For the first decade I lived in Milan, I was convinced that Italian women were nuts when it came to their beauty regimes. How did they look so good, I wondered, and do so little?  Born and raised in Los Angeles, where I was probably doing stomach crunches in my mother’s womb, my first source of consternation was at Milanese gyms where women spent 45 minutes chatting in front of the bike machine and only 10 minutes actually on it.

Post work out, while in the crowded locker room, I noticed another peculiarity. Not only did these same women proudly stand up buck naked in their high heels, they spent a full 15 minutes lovingly massaging body lotion over every inch of their tawny colored bodies—which, incidentally, remained the same color all year round. Italian women are not interested in building muscle, but they are expressly interested in eradicating cellulite. The idea that vigorous exercise might aid in this pursuit does not cross Italian women’s minds when a cellulite cream like Somatoline or special butt and thigh drainage massages will do the job with much less sweaty effort.

Going to the hairdresser was another head-scratcher. Though there are more beauty salons here than there are bars, 99 percent of them are tiny holes in the wall, crammed with Thierry Mugler fragrances and bad lighting.  “Who cares if they’re ugly?” my Italian friend Marina Piano frequently reminds me. “They’re actually quite good. My grandmother never washed her hair at home. She went to the hairdresser three times a week.”

Today, Italian woman continue that tradition, mostly because the cheaper surroundings mean better prices all around. If your blow out costs 20 euro, why wouldn’t you go twice a week? Another carry over from the past is the hair salon as one-stop beauty center, including waxing and manicures. But the woman who rolled by on her wheely chair and left a messy splash of lacquer all over my cuticles while I was getting my hair cut was a constant source of irritation. Later, I discovered a Milanese secret: a Cuban woman will come to my house for an extensive mani / pedi complete with scrub bath while I’m seated at my own desk.

The biggest cause for beauty alarm when I first moved to Italy in 2001 was requesting a Brazilian bikini wax and being informed by a scandalized Italian woman that that particular service was for puttane (prostitutes) only. I returned home with what I had asked for only to discover that my Italian husband was more offended than the therapist. Today, endless syndication of Sex in the City has made more thorough grooming less shocking here, while Chinese-run nail salons have finally popped up all over town.

Still, Milanese women remain un-obsessed with cult products (unlike the Americans) and yet they look gorgeous, like the 72-year-old Benedetta Barzini who walked in Antonio Marras’ show or any one of the Great, Gorgeous Girls we’ve featured here on LaDoubleJ. Their beauty regimes start from the inside by avoiding gluten and sugar, and ordering a glass of wine but only drinking half of it. They are much more likely to use natural products, like creams whipped up by their pharmacist, olive oil compresses for their hair, or freshly pressed olio di Iperico (St. John’s Wort) for their face. They love an old wives’ tale—using the extract of snail mucus (Stefano Gabbana is a fan) as a wrinkle-buster, for example, or splashing freezing cold water on their face every morning. “My grandmother taught me to do that when I was a kid,” said my heavy smoking yet wrinkle-less friend Cristina Cavatore. “She passed away at 89 and had, like, two wrinkles.”

“Beauty is more about our attitude,” says the striking and makeup-free architect Laura Rimini. “We are always smiling and looking for the sun.” If there is one thing Milanese women do indulge on, it is after-sun balms from Lancaster or Piz Buin, basting themselves post tanning with rich creams. The bronze obsession doesn’t stop with nature: the tanning salon (known as La Lampada, or the “lamp”) has almost as much value as a pair of Prada shoes. As Rimini says: “We are much more obsessed with the quality of our clothes, food and wine than a face cream.”

Indeed, it has taken me more than a decade to find a dermatologist here that has even heard of Fraxel, Thermage or Ultherapy. Even then, the doctor would much rather discuss fashion with me than get to work on blasting away the wrinkles and uneven spots.   “You’re bellissima,” my new dermo (who is also a plastic surgeon) tells me every time I see her for low-impact vitamin injections. “I wouldn’t change a thing.” So I leave without much having happened but feeling better nonetheless.

My other recent discovery, thanks to a tip from my beautiful American friend Kelly Russell, is an 85-year-old facialist who is four feet tall and works from the attic of a tiny perfume shop where I have to crouch down to enter. In between the old-fashioned steam and extractions (plus the probiotic and natural antibiotic pills she has given me that have done miracles for my adult-acne prone skin), she pats my hand and gives me grandmotherly advice on love, life and how to make babies. By the way, my skin has never looked better. You know what? I’ve decided the Italians aren’t so crazy after all.

– J.J. Martin

An abbreviated version of this article  written by J.J. Martin ran in the Daily Telegraph, UK.

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