I reddened like some caught-out, humiliated child. And so it continued. "Have you seen the state of her?" one aunt said when I'd barely left the room. "Yes, that's Annalisa," said another as I climbed the stairs and she stayed in the lobby chatting to a neighbour. "I know," she said sadly. I imagined her shaking her head. "Look what's become of her."

By day five I was a nervous wreck, too scared to meet anybody new and, I am ashamed to admit, slightly teary. Even a big religious procession brought no respite, just contact with more people who would marvel at "what had become of Annalisa" (vanity forces me to point out that I never went beyond a size 16). My boyfriend, who couldn't understand much Italian then, was oblivious to it all. "Just tell me," I said on day eight. "Am I, like, really huge and I just don't realise it?" In my imagination I had now morphed into something from a grotesque Lucian Freud painting, all mottled, bulging flesh and slightly distorted limbs. His answer was encouraging.

The point is, I was no longer the tiny 16-year-old they remembered. Although I'd been back many times since then, in their mind's eye I was still a teenager. My curvier, more feminine figure (one relative poked at my breasts and asked, "When did you get them?") reminded them that time had moved on - for them, as well as for me.

In the part of Italy I come from, it's a myth that Italians are fat. They have this intensely pragmatic view of weight: if you put it on, you lose it. If you put it on, someone tells you. The fact is, I had put on two stone but none of my lovely friends back home in the UK had told me; to them, I was about more than that. Obviously, I started to wonder which attitude was better. I've looked at people and thought: "They've put on weight and they're not looking their best." But should I voice those thoughts or lie?

That trip to Italy stung badly - so much so, that I did not venture back until 18 months later, and 20lb lighter, despite being pregnant. My mad, rude Italian aunts and neighbours (although not my mother, who has never once commented on such matters) spurred me on to lose weight. And yes, I looked much better and felt more like me. So who had done me the bigger favour? The friends who had been complicit in my weight gain and said nothing, or those who had momentarily hurt me but in the long run made me look and feel healthier?