Body Image and Shopping With Your Teen

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As New York’s fall Fashion Week closed down last week, parents nationwide wrapped up another September high-pressure fashion ritual: back to school shopping. Few parents would describe this particular custom as fun. But for those of us with plus-size kids, it can be especially excruciating.

As parents, we want our kids to feel good about their bodies and appearance, no matter their size. Trends, undeniably, are towards larger bodies in this country: the average American woman wears a size 16 to 18. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one in three children and adolescents are overweight or obese. But according to Project Runway creator Tim Gunn, most clothing manufacturers max out designs at size 12. Some popular retailers, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Nike, and UnderArmour, offer almost no plus size clothes for kids and adolescents.

The American retail industry is missing out on a multi-billion dollar business opportunity here. Other, less quantifiable risks lurk for parents and caregivers who face helping children find clothes that fit well and make them feel good about themselves. Worst of all, can you imagine how a 13-year-old, plus-size kid feels when he or she learns that the store where everyone else shops for cool back-to-school clothes has nothing in their size?

Parents have to make sure we avoid the same mistake as retailers. If we dismiss or ignore the self-esteem issues plus-size kids face, these kids face serious risks. Teens and tweens, even with the best of genes and metabolism, feel self-conscious as they sort out the changes to their bodies that puberty brings. Back-to-school shopping isn’t the time to shame kids about being overweight, or give them a pep talk about getting into better shape. It’s also not going to help to tell them clothes and appearance don’t matter. For kids this age, few things matter more; hence the insane popularity of the selfie, and the hours kids spend checking how many likes each picture gets on Instagram. It’s not about the fabric or style, it’s about fitting into to an intensely influential microcosmic society, their peer group.

Kids who feel negative about their bodies and appearance can become unpredictably vulnerable. Some withdraw into technology or fantasy, spending hours in a virtual world of video games and social media sites. Others become targets for bullies or nefarious adults. On January 27, 2016, 13-year-old Nicole Lovell snuck out of her house near Roanoke, Virginia to meet an older man she had met via the anonymous social media app Kik. Nicole, a survivor of cancer as an infant, was bullied at school for her surgery scars and for being overweight. Instead of going for a walk with the man she called her “boyfriend,” the seventh grader was abducted and killed by David Eisenhauer, 18, and Natalie Keepers, 19, who had painstakingly plotted her online seduction and murder, knowing all too well how vulnerable Nicole was.

Clothes, of course, cannot magically restore a child’s self-esteem, or keep our kids safe from bullies and sociopaths. But a positive self-image and sense of belonging in a friend group can strengthen adolescents’ mental temerity. What helps me is to go back in time to when I was that age, and to relive the struggles I faced to feel at ease physically when walking onto the school grounds or into a Saturday night party. Or imagine what it would be like, today, to go to work, or a social event like a date or a BBQ, dressed in clothes that accentuated our flaws instead of disguising them, simply because designers and stores refuse to carry larger clothes.

So: take back to school shopping seriously for plus-size teens. Research your local stores to find which ones offer plus-size lines. Target and Old Navy are good places to start. Hit the right stores and stay positive. Let your kids choose the clothes – they know best what other kids are wearing – but urge them to find clothes that make them feel good.

Feeling ill at ease in your body is common for teens and preteens, even if they are not physically challenged. Paving the way for your child to find clothes that help, rather than undermine, his or her self-esteem may be one of the remaining, concrete assists that increasingly independent children will let us participate in. And… it’s cheaper than therapy.

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