It was either JCPenney or Sears that had a "Husky Kids" catalog, recalls Mia O'Malley. "It would also say 'husky' on the label," she says, "and I remember having my mom cut the tags off because it felt scary that someone would see that and give them the opportunity to make fun of me."
When you online shop for kids' clothing—including at JCPenney but also at several other retailers, like Old Navy, Lands' End, and Gap—the cause for O'Malley's fear is clear: The extended sizes are, quite literally, pitted against what's deemed normal.
Under sizes, you'll find two or more options—one that's “regular,” one that's “plus” or “husky,” and sometimes a third that's “slim.” A child today is less likely to receive a separate mailer for larger kids, like the ones O'Malley was sent, but instead they're faced with this choice: Are you a regular size? Or something not regular?
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'Plus' and 'Husky' Labels Are Causing Body Image Issues
Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and author of Anti-Diet, has worked with a number of clients who say they wore "plus" or "husky" sizes as kids, which "created a feeling of disconnection and shame about their bodies." And for many of these people, she says, those labels were one of the factors that led to disordered eating.
There are several statistics that suggest this experience is no anomaly. For example, a 2016 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that "up to 40 percent of overweight girls and 37 percent of overweight boys are teased about their weight by peers or family members" and "weight teasing predicts weight gain, binge eating, and extreme weight-control measures." In that same report, the academy advises against "weight talk," as it's linked to a higher risk for eating disorders.
Larger-bodied children (like larger-bodied adults) are also faced with a dearth of models in marketing images who look like them, even in the places that are specific to extended sizes. For example, on the landing page for OldNavy.com's Girls Plus section, the main image is of two girls and two boys, none of whom look like they'd wear extended sizes. On Gap.com, the main image is of a girl's face and upper torso—the rest of her body is cropped out. Within the grid—the images used for specific products—it's the same issue: all models who do not represent larger-bodied children.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that "the best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness." And an earlier report in Nutrition Today found that "of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69 percent say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape" and "47 percent say the pictures make them want to lose weight."
That scene's a familiar one for Plus Mommy Podcast host Jen McLellan. "When I was younger and didn't feel represented, it made me do things that were unhealthy, to try to fit into a group that I was never going to fit into anyway, because that's not how my body was built," she says. As a mother, "I want to protect my kid for as long as possible from these societal beliefs that our size sets the standard for our value in this world. I want him to want to run and play and be as active as everyone else and not feel like, 'I'm different because I have to wear 'husky' pants.'"
O'Malley, now an advocate for body inclusivity and a mom herself, is on a similar mission. She founded @plussizebabywearing shortly after her son was born. The account showcases the plus-size women she wasn't seeing in the tutorials and promotion for baby carriers. "Almost all of the brands provide extended sizes; they're just not showing the diversity in the marketing," she says.
Which bring us to the access and availability of extended sizes. Brands are no doubt offering kids' clothes in a wider range of sizes than they used to, and they deserve credit for that. But there's still room for improvement. For instance, many of the brands only offer the extended sizes online, but what about the teen who's out shopping with her friends? "I've heard from a number of folks who got really into shoes because that was the only thing they could shop for in mainstream stores," says Harrison.
Another problem? "There's bullying that happens when you're not able to shop in the same stores as your friends. There's an otherness that's created," says O'Malley. Plus, for online-exclusives styles, many times you have to pay shipping fees to get the extended sizes, "which I feel is just a 'fat tax,' quite simply."
"Fat"—that's another point. Did reading that word make you cringe? Perhaps in the same way that "plus" and "husky" do? But, in fact, there's nothing inherently negative about those terms. The issue is the "preexisting weight stigma that already exists in diet culture that's indoctrinated into kids so young," says Harrison. She notes that there are other labels like "petite" and "tall" for adults that don't carry the same negative connotation. "It's because our society doesn't really have huge value judgments placed on height. There just isn't a systemic oppression against people who are taller or shorter in the same way that there is against people who are larger-bodied."
We Need to Make a Cultural Change
Instead of using terms like "plus" and "husky," brands could embrace something more neutral. Do away with the separate categories—"regular" vs. "plus," "husky" vs. "slim"—and instead group all kids' clothing together, sell them in the same places, and distinguish the sizes by numbers, for example waist and inseam measurements.
If a child is getting bullied at school for their size, Harrison advises parents to react in the same way they would if their child were getting made fun of for their race or any other aspect of their identity. "The thing with weight is that we have this mythology in diet culture that it's controllable, so people don't treat it as core to someone's identity," says Harrison. It's important to keep in mind studies show weight is genetic.
She would love for weight to be seen as just as neutral as height or hair color. But, we're not there yet. There are still vocal (albeit a shrinking number of) opponents to body inclusivity. Take the critics to Nike's recent introduction of plus-size mannequins in London.
Fat phobia persists in our culture and will into the foreseeable future. Our children are not immune it. And for the sake of their well-being—mental, physical, and emotional—"plus" and "husky" labels should not be used for their clothing.