‘Real Women Have Curves’ Is The Body Positivity Message We Need Now More Than Ever
Shockingly, it’s been over 15 years since “Real Women Have Curves” hit the big screen, exposing the world to America Ferrera for the first time, as our Latina icon of body positivity and self-love. In a thousand ways, this film sparked real change in Hollywood and in our Latino-American culture. In a thousand other ways, from overbearing, manipulative Latina mothers to virginity as the measure of female value, it’s as if nothing has changed.
Let’s check out some unknown facts about the film and how its still offering an important lesson to young Latina women owning agency over their bodies. THe internet was still pretty new in 2002 so some of these might come as a shock.
The film is based on a play written by Josefina López.
The idea for the play didn’t come to her in an instant. It was a building fury beginning as an 18-year-old in her high school drama class when her teacher had something hard to say. In a recent interview, López shared her teacher’s response to her student’s embarrassment to wear a leotard:
“‘If you’re really serious about being an actress, you have to lose weight, because no one will ever cast you as the ingénue if you don’t lose weight.’ And I started to cry because I was always afraid to even think that I could be an actor, because I thought you had to be white, and I equated being white with being beautiful. When she told me that I cried, and then she started crying with me, and she said, “I feel so bad telling you this, because I was told the same thing. I’m not telling you this because I think you should change, but this is the way the business works. Men want to play the heroes in all the stories, so I guess women have to be thin enough to be lifted up into their arms to walk into the sunset, because men get to be the heroes of all of the stories.”
“If there are no stories about chunky girls getting laid, or being heroes, then I’m going to write those stories. “
That’s when an American classic was born. The similarities between López’s childhood and that of her protagonist, Ana García, played by America Ferrera, are poignant. Both struggle with society telling them to be ashamed of working class parents, of being dark-skinned, of being curvy, of being Latino.
There isn’t a single mention of outside society telling Ana she’s fat. It’s all from her mother, Carmen.
We have the studies today to back up López’ powerful claim that our mothers offer the most formative perception we will have of our bodies. I have never, ever, seen my own mother not be on some diet (“solo yucca because it’s mostly water”) or seen her eat a slice of flan without whispering, “ok just one bocadito,” as if anyone cared but herself.
Anyone else have a mami like that?
Their “que pesado” dynamic is relevant for all of us.
Carmen: Straighten up, walk like a lady. Even l, in my condition, I walk like a lady.
Ana: [mockingly] *Flips hair ~17 times* *Shakes hips so silly*
Lupe Ontiveros won an award at Sundance for her performance of Carmen.
Ontiveros, who died in 2012, always played women we loved to hate (“Selena,” duh). Her life was truly remarkable, though. She worked as a social worker for 18 years before she started taking some extra work, which turned into a long career in Hollywood.
Ana wants to go to college, but Carmen forbids her from “breaking the family apart.”
Much later, a movie called “Lady Bird” came out that read like a white version of López’s story. The mothers are overbearing and won’t let her go to college. López spoke through tears when commenting about the differences, however.
“I also deserve a place in Hollywood and the opportunity to continue telling impactful stories. I co-wrote a better version of ‘Lady Bird’ that challenges the status quo,” she said. “I wish my film had been appreciated [the same way].”
Carmen uses the guilt tactic for casi todo to control Ana.
At first Carmen succeeds in guilt-tripping Ana from going to college because of her abuelito, but she later decides that it’s just something she has to do. Her father gives her his blessing and her abuelito tells her that she’ll always be in his heart.
Carmen, meanwhile, never even gets out of bed to tell Ana goodbye.
Meanwhile, Ana’s older sister, Estela, is fighting to keep her factory going.
She’s sewing designer dresses for Bloomingdales that sell for $600 on the rack, and is paid $18 for each. She struggles to meet deadlines and pay rent alongside the mental health effects of knowingly being exploited. Her dream is to start her own line.
After Ana asks for a small loan from their father for Estela, she designs a dress just for Ana.
At first, when Ana sees the dress, she scoffs, “Come on, you know I can’t fit into this.” Her response is everything, and since 2002, the clothing industry has changed. There are “plus size” lines in so many stores from Target to Bloomingdales.
Personal opinion: we still need to redefine what “plus size” really is, because ‘regular’ sizes leave little room for athletic builds, curves and hips that are absolutely beautiful and normal for Latinas.
