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Letting it all hang out

For many young women, one size fits all -- no matter how that makes them look.

July 04, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

THE Sausage Casing Girls are everywhere this summer, their muffin tops hanging over their hip-skimming jeans, clothes shrink-wrapped around fleshy bodies that look as if they've been stuffed -- like forcemeat -- into teensy tops and skintight pants.

Visit the local mall, any beach boardwalk or the sidewalk in front of your neighborhood high school and you will see why healthcare professionals are so alarmed about expanding waistlines. And while chunky teen boys and young men hide in cartoonishly large basketball jerseys over big T-shirts and elephant-legged shorts, girls generally do not. They may be getting bigger, but their clothes are getting smaller.

One is tempted to applaud the Sausage Casing Girls; after all, Southern California is an epicenter of body consciousness, and here they are thumbing their noses at the idea that they must be whippets or Lindsay Lohans to wear the current styles, which for the last several seasons have been exaggeratedly body-hugging and skin-revealing. Perhaps all that self-esteem building has finally paid off.

But this phenomenon does not appear entirely to be about self-acceptance and the conscious abandonment of repressive physical ideals. It is far more complicated than that. Yes, there are plenty of young women who can confidently say that they are happy with their less-than-svelte shapes -- and that is to be applauded. But there are many others who in the rush to be fashionable are unable to admit that they are larger than they wish to be, or that their bodies just don't look good in the clothes they are choosing. Instead of reveling in their big, beautiful bodies, many girls instead are deep in denial, pouring themselves into clothes that are putting them in a python squeeze.

Luisana Sanchez, an athletic 19-year-old college student who lives in South Gate, likes to wear tight clothes. She would also like to drop a few pounds, but she insists on buying clothes that fit her. As a result, she has no fat rolls squeezing up into a muffin top above her belt. Her T-shirts do not climb, leaving a bare expanse of skin showing around her middle.

However, at Potrero's, her local 18-and-older nightclub, she said she can't believe the number of overweight women in teensy clothes, with everything hanging out. "Fat or skinny, it doesn't matter," she said. "The guys in there will look at you if you're wearing a little skirt and hoochie tank top."

After years of observing her peers, Sanchez has a theory about the Sausage Casing Girls: "Nowadays, you have kids eating so much junk food that they're overweight and they're trying to fit into junior sizes. They don't want to go to bigger sizes. But junior sizes are for, like, tall, thin girls. So you have girls wearing tight jeans and you see their love handles sticking out 'cause they want to fit into the tight pants that are in style."

Her theory is supported by those who study the psychology and self-images of girls and young women.

"Everyone wants to buy a small size, even if it looks terrible," said psychologist Nancy Etcoff, who directs the Program in Aesthetics and Well Being in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. "There is shame in buying sizes that are above 8, which some think is already a big size."

Etcoff said that one of her patients, a 16-year-old girl, was traumatized in front of friends when one held up a pair of her size 7/8 jeans and said, "You wear these? I could get two of me in here."

"It would be great if they were wearing these clothes and had body pride," said Etcoff, author of "Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty," which argues that the appreciation of human beauty is innate and that attractiveness confers survival advantages. "For most girls, though, this is not the case."

Advice columnist Jessica Weiner, author of "A Very Hungry Girl," believes that girls are at the mercy of several forces: the oversexualization of teen girl clothing, peer pressure and relentless messages about self-esteem. Plus, said Weiner, the "image diet" they are on contributes to a distorted body image: They don't see anyone who looks like them on TV, in movies, in ads, or in fashion spreads. "It's like a cocktail for disaster," said Weiner, 32, who suffered from eating disorders in her teens.

Fifteen-year-old Nattalie Tehrani is a junior at South High School in Torrance who developed an eating disorder after gaining weight when she quit the swim team. "Fifty percent of the girls at my school wear low pants and short tops, and their stomachs are hanging out. It's unflattering and unattractive, but there is not one kid at my school who does not have a pair of Frankie B.'s or True Religion," she said, alluding to popular and pricey denim brands known for the lowest of low-rise waists. "Parents don't seem like they give their kids the truth anymore -- they don't tell them that it's inappropriate to wear clothes like that."

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