Frequently, and especially during our Conversation Classes, the expression ‘bella figura’ crops up when we are talking about how someone looks so as to pay a compliment. This is probably because you have the word figure in English which, among many other meanings, refers to ‘the shape of the human body and especially a woman’s body that is attractive’ (Oxford Dictionary). Therefore, it sounds fantastic to our ears when someone is telling us that we have a great figure.
Unfortunately, the exact translation does not have the same meaning in Italian. In fact, to compliment someone on their appearance we use other expressions, such as ‘sei in gran forma’ (you are in great shape) or ‘hai un bel fisico’ (you have a beautiful figure) or ‘hai un bell’aspetto’ (you have a beautiful look); this last one also refers to things, such as plates, for example: questo piatto di spaghetti ha proprio un bell’aspetto (this plate of spaghetti looks very good).
The word combination ‘bella figura’ is used in the expression ‘fare una bella figura’ which means ‘to give a good impression’. In fact, everyone would be happy to hear: ‘Hai fatto una bella figura ieri durante il tuo colloquio di lavoro’ (you gave a good impression yesterday during your job interview). The opposite of ‘fare una bella figura’ is ‘fare una brutta figura’, which has the corresponding English expression ‘to make a poor figure’.
Allora (so), what do you say to an Italian friend if you want to pay them a compliment? I would be more careful if you are talking to women. Women can tell each other: ‘Hai un bel fisico’ and this is a great compliment, but it might sound cheeky if it is from a male friend who is not very close. To anyone, you can say: ‘Sei proprio in forma!’ and ‘farai sempre una bella figura’ (you will always make a good impression)!