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Film in American Popular CultureVisit the Film Archive
BODY IMAGE AND THE AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE LANDSCAPE:
THE SHIFTING IDENTITY OF YOUNG LATINAS IN
REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES

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 beauty myths.

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 be.

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. Rentería writes:

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 Salma Hayek.

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” beauty.

June 2005

From guest contributor Jenny Alexander Lewis

 
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