Struggles With Body Image In Little Miss Sunshine

By Sadrian Olvera and Carter Heath

The film Little Miss Sunshine (2006) tells the story of Olive, a seven-year-old girl with the singular goal of winning the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Despite the overwhelming pressure in the pageant community to look or act certain ways she remains true to herself. Olive is often blissfully unaware of what society expects from her, however even when she becomes aware it doesn’t change her. Little Miss Sunshine takes a satirical look at the body-image-affecting and the often overly sexualized and exploitative culture of beauty pageants.

According to Allison Happel and Jennifer Esposito, “Beauty pageants are culturally significant because they teach us a number of highly contested lessons about gender and femininity, and child beauty pageants in particular have sparked a number of debates in feminist and academic arenas… Patrice Oppliger asserts that the main concern feminists have with child beauty pageants is that they sexualize young girls. She argues that little girls are being taught that they can and should be judged on their looks, and that their natural beauty is not good enough and must be enhanced by a variety of beauty products.” The issue of a body image standard is evident and a common theme throughout Little Miss Sunshine.

One of the first places we see an example of exposure to society’s body image standards is in the film’s opening scene. As Olive watches the Miss America pageant, the camera zooms in on the winner and Olive mimics her movements. This scene is a clear example of when young girls are shown that women are so strongly judged solely on their appearance. Exposure to these kinds of examples are prime factors to issues surrounding low self-esteem and mental illness in girls at a young age and beauty pageant culture alone, is a prime contributor. 

Photo Credit: Tumblr

One of the most obvious examples of how body image is seen in pageant culture is addressed in a scene in which the family sits down for breakfast. Olive orders pancakes with ice cream to which her father explains that dairy has fat and then asks her, in front of the entire family, if “those women on Miss America” look fat. To which Olive responds “no,” and Richard, the father, adds that “they probably don’t eat a lot of ice cream.” This scene is especially tragic, though beautifully executed, in the way that a father is having to tell his young daughter what she should and shouldn’t eat, despite her cravings and young age. Pageant culture teaches, and reinforces the idea in society, that young girls must watch what they eat and must maintain a slim figure because ultimately this is what you’re judged on: your appearance.

(Spoiler Alert!) She eats the ice cream. You go Olive!

Photo Credit: courtneysandhu,

A culmination of watching past Miss America winners and her father telling her she shouldn’t eat ice cream leads to Olive questioning her body and her beauty, at one point asking her grandfather if she is pretty and breaking out in tears (a real tear-jerking scene). Which just so happens to be another scene and example in which we see the self-esteem of young girls be shattered by the societal norms of “real beauty” and therefore need validation. 

Olive breaks down in tears when asking grandpa if she is pretty.
To which grandpa so beautifully responds: “Olive, you are the most beautiful girl in the whole word… and it’s not because of your brains or your personality, it’s because you’re beautiful inside and out.”
Olive looking at herself in the mirror moments before going on stage.

Upon arriving at the pageant Olive is excited to meet Miss California. Olive asks her if she eats ice cream and is excited when she responds that she does (what a great moment for Olive).

Olive asks Miss California if she eats ice cream, to which she responds: “Yes. My favorite is Chocolate Cherry Garcia… except technically I think it’s a frozen yogurt.”

Once the pageant begins many members of the family begin to realize what the pageant world is all about, overly sexualized girls in skimpy outfits, covered in makeup. Upon realizing this they attempt to keep her from going to no prevail. 

Richard is as confused and disgusted by society’s beauty standards as we are.
A quick look at how these young girls are required to look and pose for the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Oh, and let’s not forget our Olive being a trend setter on the far left by standing however she wants. You go girl.

In her act Olive performs a dance that was choreographed by her (spoiler alert) now dead grandfather. The routine is full of many sexually suggestive and erotic moves and the removal of her outer layer of clothes, revealing shorts and a sequined tank top. The pageant director is quick to try and shut it down, however the family steps in and finishes the act with her on stage. 

Olive’s scandalous dance routine.
When the family says: “The hell with beauty standards, let’s dance!”

The irony of this scene is that Olive is doing the exact same thing everyone else did only in a far more obvious way. Every little girl competing in this pageant is made to be as “sexy” and adult as possible. They parade around in bikinis with spray tans and makeup. Olive on the other hand is the only one dressed modestly and like a child. Even when she removes her outer clothes in the dance, she is still dressed like child. Her sweat band and knee pads emphasize her lack of desire to be seen as sexy. The outrage caused by her somewhat sexual dance routine emphasizes the hypocrisy of the pageant world. The goal is to sexualize your child without explicitly saying that is what you are doing.

Little Miss Sunshineis the brilliant, beautiful, and hilarious story of an abnormal family going on a road trip. Within the story there are a series of conflicts we can all relate to at some point in the movie. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this film, it is a personal favorite; however, it’s with beauty pageant culture in which the problem lies and how it reinforces the idea that there is a criteria for real beauty and if you don’t fit it, then you aren’t beautiful. Little Miss Sunshine addresses the issue of unrealistic body and beauty expectations created by beauty pageants. The issue; however, doesn’t just exist in the world of beauty pageants but in all platforms throughout media. This problem is so brilliantly addressed in Jennifer Seibel Newsom’s documentary Miss Representation (2011). Newsom’s documentary explains that “throughout any type of mass media there is, we see the wide spread acceptance of women as sex objects. In rock videos, in rap and hip hop videos, in all the summer blockbusters women are basically just body props there for young male viewers.” Young women are exposed every day to these constructed ideas of what beauty is and what a woman should be like. It is going to take many years and generations to change the societal norm that any figure is beautiful and that there isn’t just one way to be beautiful. Let’s set the ground work now for future generations, in which young girls like Olive do not have to worry about their figure and appearance but instead the content of their character. 

Citations:

  • Dayton, Jonathan, Valerie Faris, Marc Turtletaub, Michael D. Arndt, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Beth Grant, Wallace Langham, Matt Winston, Julio O. Mechoso, Pamela Martin, and Mychael Danna. Little Miss Sunshine. Beverly Hills, CA: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006.
  • Happel, Alison, and Jennifer Esposito. “Pageant Trouble: An Exploration of Gender Transgression in Little Miss Sunshine.” Gender Forum, vol. 46, 2013, pp. 30.
  • Newsom, Jennifer Siebel., et al. Miss Representation. 90 min. version; customized educational footage. [Sausalito, Calif.] : [San Francisco, Calif.]: Ro*co Films Educational ; Girls Club Entertainment, 2011.

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