Real Women Have Curves, the 2002 film based on Josefina
López’s two act play, politicizes the female
form by strategically exposing and subverting dominant ideals
about body image. López takes the overweight form,
so often marginalized (like the immigrant) by society and
popular culture, and redefines this form as a source of strength
and integrity. Ana (America Ferrera), the main character,
an intelligent eighteen-year-old Latina, deconstructs both
the American and Mexican values that are forced upon her as
she becomes a woman between two cultures. In non-fictional
society, young Latinas are often forced to grapple with a
confusing composite of body images. As will be discussed,
a curvier body often has been viewed as acceptable in Latino
culture, but, as United States-based, Latina-focused media
has begun to present the idea of thinness as equal to beauty,
perceptions of body image have become more polarized for young
Latinas. As María Figuero has noted, “Popular
culture can be seen, and has been interpreted by some, as
a structure of dominance that perpetuates and enhances a dominant
ideology invested with the social construction of whiteness,
and correspondingly, with capitalistic commodification."
Real Women Have Curves serves as an excellent representation
of timely, real-world cultural and body image issues facing
young Latinas today. Ana, of her own will, shuns Mexican and
American cultural norms by accepting her body “as is"
– thus rejecting both Latino culture’s demands
she stay thin to be marriageable, as well as Anglo body image
standards delegated by unattainable, popular culture-induced
Latina/o ideas about a woman’s place as the caretaker
of a family are evident in the film. For Ana’s mother,
Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), the primary concern is that Ana’s
weight will prevent her from finding a suitable mate. The
value of her education and intellect is ignored. The Latino
community has at times undervalued women who were not defined
in some way by their attachment to a male. According to Carla
Trujillo, “For many Chicanas…identification as
women, that is, as complete women, comes from the belief that
[they] need to be connected to a man. Ridding [oneself] of
this parasitic identification is not always easy, for we grow
up…defined in a male context: daddy’s girl, some
guy’s girlfriend, wife, or mother." These ideas
extend into the point of view held by some in the Chicano
community that women are not complete until they are mothers:
“Many Chicanas are socialized to believe that [their]
chief purpose in life is raising children." Carmen already
believes that it is too late for her older daughter Estela
(Ingrid Oliu); Ana’s “possibilities" give
her a renewed sense of hope.
Ana, however, has other ideas, and is a disquieting force
for the traditional Mexican wife and mother. Sandra Guzmán
has written of the delicate cultural balance young Latinas
must deal with when faced with the traditional expectations
of their community:
Marriage or a committed relationship takes us to territory
that will bring out our mothers or abuelas in ways we didn’t
expect. And when we find ourselves in that territory…we
struggle against her – that traditional wife who carries
her home on her back. We fight like hell against the automatic
servant and nurturer within us. Some [Latinas] call this the
dreaded “Mexican-maid complex."
Ana is perhaps most unsettling because she is the antithesis
of the non-threatening “good girl" ideal perpetuated
by the cultures that surround her – ideals that seem
to tie weight to traditional women’s household roles,
obedience, and marriage on the Mexican side, and magazine-inspired
expectations of thin, silent beauty on the Anglo side. The
film illustrates how Ana is not appreciated for her intelligence,
progressive views, or independence. In response to Ana’s
father’s statements that Ana wants to go to college
and be educated, Ana’s mother replies that she can “educate"
Ana – to sew, raise children, and care for a husband.
When Ana tells Carmen that she is old-fashioned, proclaiming
that a “woman has thoughts, ideas, a mind of her own,"
Carmen’s response is bafflement: “Thoughts? Ideas?"
The factory workers label Ana a know-it-all, she knows everything
except her proper place. Ana is clearly not the traditional,
meek, “good girl" Carmen wants her daughter to
Carmen makes derogatory comments about Ana’s weight
throughout the film. On Ana’s first day in the factory,
she looks longingly at a beautiful size seven black dress.
Carmen tells her not to get her hopes up about fitting into
it and that she is telling her so for her “own good."
As Maria Teresa Marrero relates, for her “own good"
refers to Ana’s ability to “catch" a suitable
husband. When Ana counters that her mother is also overweight,
Carmen replies firmly, “Yes, but I’m married."
This is to say that she has already caught a man, case closed,
no more to be concerned about – except her daughter
managing the same triumph.
