Critiquing Problematic “Body-Positive” Narratives in Pop Culture

Illustration by Michelle Wu.

In her critically acclaimed work “Real Women Have Curves” (1987), Chicana playwright Josefina Lopez engages her audiences in an exploration of ethnicity and gender politics, specifically the Mexican-American identity and the Latina immigrant experience. The play’s 2002 screenplay adaptation, which also takes place in East Los Angeles, stars Honduran-American actor America Ferrera as protagonist Ana García.The film centers on García, a bright young woman and aspiring undergraduate student, whose dreams are disapproved by her traditionally minded family members.

The film’s plot is largely framed around the “modern” versus “traditional” woman dichotomy, a theme common to Hispanic American women who are often forced to reconcile traditional cultural values with more “progressive” American ways of life. García breaks gender, class, and ethnic barriers through her academic success; she is even awarded a full scholarship to Columbia University, overcoming the limitation of her working class status in her pursuit of higher education. However, Ana is discouraged to attend Columbia by her close relatives, who urge her to stick to the family business and forgo her dreams of obtaining a college degree. Ana’s mother (Carmen), who declares her strong desire to have grandchildren, expects Ana to find a husband and have kids soon.

Spoiler alert: Ana ultimately decides to attend the university of her dreams after overcoming hardship, family divides, and internalized self-doubt. In this sense, the film achieves an uplifting portrayal of a strong, ambitious, and high-achieving protagonist, empowering women of color by stressing the importance of self-actualization and perseverance.  

It must be noted, however, that despite the generally favorable critical response to the film (which has been lauded for its truthful portrayal of Mexican-American family dynamics), “Real Women Have Curves” leaves a lot to be said about the many people it excludes from a larger conversation about body positivity and gender empowerment. These efforts to reverse the harmful effects of body-shaming culture insufficiently address the complexities of this phenomenon by excluding important groups from the conversation. As a result, they inadvertently perpetuate problematic social ideals about the relationships between gender identity, beauty, and wellness.

Like many pseudo body-positive narratives that attempt to check body-shaming culture, the very title of Lopez’s film is indicative of the flaws in our greater social discourse about the social construction of “womanhood.” Specifically, the saying that “real women have curves” is problematic because it implies that there is such a thing as a “real” woman. The notion that womanhood is exclusively defined by a person’s anatomy, rather than through self-identification, is a dangerous one.

In this way, author Josefina Lopez subscribes to the cisnormative narrative that typically pervades conversations about gender identity. In spite of the empowering tone that this narrative seek to establish, language matters. That being said, there is no single “correct” way to define or declare one’s status as a woman. The wording of this supposedly “body-positive” mindset in fact perpetuates the damaging notion that “womanhood” is dictated by (or inseparable from) an individual’s anatomy and their physical appearance. Consequently, this narrative excludes non-binary individuals from much-needed collective discourses about gender equality, specifically conversations that implicate body image.

An important issue that the film does address is the prevalence of body-shaming within Ana’s culture. Body-shaming is the practice of “making critical, potentially humiliating comments about a person’s body size or weight.” Due to the insidious effects of the fashion industry and pop culture, which combinedly promote unattainable, demanding, and harsh beauty standards, this phenomenon and its dangerous effects are disproportionately prevalent amongst today’s women. In the film, Ana’s mother exhibits this toxic practice by criticizing her daughter’s body (which she believes to be “too fat’) in front of their coworkers.

When constructing a more body-positive narrative, our conversations about body-shaming culture must acknowledge the prevalence of “thin privilege” and its implications within said culture. It is also critical to consider (and arguably, prioritize) the body-shaming experiences of perceivably overweight or “fat” people who seldom have a place within conventional Western standards of beauty. Due to weight, these individuals are subjected to constant ridicule and scrutiny, demonstrating the impact of fatphobia on cultural body-shaming practices and attitudes.

Additionally, there are other intersectional identities who face marginalization, even amongst groups of people who are victims of fatphobia. Think of this striking phenomenon as a double-jeopardy of sorts. Because of their overlapping oppressions, certain groups are rendered virtually invisible before the eyes of body-positive movements, which theoretically aim to promote inclusivity and acceptance of all people regardless of their physical appearances. For instance, an individual who is fat-shamed by society can also dually be subjected to ableism, racism or other structural forms of oppression, giving a new meaning to their marginalized condition.

Still, despite our general assumption that body-shaming is an oppressive tactic employed exclusively against overweight or “fat” people, we must remember that all people (regardless of their weight, height, or shape) are susceptible to this phenomenon. For example, those who fall on the thinner side of the body shape spectrum can also be targeted by this demoralizing toxic rhetoric. This phenomenon is also not limited to matters of body weight: calling someone “too tall,” “too short,” or finding other means of criticizing their height is also a form of body-shaming.

Ultimately, rather than placing an emphasis on the value of physical beauty as the determinant of self-worth, we should teach people that all bodies are good bodies. Instead, we adhere to the dangerous notion of a “body type,” a byproduct of body-shaming culture that insidiously targets women. The adoption of this mentality can especially influence the development of a person’s body image by encouraging them to value (or devalue) their body exclusively according to what it looks like, leading them to base their judgements on artificial “categories” of size and shape.

Additionally, rather than contributing to toxic conceptions of beauty and exacerbating body-shaming culture, creatives, celebrities, and educators alike should utilize their respective platforms to create a more inclusive tone that empowers people of diverse backgrounds. As we form our collective notions about gender, beauty, and wellness, we as a society should not solely view people (women, in particular) as a sum of their physical features, and instead should consider them in their entirety. In order to achieve this, we must replace outdated ideals about gender, beauty, and self-worth, with a more holistic approach that focuses on the multifaceted, complex identities that make up an individual.

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