Ana and America Ferrera are the same person: dreamers.
In a memorable Q&A on the 15 anniversary of the film’s release, Ferrera talks about how the film changed her life:
“I could have never known that at 17, being one of six children to a single Honduran immigrant mother, growing up in the Valley, where months went by where we didn’t have warm running water, or running water at all, or electricity, having this dream of being an actress, coming from where I came from. My own family, my friends, my teachers, people would say to me, ‘That’s very unlikely.’ But I, with the naïveté of a young person, had been told there was nothing I couldn’t do and I believed it.”
All summer that Ana works in her sister’s “sweat shop”, she’s secretly applying to colleges.
The mother-daughter relationship is the most important to Ana, just like us.
Her mother is always making up maladies to manipulate her family to give her attention. She even wakes Ana up one night to share her secret: she’s pregnant. When Ana tells her she’s imagining things, her mom just averts her eyes and changes the channel, in the most passive aggressive Mexican mother way possible.
But the relationship that changes her is one with white boy Jimmy.
It literally blossoms while you hear Carmen in the background talking about a telenovela where a boy tells a girl, “he didn’t care what she looked like… that he loves her, that he wants her.” Spoiler: she gets pregnant and while she’s on a bus to Rio to elope, she sticks her head out the window to say bye to her mother…and is decapitated.
Carmen: “Ana, you better listen. That’s what happens to people who don’t listen to their mother.”
For the first time, Ana confides in someone outside her family what it’s like to feel fat and ugly in her mother’s eyes.
Mamis listen up, because Carmen is pretty brutal, but most of us didn’t grow up with mothers who straight up called us fat (gordita, claro, but it was loving). Studies show that even if your mother tells you up and down how guapa you are, when children witness their own mother’s criticize their own bodies, they learn to do the same. Monkey see, monkey do.
And she lives the life she wants to live.
She’s not having sex or trying to go to college to spite her mother. Ana is reclaiming her own body and future outside of what her family expects from her.
“Real Women Have Curves” gives us the most tender love scene to date on the big screen.
This wasn’t a passionate, aggressive sex scene. This was Ana telling Jimmy to turn the lights on first, “I want you to see me. See, this is what I look like.”
“What a beauty.”
This is the story that we need more of in 2018; one that shows a young woman affirming her consciousness around her sexuality. She’s rejecting the shame that she was raised with and is intentional and thoughtful about accepting, and sharing, exactly who she is.
We never rooted so hard for a teenager to run away.
Carmen: Why didn’t you value yourself?
Ana: Because there’s more to me than what’s in between my legs!
It takes so much courage and self-awareness to not let that mierda eat you alive. Ana won’t put up with any of it and calls her mother out on her fake pregnancy. The next scene, they’re at the doctor and it’s confirmed: Carmen is going through menopause.
The most iconic scene of the whole film is revolutionary even to this day.
While back then, seeing any women strip down to their bra and underwear was edgy and scandalous, this wasn’t a sexualizing moment for the women in Estela’s factory. This was pure empowerment and validation. It’s obvious that Ana is in full ownership of her body post-sex and casually takes off her shirt because it’s too hot in the factory.
Carmen starts to shame Ana, “Look at you, you look awful,” when the women rally around her and start complaining and comparing different parts of their bodies they don’t like. In the end, they all laugh about it and decide to just work sin ropa.
Even better, Ana finds her way out of the sweat shop and into Columbia University.
While college was the answer for Ana, and the hope for those of us who idolized her in this film, the education gap for Latinos and whites has only widened since 2002. Only 22 percent of Latino Americans ages 25 to 64 held a two year college degree or higher in 2016 compared to more than 30 percent of black Americans and half of white adults.
We need to do better to make Ana’s dream a more feasible reality.
We need more real stories of Latinos that mirror our own.
We’re doing better with shows like One Day at a Time and Jane the Virgin, but telenovela obsession is in our blood.
In the 15 year anniversary interview, America Ferrera shares:
“It is so painful sometimes to think about how little has happened for Latina women in film, or just people of color, since this film, and the way that it was received. But I think what keeps me going and a lot of women and people of color going is, if we don’t break down the doors that we can break down, then we’re not doing justice to the people coming behind us.”