But Ana does not fit into this traditional mold. Instead,
her identity is shifting to meld with modern, feminist ideas
about women’s roles in society. According to Marrero,
“Ana assumes a feminist position that her body is her
own, meant to please and serve her, not fulfill a biological/social
function." Self-validation is more important than the
validation of a man, as Ana tells her mother: “I do
want to lose weight. But part of me doesn’t because
it says to everybody ‘F--k you!’…How dare
anybody tell me what I should look like or what I should be
when there’s so much more to me than just my weight!"
Thus, Ana refuses the containment and marginalization of fat
by the general public. As Jana Evans Braziel has discussed,
“The excessive feminine…threatens the limits of
containment and confinement," refusing society’s
molds and throwing the system into chaos. For Carmen, Ana’s
rejections of the conventional values and expectations the
older generation holds so dear toss everything she knows and
accepts into disarray. Carmen does not know what to do with
Ana. Where is the obedient, self-sacrificing daughter she
expected? The film thus puts forth a shift in Latina identity
with body image as its starting point; Chicana women become
both “perpetrators" and “innovators"
of cultural values," Marrero argues, and push the personal
into the political arena.
Real Women Have Curves also rejects body image ideals
forced on Latinas (and, indeed, all women) by media. Latino/a
culture, in the past, has often been viewed as accepting of
a curvier, larger body size, as discussed by María
Figueroa and Linda Delgado. Delgado claims that weight in
the Latino community shows that one is eating well enough
to deal with family and home burdens. Skinniness can be equated
with unattractiveness and an unhealthy lifestyle, with not
taking care of oneself. What picture does this present of
the Latina body? When tied to the home and domestic duties,
it gives an image of the female body primarily as a place
of comfort, a home and refuge. The food women prepare in their
kitchens is meant to be taken in, to nurture. However, a woman
must not be too fat; that could ruin her chances for marriage.
The idea that a certain amount of weight is necessary for
family strength, combined with the idea that crossing the
line with too much weight makes one incapable of catching
or keeping a husband, creates a dichotomy of body image. Weight
is inextricably tied up with the home and the family, with
traditional women’s roles. Sandra Guzmán, a former
editor of Latina magazine, recounts how during her
girlhood, gordita was an endearing term, and to be flaca or
skinny was to be fea or ugly. Guzmán laments that this
has shifted as a result of acculturation to the United States.
Hence, when Latino/a culture crosses wires with mainstream
U.S. popular culture, the female body takes on a particular
image of a particular beauty in the public’s imagination.
Figueroa criticizes Latina magazine as a case-in-point
for “advancing an assimilationist paradigm that perpetuates
the dominant ideals of white beauty for Latina access into
the mainstream." This includes Latina’s beauty
tips for straightening hair and lunchtime body workouts. Cover
models are usually already highly visible in mainstream American
culture; they include Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and Salma
Hayek. Figueroa points to the thinness of these models and
their Americanized beauty; their clothes and styling do not
“disclose any ethnic or racial markers" that would
brand them as ethnic women. Figueroa does not indicate what
she might mean by this statement, but she does express disappointment
that Latina is not working to accomplish its vision of representation
of Latinas of diverse sizes, shapes, and colors – in
short, the magazine’s covers ignore the heterogeneity
of Latina identity.
Cherrié L. Moraga has concurred with the putting on
a pedestal of “whiteness" in the Chicano community.
In her essay “La Guera," Moraga writes, “I
was educated; but more than this, I was ‘la guera’
– fair-skinned. Born with the features of my Chicana
mother, but the skin of my Anglo father, I had it made. No
one ever quite told me this (that light was right), but I
knew that being light was something valued in my family, who
were all Chicano, with the exception of my father. In fact,
everything about my upbringing …attempted to bleach
me of what color I did have." Moraga feels that the
fact she is well-educated has had less value to her family
than her appearance. In Real Women Have Curves, Ana
must also deal with her mother’s concern with her physical
appearance overwhelming any indication of pride over her daughter’s
achievements in education.
Desire to assimilate into United States’ society, to
achieve the “American Dream," seems to perpetuate
this esteem of one race’s features over another’s.
In Chicano Professionals: Class, Culture, and Identity,
Tamis Hoover Rentería has detailed how the blonde,
thin, Anglo woman has symbolized the “American dream
of success, of moving up the ladder from blue-collar immigrant
to white collar American…To possess a Blonde, or to
be oneself the possessed Blonde, conjured up images of the
‘Good Life,’ White Anglo Saxon Protestant middle-class
style." This desire for a better life, for the America
portrayed in film, television, magazines, and advertisements,
at times even spills over into Mexico’s consciousness.
