Anecdotes of a Quasi-Immigrant: The Girl With The Big Butt
Updated: May 18
I grew up an Italian citizen straddling the French-Swiss border. While Europe may seem like a romantic assembling of countries that all kind of go together, to most outsiders, it is a union of very diverse people, with starkly different cultures, and self-identified varying physical traits. Germans are tall and broad. Swedes are blond. French and Swiss women are petite. Italian women are loud and curvy. (When I was getting ready to write this post I thought to myself, "I guess we're the 'Latinas' of the European world?" and it sounded pretty-much right, stereotypes and all. Maybe that's how I ended up marrying a Latin American man? Hmmmm). From my earliest memories of social interactions with other children, and then with adults, it was always made clear to me that I was an outsider. I was a foreigner. Not only was I a foreigner because I was Italian in France, but I was also an outsider because I was a French resident traveling into Switzerland every morning for school and after school activities, then traveling back to France for the evening. You can add to this the further layer that I was also an Italian girl, slightly on the feral side, attending the International School of Geneva which, despite the word "International" was still very British in its social norms. I mean, talk about being a square peg in round, oval, and star-shaped holes.
Searching the memory bank, certainly the International School of Geneva Elementary Campus, Pregny (the g is silent) was the first place where my outsider status was brought home to me. I was routinely told my lunch "stank" (it was Brie and/or Camembert sandwiches) and the teachers agreed. In second grade I sat down to eat with everyone else and every single child got up and moved to another table. That's over fifteen children clearing a massive table. The teacher did nothing; just watched it happen. It wasn't the first or the last time I was made to feel different.
I distinctly remember sitting with the blonde girls, who had ribbons in their hair, and impeccable shirts and skirts (typical Swiss girls, in fact). We were in our music conservatory class. The teacher always had this disdain for me. I could never quite understand it. But there I was, with my brown hair held back roughly by a hairband, my dungarees, and oversized 80s sweater. I studied, I could keep up with everyone, I could read music like I now read books, but I was always "less than." It's this weird feeling of being made to feel like you're not good enough but nobody really tells you why. This particular dynamic became common. I was once horseback riding and the instructor was assessing us to determine our level. I really liked horseback riding. I would come in really early in the winter mornings to clean all the hooves, shovel dung, brush the horses, lay out everyone else's gear, and I would lead classes with near perfect technique. But as the teacher observed us she remarked to my mother, "I mean, the difference is obveeeeous." My mother looked at me, then at the other girls, then at me, and the other girls again, and sardonically answered, "I mean, she's not wearing a ribbon in her hair. But we can do that...." I was a brunette, with messy hair down to my waist, wearing jeans tucked into my boots and a large sweater. I didn't look French, I just didn't. My otherness was imprinted in this body.
You would think that the otherness would have disappeared when I spent summers in Italy. It did not. I was not culturally Italian. I did not understand the other kids, I was always out of sync with the way they thought and communicated with each other. My perfect Italian and passport to go with it did nothing to fix that. I was being raised by Italian parents but that was happening in a completely different cultural context. So even Italy made little sense. (It's better now, actually. I think because I have become better at code switching into and out of cultures. I do it in France, I do it in Switzerland, and I do in the United States. I not only speak the language, but I speak the cultural cues. It takes time to learn that).
As puberty made its way through my veins, things did not get better. The unkempt feral brunette turned into an athletic girl, with curves, and an unmistakable bubble butt. Boys noticed and made me pay for it. Girls and boys started calling me a "Chicken Butt." (You know how chickens look, with their butts sticking up? That's the image they were invoking). In a twist that should not surprise you, this strain of insult was particularly directed at girls from African countries, like Algeria and Morocco, as well as French girls form the Antilles, a Caribbean territory. At least I was in excellent company. As I grew into this body, which felt (and still feels) like a giant in France and Switzerland, I started wearing skirts and boots. (Again, just to underscore this point, I wore adult sizes starting around 13 years of age and had serious difficulty finding shoes that were big enough in the women's department. I'm not kidding.) As I grew into this body, so did the attention I was getting. Terrible, violent, awful attention.
Middle School and High School were difficult. I was called a whore, a cunt, and a slut by other students on a daily basis. Every time I walked into the Cafeteria I had to hear schoolmates ask me how much I would charge for a blowjob. Every time I was at my locker, I had to listen to people tell me I belonged in the Red Light District. It was incessant. However, one day I had a small "popularity breakthrough." I was accepted into the school fashion show. Now look, this was a Big Deal. The school would borrow clothing from Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel, Hermes, Gucci, Armani, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, you name it. It was a show that lasted several hours, with an auditorium full of parents and a huge stage. I. Was. Stoked. For once, for ONCE, I was going to be one of the "cool" kids. The Fashion Show Committee chose me to wear about 13 outfits, which meant I had to go to several stores, with the other "models" and get fitted.
We were in one such store--it may have been Jean Paul Gaultier, but I am not entirely sure. I was there with the other girls; the skinnier, petite girls. I, as usual, felt like The Hulk. I slipped into a dressing room to get ready for my fitting when the store lady came back, clothes in hand, and asked these schoolmates of mine, "Where is the girl with the big butt?" I was fifteen. I heard it, they heard it, and this adult thought it was totally fine to refer to me that way. This otherness was in my body and there was no escaping it. It would stay with me forever.
Three years later, I sat in the front seat of the car for my driving test, in France. I had been taking classes with a nationally accredited school for two years. I had a permit, which allowed me to drive with my father in the car. Want to know the first question the examiner asked? "Where are your residency papers?" I was a foreigner and nothing else mattered. The fact that I had been in France for fifteen years (from three to eighteen years of age), the fact that I had done all the required steps and testing, the fact that I already had a permit. It didn't matter. "Where are you residency papers?" I was eighteen and I (somewhat arrogantly) answered, "My father is a diplomat. I don't need residency papers." He failed me. I never got my driver's license in France. I eventually got it in the United States.
These events took place over two decades ago but they were not phenomenons relegated to my past. This demarcation of my otherness continued through college in the United States and through several jobs. I "mispronounced" words, which people always pointed out (it's Taaco, not Tahco; it's "I've beeen to the mall," not "I've bin to the mall"). I am blunt (which is really code for refusing to cede space), I am loud ("you're such an Italian"), I supposedly get "agitated" (which is code for when I unequivocally set boundaries). I am always "other."
I am no longer the Girl With The Big Butt (because I moved to another continent and also because I grew up and figured out this body does amazing things for me) but I am still the woman with the big personality, the big opinions, and the big voice. And regardless of why these impressions endure, I always experience them as a reinforcement that I am "other" everywhere, every time, with everyone. I recognize that there is certainly an intersection of gender expectations and cultural norms, but those always existed. Different things would've been more acceptable from a boy. Certainly, nobody would've referred to me as The Boy With The Big Butt! As an adult, I've made peace with this sense of otherness because I built my tribe out of my husband and then my children. I now merely observe it like an outsider remarking on social mores. Just like I was not French when in France, and not Swiss when in Switzerland, and not Italian when in Italy, I am a Quasi-Immigrant in the United States.