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

by Charlotte on December 4, 2013 · 38 comments

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.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Bethany December 5, 2013 at 12:20 am

I don’t know . . . I love and appreciate your point, BUT I have a big hang up with breast implants. Of course, a woman with breast implants is a *real* living, breathing woman, but it does seem like there needs to be some sort of asterisk.


Janelle December 5, 2013 at 10:31 am

You might need to talk to a *real* woman who actually HAS implants – then, perhaps, you could gain some understanding. I’m a mom, a regular ‘ol married-17-yrs, two kids, school-volunteering PTA mom. I’ve had implants for 11 years. Are you interested to learn why? After nursing my second baby, my breasts went from a full DD nursing size to a flappy floppy A/B, if I folded the tissue into the bra cup. I was 25 years old, with the breasts of a 90-yr-old Masai woman. I decided on implants to replace the huge amount of volume lost. I do not flaunt or wear provocative clothing, that’s not who “I” am. “I” am a regular ‘ol married mom, and you would never ever know that I wasn’t *real* unless I told you. No asterisks needed to define me, thanks.
Sincerely, a REAL mom, woman, wife


Bethany December 5, 2013 at 11:28 am

I have dear friend with breast implants. She was always an A and felt like not clothing ever fit her right or look right because of her cup size. She was always self-conscious about it and so eventually decided to get breast implants. She also doesn’t flaunt them or wear provocative clothing.

It was her decision and her body–not mine. Just as yours choice is your choice about your body and none of my business. I still love my friend dearly and don’t judge her or think any less of her.

However, on a purely philosophical level, I think that her deciding to get breast implants is a tiny drop in the cycle that continually tells women the way their bodies are naturally–at any particular stage of life–is not good enough. I’m having trouble putting words on this, but at the risk of further offending you and anyone else with breast implants, I’ll try again . . .

It seems like the main reason a woman would feel the need to have cosmetic surgery of any kind is because she has deeply internalized a cultural message about what her body *should* look like. And that her worth is some how tied up in achieving that–so much so that she’s willing to undergo surgery.

And the more people who artificially achieve a particular body shape, the more images we see of it, the more the cycle perpetuates that this body shape is in fact realistic, and, furthermore, expected.

It is common for child-bearing to change breasts. The fewer images we see of typical women with typical post-baby bodies, the more at risk we all are for a body-dissatisfaction in our post-baby years. Our bodies will look different post-baby. We made a new person. I’d like to celebrate those changes as a badge of honor and authentic indicator of my stage of life rather than attempt to artificially attain the illusion of a pre-baby figure.

Now, I realize there is some hypocrisy in what I’m saying because, yes, I wear a bra, and, yes, I choose one that helps my current breast tissue best suit the current fashions. Most of us are engaging in some artifice in one way or another (bra, make-up, etc).

It just makes me sad for all of us that our culture is so focused on attaining very particular body shapes that anyone for any reason would choose cosmetic surgery.


Janelle December 5, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I know you don’t mean to offend, Bethany. But to be completely honest, it offends anyway. You are implying that I, along with your friend, have allowed myself to be completely brainwashed by society into despising my God-created post-baby body. “I’d like to celebrate those changes as a badge of honor and authentic indicator of my stage of life rather than attempt to artificially attain the illusion of a pre-baby figure.” Can you hear the judgement in those words?? You have ‘celebrate’, a ‘badge’, and are ‘authentic’ – while I, and your friend, have ‘attempt’, ‘artificial’, and ‘illusion’. Are you really more virtuous than me? Are you that much better than your dear friend?

Anything we do to make ourselves feel attractive, is “unnatural”. If we were natural beings, we would be Adam and Eve’s neighbor. We care about our appearance because we are born with selfishness. I assume you buy fashionable-ish clothing, you hopefully exercise (totally unnatural, our ancestors didn’t own treadmills or dumbbells), you cut and color style your hair, you wear makeup, you paint your nails, you may get braces (totally unnecessary), you may whiten your teeth, you wear jewelry…. why? Are you a society drone? No. You a participating in your society. There are certainly many many ways to take each and every part of life too far – too much food, too much house to afford, too many expensive clothes. Food, shelter, clothing. We can take the most basic need and warp it with little effort. But in context, in moderation, with thought – we can enhance and embrace each part of life. Even when something ‘unnatural’ helps.