In Mexico, attractiveness is often associated with European
rather than Indian physiognomy. Advertising billboards in
Mexico regularly depict upper-class looking, blue-eyed blondes
curled around various products (liquor, perfume, dishwashers)
thus symbolically linking the consuming of certain goods with
social mobility, status, and European and/or “Anglo"
looking women…in many Chicano…families, children
[have been] classified as attractive or not according to how
light-skinned or light-haired they were, and whether or not
they had green or blue eyes instead of brown.
In taking a look at a recent issue of Latina magazine,
produced in the United States, I noted that this value of
white, “economically viable beauty" certainly
exalts thinness as well. Latina’s December
2004 cover blurbs tout promises such as “5 ways to eat
what you want and not gain weight! (frijoles and flan included)."
The article itself, written by Karen Grimaldos, begins with
a refrain we have seen many times in “mainstream"
magazines, but with a Latina twist:
It seems that every January, many of us chicas glumly perform
the same holiday ritual: We reach into the dark depths of
our closets, pull out our gordita pants, and walk around feeling
more plump than Papá Noel – a consequence of
having spent weeks piling our plates with typical (and fattening)
fiesta foods such as lechon, tamales, and turión…The
good news is that you can indulge in just about anything you
like (even Abuela’s dulce de leche) without plumping
up, as long as you follow some basic guidelines.
Like Carmen’s nickname for Ana – “Butterball"
– the article clearly demeans the fat body, making it
ridiculous through the connotations of its language. Snickering
mentions of “gordita pants," “more plump
than Papa Noel," and “plumping up" imply
that the fat body is silly and to be shunned. The female body
must be contained in its proper place before its girth grows
too wide. The “good news" according to the piece,
and the message imparted to Latinas young and old in the grand
tradition of American media, is that such a horrifying form
can be – and indeed must be – avoided at all costs.
This idea is reiterated in a fashion spread, mentioned on
the cover as “The Sexiest Party Dresses for Your Curves."
This blurb is not necessarily derogatory, but in the actual
fashion spread, body shapes are polarized once again in the
spectrum of beauty versus undesirability. A “long, lean
frame" is described as flattering, but the larger form
is apologized for, by the women pictured and the magazine
itself. A twenty-five-year-old woman photographed for the
spread states of her body, “Even though I have bigger
hips, I have a small waistline." Not to worry, the article
suggests that a cinched waistline will draw “attention
away from the hips." If Latina’s simple guidelines
are followed to the letter, you too can look like cover model
In the set instructions for the play version of López’s
Real Women Have Curves, the factory staging is meant
to contain collages of “magazine runway ‘fashion’
clippings." Once again, we are back to society’s
containment of women into small packages fit for consumption,
back to Ana’s mother’s obsession that her daughter
be thin and beautiful to be sellable to society and a husband.
As Figueroa reminds us, “Latina leans toward assimilation
through bodily transformation." Sandra Guzmán,
for her part, has admitted perpetuating what she calls the
established “mentality (and trend) within the ranks
of the magazine industry that considers a light-skinned, light-haired,
tall, skinny woman the ideal of female beauty."
In Real Women Have Curves, Ana rejects this phenomenon.
Instead of assimilating into American popular culture exemplars,
Ana remains on the border, refusing to accept the ideals perpetuated
in magazines and the telenovelas her mother adores. As Josefina
López has stated in a 2003 interview with Monica Brown:
during the process of growing into a woman, the “message
was clear that you had to be skinny…it’s very
clear…especially when you watch the telenovelas or…Mexican
or Spanish-speaking TV, it’s always the guera, the skinny
gueras that are on TV. Even though it’s Mexican TV."
Tamis Hoover Rentería agrees with this point: “The
‘novelas’ or soap operas produced in Latin American
countries (and viewed daily in many Chicano households in
the United States) feature light skinned, European looking,
often blond heroes and heroines, occasionally depicting maids
and country bumpkins with more ‘mestizo’ or ‘Indian’
features." As in other media, the telenovelas champion
the “white" ideal of beauty as a result of commodification
of this beauty by dominant culture. In Real Women Have
Curves, Ana’s mother is enthralled with such soap
operas, and subconsciously wants her daughter in some way
to resemble the women portrayed in them. Instead, while Carmen
recounts the latest episode breathlessly, Ana sits outside
of the television room, having a private chuckle at the program’s
ludicrous plot. She does not fall for consumerist views of
“beauty" and lives of excitement and drama.
