'There’s so much more to me than just my weight': Why 'Real Women Have Curves' hits home 15 years later

Natalie Hage is a model and body-positivity advocate covering all things curvy for Yahoo Lifestyle. Read her articles for an honest take on navigating the world as a plus-size woman, and follow Hage on Instagram for more. 

There are unique experiences that we encounter growing up that help shape who we are, what we’ll do in life, and how we’ll tackle difficulties along the way. I’m someone who has been plus-size from a very young age, so the discussion on our bodies (and other people’s opinions of them) that was started by Real Women Have Curves  hit close to home.

While I cannot personally identify with growing up as a Latina and those experiences are not my own, I can draw parallels in my own life as a first generation Arab American on my father’s side. I am so grateful to have been born into a vibrant culture with a family that fiercely holds onto its values and traditions. However, those traditions were not often congruent with the “normal” path of other American teenagers and I saw similarities within myself in the main character of the movie.

America Ferrera stars in the 2003 film ‘Real Women Have Curves’ (Photo: Newmarket/Courtesy Everett Collection)

America Ferrera was only slightly older than I was when she made her debut in this feature film 15 years ago on Thursday as Ana García, a recent high school graduate from a tight-knit Mexican-American family that works tirelessly to keep the family dress factory running. While her family is precious to Ana, she tussles with her mother over many issues in her life: wanting to attend Columbia University, getting married, and her weight.

Ana’s weight gets brought up often, always as a point of contention. From the snide comments of her mother, who often calls her “butterball” and tells her that no one will love her at her size, to the remark of a boy who tells her she has “a pretty face,” such words were all too familiar to me.

Ana is also surrounded by grown women who disparage their own bodies.

(Photo: Newmarket/Courtesy Everett Collection)

In the course of the movie, you see the relationship between the personalities at the dress factory change. It ends with a glorious scene where all the women end up in their underwear, not only to beat the relentless Los Angeles heat, but to talk candidly about their bodies and their appearance. When Ana’s conservative mother witnesses this scene, she lets loose on her, telling her she should be ashamed of her body, because no one will want to marry her and that she would be beautiful if she wasn’t so fat. 

Ana has an incredible retort that stuck with me years ago and makes me cry just as easily now: “I like the way I look. My weight says to everybody, ‘F**k you! How dare anyone try to tell me what I should look like or what I should be, when there’s so much more to me than just my weight?’” The women around her speak up, telling Ana that she’s beautiful the way she is — and reassuring each other that they’re beautiful, too. Ana’s repeated defense of her weight had made an impact on their own body image.

(Photo: Newmarket/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The closing scene shows Ana walking down the streets of New York, strutting into the next phase of her life with a confidence in her hips that is unmistakable. While the title of the movie is inherently problematic (“real women” come in every shape and size under the sun, and “curves” are not a currency for buying into femininity), the sentiment that was generated at the time of the film’s release was unlike anything I had seen.

I think that one of the biggest takeaways I had from this movie, then and now, is that you won’t always have everyone you love on your side, championing you. It’s a harsh realization that may hurt to your core as you move through life.

Characters like Ana remind us that staying true to yourself can be painful but triumphant — and is always worth it.

See Natalie Hage’s adventures at New York Fashion Week: