Sunday 18 February 2018

Fiona Ness: 'There's nothing normal about the guilt of buying plus-size clothes for kids'

One in four children in Ireland is overweight or obese. Stock photo
One in four children in Ireland is overweight or obese. Stock photo

Fiona Ness

Should you body-shame a three-year-old? That practice whereby we judge a person by criticising their personal appearance? With Ireland in the grip of an obesity crisis where one-in-four children is overweight or obese, we’re undoubtedly about to find out.

But out of crisis comes opportunity. Take the clothing retailer Next, which is in the news for its new range of ‘plus size’ clothes for children as young as three. The clothes have extra-large waistbands to accommodate the fact that an increasing number of children are growing beyond the reach of the retailer’s regular clothing.

Is this good news? For decades, women have been railing against the lack of representation of ‘real women’ in fashion – despite the fact the sheer number of ‘real women’ (those size 16+) offers a lucrative, billion-euro market for fashion retailers. So, plus-sizes for kids: do we just blink, pass the cookie jar and applaud Next for recognising the sartorial needs of ‘real kids’?

Health campaigners in Britain, where the retailer is based, say no. They say the move is evidence that childhood obesity has “gone beyond epidemic proportions”. This statement prompted me to wonder what actually exists beyond epidemic proportions (pandemic being a mere matter of geography)?

If something is “beyond epidemic”, does that make it ubiquitous? If it’s ubiquitous, isn’t that another way of saying it’s normal? If being fat is the new normal for kids – doesn’t that make it OK?

Of course, rather than being a sinister attempt to normalise childhood obesity, Next’s move into plus sizes for children could just be evidence of the simplest retail tactic ever: the one where the seller ‘spots a gap in the market’ and moves to ‘fill an unmet need’ – aka make money – by selling us outsized clothing for our outsized (heretofore to be referred to as ‘the new normal’) kids. For parents struggling to clothe their kids, Next is providing a service long overdue, and other high street retailers are sure to follow suit.

But let’s just take a moment to consider this fact: we now live in a country where we need plus-size clothing for children who are growing outwards quicker than they are growing upwards.

It’s only a matter of time before plus-size kids’ clothing is being marketed as desirable, and anyone who laments its arrival is pilloried as a body-shamer and a hater.

The debate over plus-size fashion for adults is a case in point. In this week’s ‘Grazia’ magazine, the fashion glossy holds its hand up for being “complicit in perpetuating the thin ideal” for women. We learn that it is “fortifying to see cool, emerging designers embracing size diversity” in their catwalk collections, although the magazine notes there has been a slight overall fall in the number of fashion brands casting plus-size models this season.

‘Grazia’ is intent on “nurturing the positive seeds being sown” by the fashion industry in catering for plus sizes, and offers its own plus-size features displaying glamorous, curvy models in cool fashions.

When obesity expert Professor Donal O’Shea warned earlier this year that plus-size models glamorised obesity, he was thought-shamed for his body-shaming views that normalising plus sizes was a “dangerous trend”.

It’s not a massive leap to believe that one day we are noticing a high street retailer offering plus-sizes for three year olds, and the next we are silencing obesity experts criticising the fact we are feeding our children into ill health. Yet the stark fact is that “we have already lost one generation to obesity”. Now, those same experts warn, we’re about to lose another.

In 2012, paediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig called out parents who were feeding their kids to death. His book, ‘Fat Chance’, highlighted the dangers of sugar in processed foods, and much about what he said about western society’s overconsumption of sugary foods made sense. I read the book and it underlined many of the healthy food choices I was already trying to make in my own life. It wasn’t making me particularly happy to resist desserts or avoid the cheesy chips at the end of a night out, but all the evidence suggested I should do my best to persist.

Yet knowing all that I know about good nutrition, when it comes to me raising my kids today, I have a disconnect. I come home in evenings from work, having existed on eggs, spinach and turkey breast all day, and spill from my bag squares of fudge for my hungry brood, greedy for their love after a long day at work.

It’s an easy sop for my conscience to then dole out dessert after dinner, and give in to pleas for supper an hour later, before tucking them up in bed from where they will tumble, 10 hours later, to a breakfast of pancakes and honey as I rush out the door. I know all that I know, and yet I am teaching them bad food habits.

Yes (the problems of poverty and education aside), when it comes to teaching children good food habits, there are problems with the food advertisers, with our time-poor lives and the modern stresses that cause our addiction to processed foods in the first place, but no matter how you slice it, the number one reason for our surfeit of overweight kids is ourselves.

This month, Lustig is back with a new book, ‘The Hacking of the American Mind’.

Here he describes how marketeers are using neuroscience to make their products irresistible. He talks to parents about how to avoid bringing up consumerist children in the age of constant consumption.

A factor of modern parenting, he says, is that we love our children so much that we want to make them happy, but we mistake their happiness for pleasure, and what gives them pleasure is food. Ultimately, of course, this doesn’t make them happy. No. This makes them fat.

“Kids experience happiness but they consume pleasure, and the goal is to provide the experiences rather than the consumption. So the kid who goes with his mother to the store and the kid nags the mom ‘can’t I have this’ and she caves and gives it to him — that’s not parenting. It maximises pleasure, but not happiness,” Lustig has said.

Of course, we didn’t need a scientist to tell us that. Willy Wonka was on to us 50 years previously, when he sang of poor unfortunate Veruca Salt: “Who pandered to her every need? Who turned her into such a brat? Who are the culprits? Who did that? The guilty ones now this is sad, Dear Old Mum and Loving Dad.”

It’s a verse that should go round and round as we point and click on the plus-size clothes for our kids. Guilt and sadness when buying them a T-shirt? There’s nothing normal about that.

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