This, along with Ana’s refusal to lose weight, irritates
Carmen. Ana’s body protects her from cultural paradigms
and permits her to control her own destiny. The “right"
clothes, designed for the “right" bodies as dictated
by the telenovelas and magazines, are irrelevant to Ana. Estela,
Ana’s sister, agrees with this point. In one scene,
she brings Ana a beautiful red dress, stating: “Pretty
dresses aren’t just for skinny girls…I cut this
especially for your body." Estela discloses that she
is designing her own line; this will no doubt include fashions
for larger sizes which is a triumph over Ana’s lament
early in the film when she holds one of the factory’s
dresses commenting on how much work goes into each design:
“I never realized how much work…was put in into
it…but it’s not for me." Ana hangs the dress
back up with a sigh. Estela, in designing beautiful dresses
for curvier forms, has scored a coup. “Such a move constitutes
both a recognition and acceptance of [the factory women] as
women of fashion, elegance, and beauty," argues Margo
Milleret, even if they are not in the cast of a soap opera
or on the cover of Latina. It also reclaims the task
of making the tiny dresses for skinny women that before would
serve to remind the factory workers of their supposed “inferiority"
in terms of body size.
Unfortunately, for a growing number of young Latinas, society’s
voice is too indoctrinated to resist. As Guzmán also
notes, in a 1997 study on the influence of fashion publications
on young women’s satisfaction with their bodies, it
was found that women who were heavily exposed to fashion media
“preferred to weigh less, were less satisfied with their
bodies, were more frustrated about their weight, were more
preoccupied with the desire to be thin, and were more afraid
of getting fat" than peers who were not exposed to such
media (see Turner, Hamilton, Jacobs, Angood, and Dwyer). Anorexia
and bulimia, once believed to be a strictly “white"
problem, have risen in Latinas with the process of American
acculturation. As young Latina girls conform to the dominant
culture, they put more and more emphasis on thinness. In a
1995 medical study, it was found that Latinas who were born
in the U.S. tended to esteem a thinner figure, while those
who immigrated after seventeen years of age had less desire
for a thin body. The study attributes this to the fact that
those arriving in the U.S. later in life were not socialized
early on to the prevailing fashion of thinness perpetuated
in U.S. culture and media.
As Susan Bordo relates in her fascinating book Unbearable
Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, “Culture
not only has taught women to be insecure about their bodies,
constantly monitoring themselves for signs of imperfection,
constantly engaged in physical ‘improvement’;
it also is constantly teaching women (and, let us not forget,
men as well) how to see bodies. As slenderness has consistently
been visually glamorized, and as the ideal has grown thinner
and thinner, bodies that a decade ago were considered slender
have now come to seem fleshy." Bordo also notes that
the “equation of slenderness and success in this culture
continually undermines the preservation of alternative ideals
of beauty." In contrast, Ana is not concerned with taking
up space. Ana’s lack of concern is shown in a rather
humorous scene with Carmen. When seated in a café with
her mother, Carmen tells Ana she could be beautiful if only
she lost weight. “Don’t eat the flan!" Carmen
commands. Ana pops the flan into her mouth with relish, a
look of defiance on her face. She does not hide her eating
like a dirty secret, throwing the accepted system of the shame
an overweight person should have about eating dessert in public
into disarray. Ana’s greatest revolt against the norm
occurs near the end of the film when she encourages all of
the women in the factory to disrobe because of the stifling
heat, regardless of their weight. Then, the women try to take
the prize for who is the fattest, comparing stretch marks
proudly. Ana thus gets the women to liberate themselves from
the garments that encase and restrict their flesh, to show
who they really are. They accept one another as is. Only Carmen
will not join. Ana lifts her mother’s shirt and Carmen
protests, but not before Ana sees a large scar on her mother’s
abdomen. When Ana asks about it, Carmen replies, “This
one is you." The caesarean scar revealed through Carmen’s
own display of flesh shows much about the sacrifices she has
made in life. Her flesh and blood sacrifice has not been to
the beauty myth. Her sacrifice has been for her family, and
she views Ana’s independence and desire to leave to
go to college as a rejection of that sacrifice to the family
unit. As Trujillo states: “Personified by the Virgen
de Guadalupe, the concept of motherhood and martyrdom go hand
in hand." Carmen walks out of the factory, leaving the
other women behind to complete the dress order. Ana stands
firm, telling her mother goodbye.