Janelle December 5, 2013 at 1:31 pm

To clarify my point, and put it in relation to the article: I don’t find ‘fault’ with implants, or any other physical enhancement – to a point. There is a line that gets crossed, where we take it too far and warp our normal efforts to look nice. THAT is where the issue lies. Not in regular ‘ol moms who want to look nice, but in crazy magazine photos that photoshop a major portion of the woman’s body. Or in women who continually obsess over their looks, like an addiction. This just happens to be a very publicized addiction. But, not all who drink a glass of wine are alcoholics. Just as not all who have surgery are ‘fake’.

Bethany December 5, 2013 at 1:49 pm

No, I don’t think my decision not to get breast implants makes me more virtuous than you. I am not better than you or than my dear friend. Breast implants are not wrong. They do, however, reflect a value system that I try not to embrace.

Of course, I think my value system is better than a value system that leads to breast implants because that’s why we choose things–because we think they are better. :) Saying that, however, doesn’t mean that I am judging you–it just means we’re different. Nor do I think you are not a “real” women (although my original careless comment about the asterisk could interpreted that way–and I apologize for my thoughtlessness in that).

You make a great point here: “There are certainly many many ways to take each and every part of life too far – too much food, too much house to afford, too many expensive clothes. We can take the most basic need and warp it with little effort. But in context, in moderation, with thought – we can enhance and embrace each part of life. Even when something ‘unnatural’ helps.”

The bottom line is that we all have to make peace with ourselves about what is moderate and what is good stewardship of our time and money, regardless of what those around us choose.

Paula December 5, 2013 at 2:56 am

I wholeheartedly agree with you.
As far as I’m concerned everybody is real, and when you’re a woman then you are a woman, no nonsense.
We are so extremely being manipulated to believe our worth as a woman depends on what we look like. And the fact that every-body is different seems to be forgotten/ ignored. I also think you can choose to see the beauty in everyone of to just compare people to the images in magazines and judge.
And I think the “health” argument is misused to body shame people who are not conform their beauty standard.


T December 5, 2013 at 3:04 am

Hear, hear. Dividing living people into “real” and, um, “fictional”(?) is quite absurd. A photoshopped picture on a magazine cover is a kind of a fiction of a person; the person photographed is still as real as ever. Real people are not the same as their representations nor should they be treated as such.

Real doesn’t mean ‘real’ in these conversations, I think. It means “acceptable according to external criteria” – criteria that is subjective (but cultural) and often irrational (but sometimes still culturally endorsed). See “real men don’t cry”. ‘Real’ is a not-so-subtle way of enforcing behavioural norms that have little to do with health and happiness.

*gets of soap box, scuttles away*


T December 5, 2013 at 3:05 am

*notices an f missing before her soap box just as the comment is published and is too much of a perfectionist not to mention it*


Iliana December 5, 2013 at 3:23 am

I really appreciated your blog post. As a Latina I struggled many years with my natural curves bt I have learned to love them and accept my body type. Mostly to accept that men actually enjoy women that have curves and that they are not the ones obsessed with our size, BMI or thigh gap width… We do this to ourselves and we need to continue striving to be more loving of ourselves and our fellow women.


Bekky December 5, 2013 at 6:30 am

I just think it’s funny to see the phrase “real woman” next to a photo that has been seriously manipulated. Yes, the model is a real woman but these magazine photos are about as real as a painting, close but just not quite reality.

This “real women” campaign really bothers me because I look around at the real women in my life and I see that no two shapes are alike. And I see women who work out a lot and yet will probably never have six pack abs or a bmi below a certain number, and women who never work out who are stick thin without an ounce of extra fat on them, so it bothers me when I hear that if you just put in the effort or eat right or don’t eat or whatever you will be able to look a certain way. I just don’t buy that. I look at the women in my family and I know that no matter what I do my legs will always be too thick to fit into regular sized boots, which sucks as far as limited footwear but otherwise I’m fine with it. I have a husband who loves my legs. Why should I worry about something that I can’t change? When we stop obsessing about what “real women” should look like we’ll start to notice what real women are capable of (spoiler alert: SO MUCH!)


JLVerde December 5, 2013 at 6:57 am

Maybe what’s annoying you is the lazy language of “real women”. We want to acknowledge that we think the doctored images on magazines (for example) are fiction. So we say “I like real women” to make that distinction.

Then the expression “real women” is co-opted by the very magazines that sell the fictions so it ceases to have any real definition anymore and becomes a cheap way for folks to compare and compete with one another.

“Oh, she’s not a “real woman” because she’s. . .” (too fat/thin/fit/unfit/made-up/not made-up/ trans-gendered/lesbian/hetero/childfree/a homemaker/not married/ and on and on and on).

I think the only answer is (from the language side) is to drop the “real”. “She’s a woman.” Why is that not enough?

(and I cracked up over the maxi pad thought–maybe she’s really posing on her head so it won’t drip out?)


JLVerde December 5, 2013 at 7:00 am

Wait, it just hit me.

Instead of “real women” we should say “true women”.

Truth is the opposite of fiction, after all.


Heather C December 5, 2013 at 8:23 am

I am somewhat conflicted on this issue. On one hand, I feel like the standard of beauty for women is so ridiculously superficial and unreal that advertisers using models who come closer to looking like a typical woman is a good thing. I worry about young girls constantly being bombarded with over sexualized images of “perfect” women. On the other hand though, I hate the labeling. Real or unreal. I wish we as women could drop a lot of the judgement that goes on and support each other on this journey through life and womanhood. Whether you are a working mom or stay at home, naturally thin or curvy, makeup wearing or all natural and so on. We need to support each other’s rights to make the choices that fit out individual lives and to be comfortable in our skin’s no matter what shape that skin takes.


Meg December 5, 2013 at 9:10 am

Oh Gosh, I had the SAME first thought about Eriksen’s pic!!!


Joemama December 9, 2013 at 10:11 am

ME TOO! There would totally be lochia running down your leg without a pad there. And there is clearly NO PAD. I call phony.


Dr. J December 5, 2013 at 10:09 am

Medicine doesn’t have any problem with this! We just DNA test them and know immediately if a person is male, female, or other :-)


Cindy December 5, 2013 at 11:23 am

OH YUCK! I am so tired of people minding each others business! So many people want to tell the world to live their way or they are living the wrong way! I personally am not happy with my appearance and I am working on it. For me it is more of an issue of function and health than struggling in vain to meet somebody’s vision of beauty or realness! If you try to measure your worth against some “experts” measurements your only going to sell yourself short.


Amy @ Run Mom Run December 5, 2013 at 11:45 am

I am with you, I think the real tragedy here is that we are still labeling people. The problem with labels is that no matter what label you use you are going to offend or leave someone out.

I think no woman is every happy with her outside unless she’s happy with her inside. I think that the root of the outrage, and the shaming (or unintentional shaming, I never saw any of those as shaming) or the ad campaigns is that they all focus on the outside.

Nothing on the outside can ever make us happy on the inside, but being happy on the inside can certainly make us happier with our outside.

I always find it ridiculous how much effort we spend in changing our outward appearance when the decline of it is inevitable. We can’t change that, our outsides deteriorate no matter what. However out insides can be growing and improving our entire lives. OUR ENTIRE LIVES. Why spend so much time trying to fix something that is only temporary when we can change something that lasts forever?


Bethany December 5, 2013 at 11:56 am



Abby December 5, 2013 at 12:13 pm

To me a real woman is someone who identifies as female. End of story. I do understand and respect what people are going for with “real” women pictures. I think it’s so important to show people (notice I don’t say girls since I think men and women of all ages need to see it) what bodies that aren’t the typical model physique look like but those models are real men and women too, as you say. I do have to say again that my objection to Eriksen’s photo isn’t that it’s shaming, just that it’s inappropriately revealing. But I might be kind of prudish.

I think that as a whole, women need to be more accepting of other women (and I include myself in that- I’m no where near perfect). I have a very dear friend who was a bridesmaid in my wedding who just happens to be transgender. When she told me that fact she said one of the reasons she’d waited so long to tell me was that in her experience other women got very territorial, like she’s intruding into some place where she isn’t welcome. That makes me so angry for her and other women who somehow don’t fit some silly criteria for “realness”. My friend identifies and lives as a woman, isn’t that enough? We’re often our own worst enemies as women and it’s really a shame.


Geosomin December 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I agree…as a society we have turned what a real woman is into her physical attributes.
WHat a real woman is and can do isn’t how she looks, but who she is and what she does…


Azusmom December 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Yeah, I have trouble with that “real women” thing. Yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that read something like “Real women should be sweet & sassy. Honk if you agree!” And I thought, well, fine. But we can also be smart, shy, funny, insecure, angry, loud laughers, and so many other things.
I have a whole bunch of theories about why women aren’t allowed to be truly real, to be fully human, and why we have all these ideas of what women SHOULD be, but I won’t get into that now. Suffice to say that trying to fit into any outside “ideal” is exhausting and an exercise in futility. It really is best to find what works for us whether we are male or female, and not try to please a culture that will always find us lacking.


Zahra December 5, 2013 at 2:51 pm

I would agree with you. Though not one to feel sorry for the skinny girls, but they face the same insecurities as everyone else and saying that people who are skinny are not “real” women is stupid. For the Maria Kang comments, when I read her actual posts, I didn’t think she was that offensive. It’s the comments on what she said that seem more offensive. When you actually read her story and get the full picture of where she’s coming from, she doesn’t seem like this woman with the perfect body telling everyone else to be ashamed of themselves. Although, I think she could have expressed her point in a better way.


Megan @ Meg Go Run December 5, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Maria Kang doesn’t bother me either. I think she means well, but maybe should have gotten her point across in a better way.

The 4 days post birth gal… there is no denying she is gorgeous. I guess she took the pad out for the pic? HEHEHEHE!


KDA December 5, 2013 at 8:35 pm

I take my two-year old daughter into my gym’s locker room before dropping her off at their child care, and I love that she gets to see all kinds of bodies: big, small, medium, old, young, floppy, droopy, buff, firm, etc., etc. I don’t want her to ever think that women should any one way, and I consider all of the women we see to be “real” women. I don’t think it’s good for anyone to try to define what a “real” woman is.


Tamara December 6, 2013 at 9:57 am

I couldn’t agree more, Charlotte. All women are real women! The end.


Gym Buddy Krista December 6, 2013 at 8:16 pm

IMHO, a real woman is any woman in picture, in person, or on TV who hasn’t been “digitally altered” to “improve” their physical appearance. If they alter themselves with makeup, implants, plastic surgery, whatever…I still consider them real b/c it is an attainable result. What computers do…now that is unattainable and unreal.


Carrie December 8, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Yes, I am bothered by that. When my sister was young, she was super skinny and people always gave her crap about it. I remember people saying things to her and her complaining to me, no one goes up to chubby girls/women and says you should eat less, you’re fat, so why do they come up to me and say I should eat more because I look a stick.

Being a girl who has always been normal to larger, I had never thought of it. But now I’m always offended when I hear people putting down thin women or telling them to eat a cookie. My sister constantly out-ate me (and it drove me crazy!); she was just very thin.


Ashley @ BrocBlog December 9, 2013 at 1:29 pm

I completely agree with this, like more that I can say in words. I am not super thin but I am a healthy weight. No matter how big or small I get I will never, ever have curves. I have lost a decent amount of weight and even when I was larger I was never “curvy” because its not the way I’m shaped and theres nothing you can do about that. I hate when people talk about others’ bodies in any way at all because you just don’t know.


Andrea @Pencils and Pancakes December 10, 2013 at 6:08 am

while I don’t condone normalizing becoming unhealthy, I think women ought to stop judging each other and shaming each other on all levels.


Jody - Fit at 56 December 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I LOVE THIS POST! Real women are of all shapes & sizes & religions & nationalities! We have to stop the girl & women bashing – it is showing up way to young these days! Thank you Charlotte!


Jenn December 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm

To me a REAL woman is anyone who identifies themselves as a woman. Who am I to judge what that should look like?


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