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Real Women Have Curves

by Shari L. Rosenblum

Neither porn, nor politics, Patricia Cardoso's Real Women Have Curves may throw off potential viewers with its title. I'd like to shed the weight of marketing reality and think that's just the point. Because under the film's soft exterior, it packs a powerful punch. It is not strident, even if others have found it so, but it is unapologetically unapologetic.

Ana Garcia (America Ferrera, believable every step of the way, in her first role) is 18 years old, second generation Mexican American, and chubby going on fat. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother (Lupe Ontiveros as an utterly persuasive Carmen), who is not thin, and works for her sister, Estela (Ingrid Oliu, also excellent), who is even less so, in a dress shop whose employees are decidedly unsvelte to varying degrees. There are also men in the film: Ana's father (Jorge Cervera, Jr. as Raul), grandfather (Felipe de Alba), English teacher (George Lopez as Mr. Guzman), suitor (Brian Sites as Jimmy) and a couple of cousins -- but their bodies are not particularized. The reason for this, however, is not the political pushbutton "men have it all." Men are not the issue here.

In fact, the men in Ana's life are very supportive. They all support her interest in going to college, in becoming independent, in being herself. And the film is honest in this portrayal. The teacher pushes her, the father watches, sympathizes, stands aside, the grandfather makes deals, and the cousins sing her songs. While the boy in her life, a taste of the way out, sees her with eyes she might not expect (fairly, honestly, sweetly (really), when she's thinking of her weight, he's thinking of her breasts).

It's the women who try to hold her back: her mother who envies her youth and resents her looking outside the circle, away from the tradition, for a different life, her sister who thinks she's been overly mollycoddled, and her co-workers who think her nothing but a spoiled brat. It's the size 7 upscale dress they design for people other than themselves, and literally sweat to create but can never wear. But oddly, it is also the women, and that damned dress, who impel her forward.

It's the women she fights with, fights against, defines herself by and in contrast to. It's their mythologies about virginity and beauty, fertility and hope, about getting and winning and keeping men that she sees designed to keep her in her place. It's their fears and insecurities handed down generations and across tables that she knows she has to face, and find herself within.

"Fat is a feminist issue," psychotherapist Susie Orbach wrote almost 30 years ago, proselytizing empowerment with anti-diet rationales and condemning patriarchy for the body issues women focus on when they should be out buying Ferraris and running for president. Across the millennial divide, and down in a whole new neighborhood, Real Women Have Curves, adapted by Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo from Lopez's play by the same title, puts the blame for body focus a little bit closer to home -- on mothers, sisters, friends, and women's own imaginations -- with less hot air and more actual exhaling .. . giving a sharper, more personal touch to the battle cry "our bodies, ourselves" (without that book's "come the revolution" philosophies.) Although Josefina Lopez says the book empowered her when she read it at 18 -- I get the sense she's moved on from there. Her film does not target men's tastes or society's oppressive values as the root of all evil. Her film is about what happens inside women, inside girls becoming women. When there is a choice between accepting what is, or not accepting it . . .

It's about the truth that any woman who's had a mother or sister, or who's spent 15 minutes in the locker room at the gym knows. There's not a man on earth (with the possible exception of one of my ex-boyfriends) who is as hard on women's body image as another woman claiming concern. (There's a sister thread in the film about Latinos, hinted at rather than exploited fully, but it resonates just the same. This film explicitly rejects the "woe is me" victim philosophy).

"Fat," Orbach wrote, is "rebellion against an imprisoning social role." Real Women Have Curves takes it a step further. It does not rebel against the imprisonment; it sees the bars as self-made and rejects the concept. When Ana takes off her clothes to give into heat of one kind or another -- she sees herself just the way she is, even if she admittedly would like to be thinner -- and wants to make sure that no one else has any illusions either. When she makes love for the first time, she wants the lights on. This, she says, without defiance, is what I look like.

Unlike My Big Fat Greek Wedding, this year's other ethnic
female fat film, Real Women Have Curves does not invite
audiences to laugh at its ethnicities or appearance particularities,
and it does not compromise its values. It finds its heroine beautiful even in her imperfections, doesn't change her dress or tweeze her brows or put her in blush along the way. And it does not need to prove her worth with confirmation that she is loved eternally by a man. It is not a film that finds comfort in closure, but in opening (its ending is reminiscent of the opening of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, in fact). Alas, though, it is most assuredly the sort of film that sounds more trite the more you try to show just how deeply it can touch.

So I'll stop here.

©2002 Shari L. Rosenblum