WEIRD CONTROVERSY OF THE WEEK: Does the Term "Plus Size" Risk Hurting Fat Kids' Feelings?

Bigger kids need bigger clothes, and meeting that need is a booming industry. But some are concerned that using the term "plus size" for children may damage their self-esteem. I'm sorry, but ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?
Publish date:
September 5, 2012
fat, plus sizes, body politics, kids today

It was during back-to-school shopping prior to entering the third grade that I discovered girls’ jeans no longer fit.

My mom, non-custodial parent but lifetime shopping supervisor, brought pair after pair into the fitting room, in her inimitably non-judgmental way -- there was no exasperated sighing from her, no thoughtless comments, no frustration nor impatience at all. I was lucky, in having a mother who did not seem to feel any need to exorcise her own body issues on me, or rather, if she did, she knew enough to keep those urges hidden.

She brought me jeans, jeans upon jeans, each of which I discarded in growing panic onto the pile of non-fitting failures on the dressing room bench. What was wrong with me? Why didn’t they fit? Why wasn’t I shaped like a girl is supposed to be shaped, according to the standards set forth by virtually every jeans manufacturer carried in the JC Penney’s in the West Palm Beach mall? What had gone wrong?

The jeans really did seem to be made not only for someone of a smaller size but for a human body utterly foreign to me, something delicate and refined, and notably lacking in the rounded, protuberant belly I carried. Baby fat, we all still called it, although by this point even I had begun to wonder how much longer we could all get away with pretending my chubbishness was merely the lingering effects of infancy.

Once the final pair of jeans declined to oblige me, to my absolute horror my mother matter-of-factly took us both across the department store aisle into the boys’ department. The boys’ department. My humiliation was complete when we went into the changing room (the BOYS’ changing room) with yet another pair of jeans (BOYS’ jeans) and they fit fine. My mom firmly assured me that no one would ever know they were boys’ jeans, and I nodded my acceptance although it didn’t matter, really, if anyone else knew -- I knew, and I knew that I was defective, although I didn’t yet fully understand how.

For the duration of my childhood and adolescence, trendy plus-size children’s clothes didn’t exist. My eventual solution was simply to move up in size ranges when the time came, which put me in juniors’ clothes by age ten and adult misses’ ranges by thirteen, and then after that, regular plus sizes, which were at the time mostly geared to women over sixty. This was a final step I resisted for a long time by continuing to wear pants and shorts that I could only get into by lying on the bed and shredding the skin on my fingers by methodically inching the zipper all the way up one painful millimeter at a time, a process that could take as long as twenty minutes to complete.

Things have certainly changed since then; plus size kids’ clothes are suddenly a booming industry. Sears has recently launched its “Pretty Plus” line, aimed at girls from 7 to 10 years of age, to enormous success, following a long line of stalwart mass-produced clothing retailers from Forever 21 to Target.

When Torrid, then the plus-size extension of trendy “alternative” mall chain Hot Topic, first began operations in 2001, there was a lot of handwringing over whether making on-trend clothing for fat teens would somehow enable said teens to stay (or even become! HORRORS!) fat. Four years later, this was still something people were actively worried about, as noted in a Salon piece from 2005 in which several experts express their concerns that helping fat teens feel good about themselves may hinder their non-negotiable obligation to lose weight.

That idea enraged me enough at the time that I was motivated to write a lengthy letter to the editor explaining in painstaking detail that enforcing the idea that fat kids ought to only be allowed to exist as shamed outcasts and cautionary tales is hardly an effective and positive motivation for weight loss. IF a kid wants to lose weight -- and this is fully optional -- either for their health or for their appearance, that decision should not come from a place of self-loathing but from a place of self-care. And you don’t encourage kids to genuinely care about themselves and their bodies by allowing them to hate themselves for failing to fit in.

Of course, the plus-size naysayers are still around, heralding the need for these clothes as a sign of the sad downfall of our once great civilization. But in a curious development, I was surprised to see that in the Today Show coverage of the new Sears “Pretty Plus” line from earlier this week, the controversy isn’t in whether these clothes should exist, or whether they are wrongly enabling kids to be comfortable being fatter -- the controversy is in whether calling the clothes “plus” is a problem.

“A child being able to have the same clothes that everyone else their age is wearing is a great thing," said fashion expert Jene Luciani, whose 2-year-old daughter is taller than average. "However, you’re attaching a label to it like ‘plus-size’ and this child is seeing that from an early age. Will they feel like they’re still different from everyone else?”

Morgan Joseph, 11, who was on TODAY with her mother Sharon, said she has struggled to find clothes for much of her life. At 5 foot 11 inches already, she told TODAY's Natalie Morales she didn't appreciate being called plus-size. "I don't really enjoy the word 'plus,'" she said. "I'd rather they just put numbers like they do for other kids."

I find it intriguing, if totally unsurprising, that the kids the Today Show segment chose to highlight were notable mostly for their height -- it’s a tidy way of sidestepping the inevitable backlash of showing kids who are simply fat as normal and deserving of the same treatment and access to stylish clothes as their thinner peers, because these are DANGEROUS IDEAS, which may one day lead to fat people of all ages retaining some self-respect in spite of their size. (Which would eventually mean a social disaster of biblical proportions, i.e. dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!)

However, I don’t think calling these clothes “plus size” is the problem, myself. The reluctance many seem to have with the term is that it has clear connections to its less gentle and more straightforward counterpart, the roundly hated “fat.” Parents and child psychologists are concerned that an association with “plus size” and therefore “fat” could have a negative effect on kids’ self-esteem, by reinforcing their sense of themselves as outsiders. Because, as you know, being fat is always, always, always bad.

That said, I’m not sure that simply erasing the term from our vocabulary really solves anything, as doing so reinforces the idea that wearing a larger size is a negative thing. It makes as much sense for us to continue to use it, albeit in a purposely and consciously value-neutral way. Rather than saying these kids aren’t “plus-sized,” why not say that they are, but that this is OK, because kids inevitably come in a wide diversity of shapes and sizes and all children are valuable no matter what they may look like or how objectively “healthy” they may seem to the untrained and presumptuous eye?

Of course, I don’t have a problem with the word “fat” either. So my opinion here is obviously skewed.

I’ll confess that I’m a bit cheered by the idea that a future generation of humans may eventually grow up without any sense of difference between plus sizes and non-plus sizes, with the idea that clothing sizes are just sizes, period, with no need for artificial boundaries between what is normal and what is outside the accepted standard. But I also think that turning the phrase “plus size” into yet another unspeakable insult is perpetuating the problem here, not resolving it.

If there had been a plus-size section at Sears when I was ten years old, I would have beelined for it with relief and gratitude. I doubt I would have cared what it was called; I may even have appreciated the gesture of making the clothes available in my size readily identifiable. But I grew up in a world where I had to wear a mother-of-the-bride dress to my middle school graduation because nothing else would fit -- youthful clothes in my size literally didn’t exist.

I want kids today to feel entitled to fair treatment, because they are entitled -- but I also want them, and their parents, to realize that turning “plus size” into a potential insult is not going to help their predicament. It’s OK if a kid is big; it’s OK if a kid is small. It is possible, even preferable, for us to acknowledge difference and still not turn it into a perceived disadvantage.

What we call these kids is less important than how we behave toward them, and we should be giving them the same respect and the same opportunities no matter their appearance, because that is how we will one day build a generation of kids who don’t make assumptions about people, and how they should be treated, based on how they look.