For kids, September means reinvention.
Whatever happened the previous school year is faded and forgiven; now comes the debut of new haircuts, freshly sharpened pencils and blank notebooks.
But while back-to-school shopping for my 7-year-old daughter recently, one loaded word kept recurring: "skinny."
For a few years, skinny jeans have been ubiquitous for kids of all ages, including babies. The word "skinny" (or "super skinny" or"toothpick") is often stitched into the jeans' waistband, so a girl can practise her reading when she zips up every morning.
As a parent who tries to gently steer her daughter away from fixating on the size of her body as opposed to testing its capabilities, I'm unimpressed. Of course "skinny" in this context doesn't describe the kid, but the pants,as in "skin-tight." Yet the word is more off-putting than any alternative– even "stovepipe" or simply "fitted" are preferable. Planting the mantra "skinny" in the minds of young children seems like burning disordered eating into their neuropathways.
Plus: Why do we want little kids to resemble Iggy Pop?
With the exception of playing dress-up, kids in adult clothes have always struck me as creepy.
An overly well-dressed kid seems like a too-perfect bad seed or the spit-shined, embattled offspring of tyrannical, Great Santini-type parents, her kiddy free will forced into sartorial submission.
Even if the original tight jean was a 1950s youth phenomenon, skinny jeans are a trend that has been handed down to kids from adults, so it's hard to believe that dressing like one's parents would be a selling point for kids. But adults seem to like the idea, as there has been a surge of designer kids' clothing delivered straight from the fashion world. Stella McCartney has Stella McCartney Kids,joining Burberry and Gucci's kids' lines (the latter with items priced from $50 to $3,500). Even Versace, which is known for grown-up near nakedness, has Young Versace and an ad campaign featuring 10-yearold Kaia Gerber, daughter of Cindy Crawford, further collapsing the generational divide.
For some kids, this is good news: There are those little people with an incredible, innate sense of style – mini-Kate Mosses and André 3000s. Maybe dressing in mom's skinny jeans is simply fun and fashion-forward at any age.
But the problem is that the category "skinny" elides another type of body: one that isn't skinny.
Indeed, it may interest designers to note that the opposite of skinny isn't always the dreaded "husky" – the Scarlet Letter for anyone who came of age in the seventies and eighties – but "muscular." I know a 9-year-old girl, gorgeous and bright, a gifted athlete who excels at every sport and plays them all. Hence, she has one of those strong female bodies we worship at the Olympics but not on the runway. Because of this, she is mostly relegated to sweats: Finding pants that fit is difficult, as most jeans are now "skinny" jeans (the oxymoronic "plus-sized skinnies" wouldn't fit either because she's not actually overweight). At 9, she'll sometimes wear skinnies made for 14– to 16-year-olds,with alterations. In any case, this 9-year-old gets a clear message when she walks into a store: There's already a bodily ideal – and you're not it.
It is hard to know where skinny jeans sit on the sad spectrum of sexualized clothing for kids. Certainly, they aren't as odious as a padded bra for a 10-year-old. But one Kenyon College study found that 30 per cent of kids' clothing available at major U.S. retailers had "sexualizing characteristics," including provocative writing, materials and cuts. Researchers then conducted a study in which students examined photographs of a fifth-grade girl in different outfits, including one involving a short dress and leopard-print purse. In that outfit, the girl was consistently perceived as less competent, intelligent and determined than she was in more demure clothes. Fair or not, it seems that young girls in sexy clothes may get caught in the archaic net that connects a female's moral fortitude to her dress.
To be sure, parents have always been flummoxed by the fashions of their offspring. A recent YouTube video that went viral shows a dad freaking out at his teenaged son for wearing low-slung skinnies: "I know your nuts hurt!" But the difference between teen fashion rebellion and adult styles for elementary-school kids is that parents do the purchasing for the latter.
So why would we want our kids to look like us, in mini-designer duds or hipster vintage wool suits, a look recently sported by one miserable, overheated young boy at our playground? (His dad's fedora explained all.) Perhaps clothes have become another form of control, an opportunity for helicopter parents to ensure there's no separation between themselves and their kids.
Clothes, though, need to fit the lives of children, not parents.
Another study has shown that kids in constricting, high-end clothes are less likely to run around. But it's movement that will ultimately make them strong – not skinny.
Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad