New York — Most children just want to fit in. They want to blend into the cafeteria crowd, walking, talking and dressing like their peers, and never be singled out for reasons good or bad.
It's understandable, then, that shopping ranks as a traumatic experience if children are taller, huskier or heavier than their friends and can't wear similar clothes or even use the same stores.
This is where self-image problems start, according to Emme, a plus-size model, fashion designer and author.
A lot of children who fall into the plus-size category are there because they are athletes or had early growing spurts, but even knowing those logical causes and effects often doesn't soothe youngsters' delicate psyches.
"I was a swimmer, a diver, and I got a four-year scholarship for rowing, but that didn't make me feel better when my button-down shirts would pull because my back was so broad," Emme says.
"Not being able to feel cool and hip could push some kids over the edge" toward eating disorders, she adds.
Parents and a handful of retailers who are offering stylish clothes in larger sizes can make the difference in getting these children through a very difficult time.
Some youngsters realize they are full figured, some don't, says Emme, but parents can gently steer them toward properly fitting clothes without putting a label on them.
"Parents shouldn't make it an issue of the body but should make it an issue of the clothes. If (a child's) clothes are ill-fitting, make an appointment with him or her. Say, 'I think it's time for a mom-and-daughter shopping spree."'
J.C. Penney has offered plus-size clothes for children for the past 10 years, and it's a part of the business that continues to grow, says Lana Cain Krauter, executive vice president and merchandising manager of the company's men's and children's divisions.
"Statistics show our children are getting larger. ... We have a much more diverse face to our population that we need to respond to," she says.
It's drilled into Penney's buyers' heads that these girls and boys want to dress like the children at the next desk, explains Cain Krauter. The husky departments feature the same styles by the same manufacturers that are offered in slim and regular sizes; the only differences come in the fit specifications and grading.
The floor space devoted in stores to plus sizes has the same look as it does for regular sizes. "We put plus-sizes right next to their regular-size friends. We give the departments the same energy and graphics," she says.
The overall lack of plus-size children's garments in the marketplace not only leaves the youngsters upset, it frustrates parents, Cain Krauter adds.
"Parents like it (J.C. Penney's department) because it's there to make their kids feel better about themselves. If your kid can go home with the same pair of jeans as his best friend, your mission is accomplished," she says.
Plus-size market growing
Meanwhile, teenagers -- especially teenage girls -- prefer to shop for themselves; it's a bona fide recreational activity.
These girls, whether they are a size 3 or 16, have the same emotional needs: They want to be trendy cookie cutters of each other, says Patricia VanCleave, president of Torrid, the sister store to hip retailer Hot Topic.
"They (plus-size teens) love low-cut jeans. They have no problem wearing them regardless of their girth. They want to wear them because it means they are fitting in," VanCleave says.
"If they were a little older, they probably would pay more attention to what's flattering, but given the chance to have the outfit to match what their friends are wearing, they'll go for it. And, you know what? They look cute!"
It's a retailer's job to make sure they are selling clothes that are cut correctly to flatter customers' figures; it shouldn't be too much of a concern of the shopper, VanCleave adds.
"The plus-size young person is just chomping at the bit to get 'fashion.' They don't want to be 'mature,' which is what the retail world had been offering," she says.
VanCleave adds, "Our interpretation of plus-size for Torrid benefits from the 500 Hot Topic stores and the input we receive on a daily basis from customers. They tell us what they love. The junior market is more vocal, and they are very clear on what they want to look like."
From a business perspective, other retailers may start listening to these outspoken girls willing to spend money to boost their image. In less than six years, the manufacturing capability of plus-size garments has increased tenfold, according to VanCleave, and there are 60 million Americans who fit into the category.