As a child, I spent a little too much time in front of the TV whenever my mother left me at my abuela’s house after our Friday family lunches. The adults would go back to work and I was free to sit in front of the TV in my abuela’s bedroom while drinking a huge glass of Coca-Cola and eating as much popcorn as my tummy could handle. During one of those relaxing Friday afternoons, I came across a movie that caught my eye: Real Women Have Curves. A movie about a daughter defending herself when her mother called her fat? I was sold.
Of course, back then I was too young to fully understand everything going on in the film — I was only 10, after all — but even then and despite our age difference, I felt some sort of kinship with America Ferrera’s Ana García. Just like Ana was in the film, I’d been fat (or at least a couple of sizes larger than most of my classmates) for most of my young life, and my mother never missed the opportunity to remind me of all the ways I was failing in life because of it (much like Ana’s mom does in the movie).
You see, I’ve been gorda for most of my life, or at least that’s what I was made to believe even when I wasn’t actually fat. I was always the girl who wouldn’t dare wear shorts, let alone a bathing suit (even though I live in a beach city where the average temperature for about 90% of the year is 86ºF). I’d wear jeans and a hoodie during spring and summer, hoping that the extra layers of fabric would hide my curves and fat from the world. I, like Ana, also had a Doña Carmen in my ear (funny enough, her name was also Carmen) telling me I would never be good enough because of the way my body looked. I, too, had to endure years of emotional torture from the women in my family, which included (but was not limited to) being made to stand in front of a mirror in my undies, only for my mother to remind me how “no boy would ever want a fat girl who looks pregnant.” As a result, I started dieting at eight years old (and only stopped at around 25), hoping to magically shed away the shame and disappointment my elders felt when they looked at me.
Twenty years after I first watched Real Women Have Curves, I had the chance to talk to Josefina López, the woman who wrote the source material and co-wrote the screenplay for the film.
López says what made her want to write Real Women Have Curves was the anger she felt at how unjustly women are treated by society. “I feel like I channeled the story – like it’s mine, but it’s not really mine. I feel like it’s the story of women and it just needed to be told. It liberated me – I was so angry, I had so much coraje and this was one of the ways I made peace with my anger at the incredible injustices against women and the fact that our worth is measured by how we look.” Honestly, I can relate to that. For a very long time, I carried so much anger. And that anger weighed heavier on my soul than any amount of fat ever could.
“Being fat became like a way to say F you to society. Being fat was one of the ways we could rebel and not let ourselves be dominated,” recounts López. Even now, twenty years after the movie came out, we’re still not fully allowed to show strong emotions, shamed for being “hysterical” or “hot-headed” when we’re just being human.
Women’s anger is obvious in the film, both in Doña Carmen and in her daughters. We get to see Doña Carmen deal with her own insecurities in the only way she knew how to: by being violent against herself and her daughters, hoping that her anger and unkind words would somehow protect Ana and Estela from the harsh realities of the “outside world.”
For her part, López says, “Our mothers become puppets for the patriarchy. All those things they’ve internalized, they push onto their daughters to ‘protect’ us, not realizing the damage they’re doing. The way I healed things with my mother was by showing her compassion. She was taught garbage by her mother, my grandmother, and she was passing that down to me and wanted me to carry it. And I said ‘no, I’m not going to carry around that garbage.’”
As a mother, López is trying her best not to pass down these hurtful patterns and behaviors to her own children: “I often think I am helping them, but I realize I sound like my mother, trying to tell me to lose some weight or be this and that. And I realize that I come from a place of good intentions, but me just being quiet, and just being loving and kind and not saying anything is probably more helpful than the advice I’ve already given them two or three times before.”
Whether we like it or not, these toxic beliefs of what is beautiful, desirable, and worthy affect us and the way we move through life. “I remember thinking ‘oh, I have low self-esteem’ but then I realized that I very rarely meet a woman with high self-esteem,” says López about her own healing journey. “I mean, I have great self-esteem now, but I have taken tons of workshops, done tons of healing, and gone to therapy. I’ve had to spend thousands to love myself and be here. So no, this isn’t a personal problem.”
“Society makes us believe that if we just lose however much weight, then things will be good enough. But the reality is, for society, if someone isn’t born a man, then they will never be good enough — that’s the message we’re constantly getting. We try to fool ourselves into thinking that if we lose more weight or lighten our hair a little more then it’ll be okay, but it’ll never be okay.” And the sad thing is, she’s not wrong. It takes a lot of work, time, and money (which by the way, Latina women don’t have much of, since we still make 53 cents to every white man’s dollar, as Josefina was quick to remind me) to learn how to be at peace with ourselves.
Women have to deal with so much generational trauma and we’re expected to do the work to cope with all of that and somehow also have time to make ourselves look pretty. We have to deal with society (and our families) constantly reminding us that we shouldn’t be gordas (even though no one complains about having una cuenta de banco gorda). We had to deal with feeling insecure in our own skin and having that affect our love lives, sex lives, work lives… And we now have to unlearn all of that and do better as we become mothers and aunts.
Personally, I no longer consider “gorda” an insult and in fact, use the word as much as possible to describe myself (not “gordita,” not “llenita,” not “chubby.” Just “gorda,” period). I no longer think “you’re not fat, you’re beautiful” is an acceptable compliment (this is something Jimmy, Ana’s secret boyfriend in the film, says to her when she says she’s fat). I am both fat and beautiful, those are not mutually exclusive. I can proudly dance around in my underwear and feel sexy in my bathing suit at the beach, but it’s taken so much work to get to this point.
Despite change being slow and painful, Josefina says, “I think things will be different 20 years from now as women continue to discover their value, especially as we age and become wiser and don’t allow people to dismiss us. We say ‘we’re here and we have value, and we have all these wonderful things to offer to society.’ Humanity needs to heal and the only way to heal is through women; especially the wisdom of women. Hopefully, now people will listen to us, and if they don’t, we will yell and scream and be listened to.”
And she’s definitely leading this revolution by example, “I’m going to have the life that I was meant to have and I’m here to contribute to society and humanity because I have a lot of important things to say. And I don’t care if I have tons of wrinkles. As I age and look at photographs, it’s very easy to want to hide, but no. I won’t. Let people see the wrinkles and the sagging breasts and all kinds of things. Let people see how much fun women are having becoming an elder and becoming wiser.”
Now, with a Real Women Have Curves Broadway musical in the works 30 years after the original play opened, López hopes to portray an updated version of the Latina experience in regard to body issues. She does lament the fact that it’s taken so long to have these conversations on such a big stage, but she remains proud of the work she’s done. “I could’ve maybe gotten three or four movies if they were commercial, written them about white people, but I just didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell our story.”