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The Problem With “Real Women Have Curves” [What makes a woman real?]

Posted Dec 05 2013 12:46am

The other day I was complaining about my thighs to a friend. (Don’t judge, we all have our insecurities and while I think I’m getting better about not vocalizing them it does happen sometimes.) After hearing me out, my friend cheerily replied to me, “You should love your thighs! You’re a woman! And real women have curves!”

I was not offended in the least and I knew what my friend meant – that most women develop hips and boobs after puberty and so we’re not supposed to look like 10-year-old girls – but part of me was a little unsettled by the comment. It’s the same part of me that felt perturbed when I saw this:


That’s the stunning “plus-size” model Tara Lynn on the cover of Spanish Elle. And no, it’s not the beautiful model they picked that bothered me – on the contrary I’m thrilled they picked a model with a different type of body than what we usually see (even if she is as photoshopped as the rest of them). It’s the tag line. In case your Spanish is rusty, it says “Tara Lynn, the success of a real woman” with real woman – MUJER REAL – in large caps right next to her.

Again, like with my friend, I’m not offended and I know what they mean but it’s the phrase “real woman” that keeps throwing me. Sure, some real women have curves. And some real women are plus-size models. But then some real women have mastectomy scars with no reconstruction. And other real women are tall and thin. Here’s the thing: unless you’re a Real Doll or a figment of someone’s imagination then you’re a “real woman.”  And what that looks like from woman to woman is highly individual.

Take this lady for example:


Caroline Eriksen is a famous Norwegian fitness blogger who posted this saucy pic a mere four days after giving birth to her daughter. I wish that was a typo. But seriously FOUR DAYS. She makes Heidi Klum and her 4-weeks-postpartum Victoria’s Secret catwalk look lazy. It sparked a massive Internet controversy with the main critique against her being that it’s provocative and “shaming to real women”. Provocative it certainly is – in more ways than just the sexual sense – but I’m not sure how this is shaming to anyone.

(For the record, MY first thought when I saw the picture was that if she’s four days post partum where is the giant snowboard-sized maxi pad she probably still needs? I mean even a regular sized maxi would show with those panties. Where is the blood going? Is her core so strong she’s just sucking it back up inside her? Also, I love her chandelier. And THEN I got jealous. Priorities.)

As far as I know, Eriksen didn’t post any shame-y comments with the picture in the style of American fit mom “What’s your excuse?” blogger Maria Kang . It was just a picture of her body that she is clearly proud of. Does she look like the average woman four days post-partum? Heck to the no. (At that point even my yoga pants were still too tight.) Do you have to like or aspire to look like her body? Definitely not. But does she look like a real woman? Yes, because she is a living, breathing real woman.

The comments against Eriksen bothered me almost as much as Kang’s recent diatribe against Curvy Girl lingerie for posting pictures of “regular women” - in this case real, plus-sized women – showing off their undies unapologetically. After writing on her Facebook page that she was “annoyed by [Curvy Girl] saying that overweight, nearly obese women should be proud of their bodies” and that we need to “stop normalizing being unhealthy”  - a post which got her temporarily kicked off Facebook for “hate speech”* – she went on CNN to clarify her remarks by adding that the plus-sized women depicted in Curvy Girl’s ad campaign “are not how real women look like or should look like.” [Emphasis mine.]

Kang also added that you “can just tell by looking at [a] person if they are unhealthy” – a pretty amazing trick that if she can really do it should land her in some major medical journals.

And does everyone remember the Great Makeup Debate on Reddit , started after a makeup artist posted before-and-after pics of a female client? Redditors felt very abused, that the gorgeous woman they were offered up on an Internet platter “wasn’t real” because she’d been “artificially enhanced” with makeup. The debate grew to encompass other things like high heels, push-up bras and lipstick as fellow means of deceiving and entrapping men. Because “real women don’t need all that.”

Just so we’re clear: Real women are not skinny and are not plus-size. Real women also do not wear makeup or push-up bras. Real women do not have flat chests or cellulite or big hips or little hips or wrinkles or smooth foreheads.

Whelp, I think we just willed half of the human population out of “real life.”

And this is why I just can’t accept the “real women have curves” trope. All women are real women, no matter what they look like. The frustrating thing is that I think this sentiment started in a good place: originally it was meant to remind women that what we’re being sold in slick manufactured ads isn’t real. (And it’s not!) But it’s gone too far. Instead of attacking the methods, now we’re attacking the women themselves. It’s not just a matter of semantics. Being “real” implies being worthy of respect and love. Being the opposite implies being false, dishonest, laughable and objects of mockery. Women have a lot to lose by excluding any of their sisters from the “real” demographic and I don’t just mean someone who can slip you a tampon under the stall door in the bathroom in a pinch. By labeling some “not real” we risk marginalizing all of us and losing the ability to see the real beauty of women – the stuff inside us that doesn’t have a thing to do with the outside package and everything to do with our love, our kindness, our generosity, our human-ness – both in others and ourselves.

To me a real woman is a person with arms to hold up the weak, hands to minister to the sick, a mouth to kiss and to comfort, ears to listen, a brain to think all the thoughts big and small, and a heart that beats true and strong to love. Although out of that list, only the last one is strictly mandatory.

What do you think about the “real woman” controversy – tempest in a teapot or does it bother you too? Am I missing something in any of these stories? How would you define a “real woman”?

*I’m not sure Kang’s post actually qualifies as “hate speech” as defined by the Facebook policy but nevertheless I was still mightily amused when she got booted.

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