Ana, in using her body as a vital element in expressing her
views, liberates herself by the internal self rather than
the external, programmed by culture’s uncompromising
rules and restrictions. By staying in tune with personal convictions,
Ana rejects the oppression that surrounds her. Milleret is
accurate in her assertion that the overweight characters in
Real Women Have Curves are “real" in
that they do not conform to fantastical market standards of
what a woman should look like. Instead, they maintain true
individuality through their supposedly unacceptable, marginal
forms, and through this extra weight, learn to honor each
other as women. Magazines, telenovelas, and cultural expectations
can be ignored. The factory becomes a sort of “test
kitchen" where they can be visible in their real bodies.
The idea of the factory as a private, feminine space is interesting
in that it is outside the home, outside of that space traditionally
associated with femininity and, not coincidentally, with food
– the kitchen. The women depend only upon one another
for influence, marveling, “Look at how beautiful we
are!" This is a safe, empowering space. It “offers
an opportunity to redesign how young women grow up and how
they are welcomed into the larger society. Most of all, this
model can influence/infiltrate the worlds around it transforming
them into better places to grow up," Milleret states.
Acceptance of the body resists all of culture’s dictates,
allowing young women to be proud of what they look like.
This scene is unique in the context of the majority of performance.
Film and theater are usually the domain of the temptress -
the blonde vixen and beauty in high heels illuminated in the
stage lights. The fat body as a source of integrity and power
is rarely, if ever seen in these mediums. The dilemma of the
overweight performer, playwright, or screenwriter is to present
the fat female body without ridiculing it or making it a laughable
spectacle in the face of society’s indoctrinated associations
of fat with gluttony and an overall lack of self-control.
But can society’s influence be entirely ignored? After
taking off her clothes in the factory, Ana encourages the
women to get back to work without dressing. “Who cares
what we look like when no one’s watching us?"
she says. But someone is watching them: the audience. The
presence of these bodies on stage and screen forces audience
members to face their own oppressive ideologies about the
female body, to question what is “real" about
these bodies and what is false about their own expectations
for them. As Petra Kruppers notes, much feminist thought has
put forth that the “possibilities that lie in [an overweight
actress’s] fatness can be revalued, wrested back from
patriarchal discourse, and made into a trope for female empowerment."
Ana has served to influence society through the presentation
of her body on stage, rather than the other way around.
For young Latinas in the real world, progress is being made.
In addition to this film, there are current American-produced
handbooks for young Latinas growing up in a world influenced
by multiple cultures, including Sandra Guzmán’s
The Latina’s Bible and Border-Line Personalities:
A New Generation of Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass, and Cultural
Shifting by Michelle Herrera Mulligan, et al. Such books
work to guide Latinas through conflicting traditional family
ways and modern women’s opportunities. Even Latina
magazine in December 2004 featured an interview with Josefina
López (though the weight issues presented in Real
Women Have Curves are not touched). Perhaps such changes
in identity associations with weight demonstrate that attention
to the issues can indeed have an effect on the world at large.
In her work The Last Generation, Cherrié Moraga
writes of a desire to create a picture of the Latina woman
“before the ‘Fall,’ before shame, before
betrayal, before Eve, Malinche, and Guadalupe; before the
occupation of Aztlán, la llegada de los españoles,
the Aztecs’ War of Flowers. I don’t know what
this woman looks like exactly, but I know she is more than
the bent back in the field, more than the assembly-line fingers
and the rigid body beneath him in bed, more than the veiled
face above the rosary beads. She is more than the sum of all
these fragmented parts…How did we become so broken?"
In short, Moraga longs for a time of Chicana women before
all of the oppression and corruption of time and social conditioning,
when a woman could be herself, fully, without outside influence
to cloud her thinking.
In Ana, we get a glimpse of a woman well on her way to this
unbroken, complete beauty, born of self-validation and the
refusal to be corrupted by the chatter outside her. The conclusion
of the film shows Ana, newly arrived in New York to attend
Columbia University. She struts down the city street with
confidence, “walking like a lady" as her mother
told her to do. But, as we see in the way Ana boldly holds
her head high and bravely faces the path ahead of her, it
is Ana’s own personal interpretation of what “walking
like a lady" signifies. In following her own inner voice,
Ana has shifted her identity from the expected to the desired,
on her own terms, with her own interpretation of “real"
From guest contributor Jenny Alexander Lewis