Barbie summer may now be over, but America Ferrera is still on our minds and in our hearts: Wessley Edmonds looks back at the actor's foundational role in Real Women Have Curves.
This summer, I learned how to sew. Sounds simple, right? A straight line and you’ve achieved the small feat of joining fabric together into whatever you could imagine. Winding bobbins, threading needles, lining up hemlines, pushing the pedal. I’d like to believe so, but beware: sewing is not for the faint-hearted. It takes time, precision, determination. If you feed the fabric into the machine too fast, you risk bunching it up. You have to stay humble, grounded. But you can’t be scared to push the pedal either; it’s all about balance. If you do it right, maybe you’ll even find some piece of yourself in the process. Maybe you’ll trace that straight stitch to the path you're meant to take, like Ana Garcia does in Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves.
Written by Josefina López and set in a sweatshop disguised as a sewing factory in East Los Angeles, Real Women Have Curves was not appreciated enough upon release in 2002. The story of a teenage girl who argues with her mother over her future, it’s a coming-of-age that goes beyond what Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird taught you. Don’t get me wrong, Lady Bird will always hold a special place in my heart – but Cardoso and López did it first. And not all teenage girls have the same experience as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson.
Real Women Have Curves portraits a girlhood that was virtually invisible on screen in the early 2000s. Some of us come from a place where tradition, culture and familial obligation goes unquestioned; where your parents or grandparents gave up everything for you to have a chance at something. Ana, played by America Ferrera, is a Mexican-American teen and second-generation immigrant who dreams of furthering her education. But her future is mapped out by her duty to her family, working in the sewing factory with her sister and mother. Yet if there’s one thing we learn about Ana in Ferrera’s impressive debut performance it’s that once she sets her mind to something, it’s a done deal. There’s only one thing holding her back.
Ana’s relationship with her mother is complicated. It’s drenched in generational differences, unconditional love and growing pains that push and pull as hormones rage and change ensues. One second Doña Carmen is scolding Ana telling her to “walk like a woman,” and not to “eat the flan.” The next she’s singing a lullaby and tending to Ana’s burn from steaming dresses. Carmen believes marriage and children are what women are tailored for. “It’s because I love you that I make your life so miserable,” she says. For Carmen, the life of a woman we may deem archaic or akin to conventional gender roles is actually a life characterised by security and safety. A cosmopolitan, educated woman is unattractive and at risk of experiencing the wrath of the real world. It’s a life Doña Carmen knows nothing of and can’t prepare Ana for. She wishes for her daughters what all mothers do: to find their place in this world.
Ana tries to make her see that “a woman has thoughts, ideas, a mind of her own.” Like Jo March, “Lady Bird,” Frances Ha, or Barbara Millicent “Barbie” Roberts, Ana yearns for people to realise the potential she has in fabricating an existence different from what others intend for her. Starting to appreciate the women at the sewing factory and her sister Estella’s leadership, Ana notes that it takes her so long to steam and iron the dresses because she takes time to admire how beautiful they are. Then, she realises they’re not made for her. As she becomes more certain that she’ll go to college with or without her mother’s blessing, Estella surprises her with a gift: “I cut this especially for your body. Pretty dresses aren’t just for skinny girls. This one’s yours.” In life, we have to find the dress that fits; the one cut and sewn especially for us. Ana’s dress may be a life of a woman different from Carmen’s wishes, but it begins with Ana trusting herself enough to take a chance at the life she wants.
The force of this film lies in its self-love letter to girls and women who come from all walks of life and the power of Ferrera’s performance in delivering it. It reads, there is beauty in difference. In a key scene of the film, the women of the sewing factory strip down to reveal their differences, literally. In their bras and pants they compare their bodies: skinny, fat, cellulite on their upper thighs, stretch marks “from north to south” or “east to west.” With no one watching, they are free to be themselves, celebrate each other, and let it all out. In that moment, the world which Doña Carmen fears will scrutinise Ana for her weight and wit doesn’t exist. The sewing factory and its community of women form an ivory tower for beauty in difference: “This is who we are…real women,” Ana says.
The other day, I finished sewing a dress of my own. I followed the hemlines and let the printed rayon feed through the machine as I pushed the pedal, not too fast but not too slow. I measured my straps and attached them to the princess-cut bust. Trying on something you’ve made for yourself is always the best part of sewing. It’s like those makeover scenes in romantic comedies, only better. Or like the way Ana tries on her new life at the end of the film. As she emerges from the subway tunnels, she looks up to the big city and begins “walking like a woman” on her own terms, against the hustle and bustle. Real women have curves, thoughts, stretch marks, ideas, and minds of their own. Real women see that there is beauty in difference. Real women “eat the flan” and love their mothers but don’t always listen to them. Real women make their own patterns and sew their own path.