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Modern Family, is it better to ignore Manny’s weight, or show more “realism?”

Posted by on Nov 28, 2011 in Blog Posts | 12 comments

I really love Modern Family. It just makes me laugh. One character, Manny, is chubby. As someone who believes in the Health At Every Size model, and working with children and families who often have food and weight worries, I have a bit of a dilemma. Manny is a quirky character. He sips coffee, is mature beyond his years, writes poetry for the ladies, and never, is his weight mentioned. Never does he come home in tears or silent because of bullying, the girls he pursues don’t tease him because of his weight, his size zero aunt and cousin never lecture Manny or his parents about health, food choices or size. No one is slipping his mother articles about childhood obesity or recommending he get checked for diabetes, he isn’t harassed about green-light foods… It just isn’t an issue. (Of note, his uncle Cam’s occasional dieting attempts have been fodder for the show.)

So, my question is, is it better that he is just a kid and it doesn’t come up, or would it be better to show how the reality of life as a chubby kid (not always very pleasant if you’ve seen the stats on weight-related bullying, oh, and there’s that little war to eradicate them…) can be handled in a positive way. Do we want “reality” in our comedy? Does not making his weight an issue help chubby kids see that weight doesn’t define them, or does it dismiss their reality?

Tell me what you think…

Then…  read the excerpts below that I got from USA Weekly (you know, the magazine in the Sunday paper) kid health report from last year. While his weight never comes up on the show, my guess is it comes up on the set… The kid stars from the show were asked to comment on childhood obesity. My comments are in red…

Rico Rodriguez, 11, took one look at himself on the program’s pilot and decided he didn’t like what he saw. “I didn’t like my stomach bulging out,” says Rico, who plays O’Neill’s stepson, Manny. “I looked fat.” A few months ago, he cut back his food portions and started walking every day after work with his 16-year-old sister and his mom. He already has dropped two pants sizes — going from an 18 to a 14 — while still enjoying his favorite foods, “regular kid stuff like burgers and spaghetti.”
Is it fair to open this kid up to scrutiny on his weight? (I even feel a little sheepish writing this post…) I found myself reading this and feeling really sorry for him. He hasn’t appeared to  have lost any weight this last year, and is he “healthy?” I don’t know, but it just felt so somehow doomed. When kids feel bad about themselves and limit portions, try to diet, it usually backfires. Maybe he made some changes that make him feel better and make him more fit, I don’t know, but setting it up  weight as the indicator of health sets him up for failure.  It is also common to see early “progress”- already lost two pant sizes! and then see it stall or even regain the weight. Hey, ya know, when Kirstie Allie does it, she consents, she’s an adult, I feel sad for her, but this  is a kid. Oh, and kids shouldn’t be giving kids advice on eating or activity…

Nolan Gould, also 11, is a self-styled nutrition expert. He knows the fat and fiber content of everything he eats. “I know the limit of what I should intake,” says Nolan, who plays Luke. An avid athlete, he surfs, rides bikes and is learning how to rappel down cliffs.
Again, kids are not experts, and this guy sounds borderline disordered. Why should an 11 year-old know the fat and fiber content of everything and talk about limits!? Are we crazy, or what!?

Ariel Winter, who plays Alex, touts her healthy habits, too. “I love peas,” says Ariel, 12. “I could eat them every day of the week.” Ariel rides her bike and walks around the studio lot every day on a break from shooting. “It’s not that I am into the thin thing,” she says. “I just like to do it because it gives me time to myself, and I can think.”
Sheeesh, this is getting old. Why do kids have to tout healthy habits. Can’t they just be kids? “Touting healthy habits,” to taunting others’ “unhealthy” habits is not a big leap…

There has to be a junk-food junkie in the cast, right? That would be 18-year-old Sarah Hyland, who plays Haley. She stays slim despite her fondness for burgers and pizza. She weighs 90 pounds and wears a size 0.”You don’t even want to know what I eat!” Sarah says. But she wouldn’t mind gaining a few pounds. “If I had a curvier body, I would love that.”
This is the classic skinny girl who eats whatever she wants. If it’s true, good for her I suppose, but come on. If all we’re talking about is weight (which is all we ever talk about it seems culturally), she’s the “healthiest.” And, some weight would be OK, as long as it were boobs I’m guessing.

Anyway, thank you for indulging again. It’s just so wacky, that if it weren’t all contributing to our collective insanity around eating and body image it would be so absurd it might even seem funny…

Where to begin?

BTW, I am having my tonsils out tomorrow, so I will be out of commission for the rest of the week, but I’ll try to comment when I can :)

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  1. stop the crap

    A growing body of research suggests that our ability to lose weight — or gain 10 pounds by simply looking at a piece of chocolate — is shaped in large part by our genes.
    Scientists have identified several gene variants that may predispose us, and our children, to obesity. Rodent studies have also shown that up to 80% of body fat is regulated by our genes, according to TIME.

  2. E

    I love Modern Family, and I’m very happy with how Manny is currently portrayed. I was actually afraid that they were going to bring up his fatness in the recent Thanksgiving episode called “Punkin Chunkin” (because of the title and because of the description on hulu that said something a about Jay criticizing Manny), but luckily that didn’t happen. I think I was afraid that it would come up because I’m not confident that the show would handle it in a way that would satisfy me, and also because I wouldn’t want it to turn into an on-going storyline where he’s trying to lose weight–I would have to stop watching if that happened because it would be too emotionally difficult for me. I think the best thing in a comedy show is to portray a fat character where fatness is not a “thing”–comedy’s are never going to be like reality anyway, so I think that showing “how it could be” is the way to go, not that I think they are actively choosing to portray a fat kid in a positive light…I think it’s more likely that they just don’t like tired jokes. I actually didn’t have much of a problem with that cleansing diet episode, since they didn’t harp on about fatness (or mention it at all, if I remember correctly); they just seemed to use it as an effective comedic device. I think it also didn’t bother me as much because Cam and Mitchell are adult characters.

    Those interviews with the actors make me sad,. : ( But I guess I’m not surprised by their responses.

    I think that a more serious show might be able to tackle the reality of a fat kid more effectively, as “Huge” did two summers ago on. That was focused on a whole group of fat kids, but I would be happy to see a more mainstream serious show tackle fatness and eating disorders in a real way.

  3. Allison

    Ugh I keep wishing I could re-write what I just noted, instead of leaving three comments and looking nuts, but I feel I need to add that Sarah probably says she wishes she was curvier and that she loves to eat because she receives a fair amount of scrutiny about her weight. Though I was small as a teenager and still am, I am short (south of 5’5′) and my body did not look like Sarah’s. Furthermore, though my BMI was in the 17’s, I was about 20 pounds heavier than Sarah and I’m pretty sure I was a few inches shorter. I was within five pounds of whatever stupidness the government calls healthy. I always felt big, though. I never restricted my eating, but I was always extremely self-concious about my body. As a kid it would have devastated me to read that Sarah weighed 90 pounds. I think it is INSANE that they published her weight. (It would be insane to publish anyone’s weight, but come on) It is unbelievably triggering, and sets her up for a lot of nastiness from concern-trolls. I know that Sarah’s body type exists and I am not saying she isn’t healthy, it’s just that her particular body-type is coveted and so looking at Sarah, or Kristen Stewart from Twilight, or whatever, hurts a little, even now, in my twenties. It shouldn’t be this way. We should be able to look at all the modern family kids without having any emotional reactions to their weight. Just as kids, all of whom look different and have different bodies that are naturally theirs and equally acceptable and attractive.

    • katja

      great points! The scrutiny and judgment is not helpful across the board.BMI makes me crazy how it is applied, and if we could accept that healthy and beautiful bodies can come in a variety of shapes and sizes imagine how our world could be!

  4. Allison

    I’ve never commented here, but I like this site… I think all the modern-family kids are probably equally healthy barring any eating disorders (which could apply to ANY of them, of course, not just Sarah) but it is disturbing to me to think that Sarah would be judged by the average viewer as “most healthy”. I’m sure she is very healthy, but even with the ant-fat bias, I would hope that Ariel Winter is not considered “less healthy” for being within the “average bmi” range. I think that everything I’ve just written: average, bmi, etc, is total cr*p, but it’s just interesting that even what the American Medical Association considers average and healthy no longer looks average and healthy to us. There is nothing wrong with being underweight, of course, especially as a teen. I was hitting well below the 18.5 bmi mark as a young teenager, and so were many of my classmates. However, it is strange that in women’s fitness magazines (this is the one that I find the most confusing) the models appear below what the government would consider their “target” bmi. As I said, BMI is a terrible indicator of health and fitness, but since the general population seems to be clinging to the idea that BMI is actually meaningful, it’s always surprising to me when I realize that most people don’t have a bias against the “underweight” and in fact perceive it to be “average”. I still don’t hit 18.5 half the time, or didn’t, back when I actually knew my weight, so, as said, I’m not anti below-average weight girls/women/boys/men. I just think brainwashing is disturbing.

    • Allison

      That should be “anti-fat bias” not “ant-fat”. I never comment on message boards so every grammatical/spelling error I just noticed is mortifying to me. Haha. Seriously though, I love this site and I do not even have children.

  5. Bobbini

    I actually like that Manny’s identity isn’t tied up in being ‘the fat kid’. I think that bringing up his weight more often (in the limited context of a 30-minute sitcom) would make it more central to his identity, which would make him a less interesting and less realistic character.

    • katja

      I too like that it doesn’t define him. Perhaps it is best to show what we can aspire to as a loving family vs what often is reality. I can’t remember the specific study, but fatter kids who are supported by parents and loved unconditionally are happy. Its not the newest study, and I wonder if repeating it today in light of the constant hysteria/bullying would show different. I hope not.

  6. Tricia

    Maybe the “reality” is that Manny carries himself so confidently that, no, he doesn’t get picked on about his weight. Maybe that could be the reality for all of us?

    I’m disgusted by the interviews with the child actors, though. Why print a young woman’s weight? Why shine the spotlight on their young bodies at all? And, yet more confusion of “health” with “weight.”

    • katja

      I hope that would be the case. I’m not sure. A little fly on the wall, a nurse in a Minneapolis school said the bullying among middle school boys over weight is out of control…

  7. hingly

    I too love Modern Family (although I’m distressed about Lily’s age changing by two years with no comment… I’m probably hypersensitive to it because my son is the same age as the original Lily.)

    I’d just like to mention that there has been some discussion about weight relating to Manny on the show. At one stage he says “I’m at my target weight, I just haven’t reached my target height yet”, and there certainly is mention of him being teased and bullied at school and at children’s parties, although it’s never explicitly weight-related. I guess I don’t think the show does a bad job of modeling a child who is different from the received norms of attractive children, and I quite like that he is portrayed as being attractive to some of his classmates.

    The USA Today article, on the other hand, is a terrible portrayal of children and health… but then, what can you expect?

    • katja

      I know, it was weird that they changed the age so fast! I also watch Parenting, and pregnancies fly by… I do remember that one comment about his height and weight, but that was it. So many big kids today are harassed about every bite, are lectured about portions, told if they made little changes they would lose weight. I wonder if any readers with big kids will comment. I know when M was a baby she was huge, and people (including family) commented about her meals, that I was “making her obese” etc… I hear it from my clients, and I know many of my clients are told that they should police their children’s intake. It’s all a big mess.