I just watched the movie Little Miss Sunshine for the second time, and was reminded of a great scene that seems plucked right out of an eating disorders prevention book. It has a lot to teach us about the messages, some more inadvertent than others, that we pass on to our children about diet, shape and size.
The movie is about a quirky, frazzled Albuquerque family, the Hoovers, whose members include a father who has dreams of being the next Tony Robins, a teen-aged son who refuses to talk, a visiting gay uncle recovering from a failed suicide attempt, an irascible live-in grandfather addicted to heroin and a mom frantically trying to keep the fractious family unit together. Then there's the title character, Olive, a bespectacled, adorably round seven-year-old obsessed with winning something called the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant.
Writer Michael Arndt's hilarious script satirizes our society's idolization of life's "winners," however shallowly or falsely they may be conceived, and its dismissive attitude toward those who fall short, the "losers" in life. When the family stops at a roadside restaurant en route from Albuquerque to the pageant in Redondo Beach, California, Olive, admonished to stay within the family's $4 budget per person, orders waffles, and asks the waitress what "a la mode" means.
Dad Richard, played by Greg Kinnear, is the wannabe self-help guru trying to peddle a book that promises to make winners of its readers. When Olive learns that "a la mode" involves a scoop of ice cream, Richard, in the exaggerated tones of someone speaking down to a child, explains to Olive that ice cream contains fat, and that many times, when people eat fat, they become...." As his eyebrows lift to deliver his message, mom Sheryl, played by Toni Colette sees where the conversation is going, and makes a desperate attempt to derail it. But Richard pushes on, explaining that eating fat can, well, make you fat. Olive grapples with her desire to please her father and be a thin winner, and her love of ice cream. By the time her waffle and ice cream arrives, she has succumbed to dad's evangelical speech, and declines to indulge in the ice cream.
At this point, her mother, grandfather, uncle and brother attack the dish of vanilla ice cream, making exaggerated lip-smacking gestures. We see the conflict on Olive's face as her mother encourages her to just be herself, no matter what shape she is. Finally, she can resist no longer and blurts out, "Save some for me!" then digs in herself. The obvious message: good parenting means not demonizing foods or labeling them as "good" or "bad" and not placing a value judgment on "fat" (both dietary and perceived overweight).
The family, after many trials and tribulations, finally reaches the Redondo Beach pageant. There, Olive is ecstatic to meet and collect the autograph of the reigning Miss California. Olive shyly asks her role model, "Do you eat ice cream?" Miss California assures Olive that she loves it, especially the flavor Cherry Garcia, although she adds, "technically it isn't ice cream, it's frozen yogurt." This amusing and realistic detail is lost on Olive, who is simply happy to know she too, can now eat ice cream and still be a beauty queen.
Later in her room, grappling with pre-pageant jitters, she asks her grandfather, "Grandpa, am I a loser?" Grandpa (played by Alan Arkin), a maverick and the gruff voice of sanity in the family, reassures her that she is not a loser. He explains, "A loser is someone who is so afraid of losing that they don't even try."
I loved seeing these messages in a popular movie, messages that Marcia and I include in the "Parent Traps" chapter of our book, which discusses how you can help your child by improving your own relationship to food and your own body. The following are parental behaviors to be on the lookout for and to avoid, as they have all been shown to increase a child's risk of developing eating problems:
• Engaging in dieting or obsessive exercise, worrying about fat grams and calories
• Using food to cope, eating in secret, or engaging in purging
• Discussing the weight, shape, and appearance of others in a judgmental fashion
• Accepting the dictates of the fashion industry and the ways the diet industry promotes an unrealistic body size
• Showing excessive concern for or interest in your child's weight, shape and appearance
• Being overinvolved or underinvolved in your child's "food business"
• Responding negatively or critically to the changes in your daughter's body as she goes through puberty
Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto are co-authors of The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders. Marcia is the author of Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders