Tall, Pale, and Foreign: Life as a female in Italy

“Excuse me, ma’am? Ma’am?”

She looked up from her phone with the look of annoyance found frequently on women working in mid-grade clothing and cosmetics shops in Italy.

“Those sandals in the window, the black and white ones, do you have any for sale?”

“What sandals?”

“The ones in the window outside…they’re black and white.”

I’d made a small grammatical error and now it was all over. My Roman accent, which often protects me from the censure of native speakers (or causes them great delight and amusement), wouldn’t be enough to redeem me now. With a sigh, she walked out of the shop to glare at the sandals on display. Then she pulled back a curtain of long dresses to reveal buried treasure: two pairs of shoes which probably wouldn’t even fit my 8-year-old cousin.

“Um…excuse me ma’am but is there a possibility that you have them in a larger size?”

“A little small for you, aren’t they.  No, just these.”

Me, being very pale.
Me, being very pale.

In the US, I’m a little taller than average, pale but not uncommonly so, and have always been considered, both by myself and others, as fairly small – at the very least, thin (yay metabolism – and yay carbs!). Enter Italy, where I often feel like an invading Viking woman with skin so pale I reflect light like a beacon, stomping around clumsily in the midst of these tan-skinned slender armed (seriously, how did they get bones so small?! want!) tiny women.

Living here in Rome, I’ve found that there are certain things that I just can’t do. Buying foundation and cover-up to match my skin tone is nearly impossible. Store clerks are always trying to sell me shades that make me look like I’m wearing a “victim-of-a-horrific-spray-tanning-accident” costume for Halloween. It’s as if no one in this city understands what pale skin is, and they definitely don’t carry makeup pale enough to blend with it.

Buying hair dye is another chore. I’m convinced that there is a secret conspiracy against fair hair here, because when the molecules make contact with my mousey brown hair (which, by the way, is considered blond in Rome), it turns a thousand shades of gross. More than once I’ve emerged from a bathroom in horror: the dark brown hair dye came out some splotchy shade of grey, the reddish brown a horrible purple.

That thing called ‘one-size-fits-all’ is a sort of ongoing joke in my life here. Early on during my time living in Rome, I foolishly purchased some ‘one-size-fits-all’ underwear, convinced by a sly sales clerk that they were stretchy enough to fit anyone. Wrong. When I arrived home, delighted to try out my new purchase, I found that while they really did stretch, there simply wasn’t enough fabric to do they job they were made for. A later purchase of a tank top yielded similar results – the shirt barely covered my belly button.

When you’re tall, fair skinned, with fair hair, you stick out (quite literally, I stand heads and shoulders over the crowd in many buses). This means that the constant gawking and street harassment all women face here are miraculously multiplied for blonds. When two good friends from the US came to visit me, the three of us inspired dropped sandwiches, disgusting comments, and probably a scooter crash or two while walking down the street, all thanks to our unprecedented tall-and-pale-ness.

When my hair was a very light green (yes you read that right, green) walking along a street at night meant at least one shout of “a bionda”  (meaning something like “hey blond-y”) to which I usually replied (as if this were the adequate response to such behavior) “It’s green!” After living in Rome for almost a year, I did find one “benefit” to my pale-ness: free tattoos. Or, rather, the frequent offer of free tattoos (because shading shows up much better on pale skin!), even tattoo artists begging me to let them tattoo me (what?!). I never took them up on these offers, and really, being reduced to a walking canvas made of pale skin is a bit weird (and can we say, objectifying).

Amongst all these annoyances, the worst, the absolute worst, is shoe shopping. Here in Italy, I must venture into the men’s shoes section if I want to fit more than half my foot into anything. Every once in a while I delude myself into believing that I might be able to finding a pair that fits – to no avail. All I can say is…thank goodness for online shopping.


  • If you want shoes (and any other clothing, for that matter) that deliver speedily and for free to Italy, check out ASOS.
  • For all your makeup needs, Sephora will deliver online orders at a reasonable price.

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10 thoughts on “Tall, Pale, and Foreign: Life as a female in Italy

  1. Thanks for the article! I went to Italy last year and am actually planning on studying at the American University of Rome in fall 2015. I’m extremely pale too (you can see the veins on my arms) but have always embraced my skin color because I would rather be pale than have sun spots. I have light brown hair too. The only difference here is that I’m very short. I didn’t seem to have a problem with the size of clothes, just the price tag… I’m thinner than most people here in America, but when I was in Italy, I noticed that there were many girls much thinner than me.

  2. Excellent article! When I was in Rome about a decade ago with a female friend and we went out to dinner, it took about 2 hours to get the check because (we were told by someone) the proprietor wanted ‘two pretty girls’ sitting outside to attract customers. SIGH 🙂

  3. Oh, you poor thing! I was laughing and cringing while reading this! Latvians stare for no reason in particular but this is beyond the beyond! Thanks for following my blog! Linda.

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