When Kathryn Squitieri, 18, was in high school, a routine shopping trip with friends was a journey into a special circle of hell -- you know, the circle where everyone is skinnier than you. "Oh God, it was horrible. You have no idea," says Kathryn, now a freshman at Brooklyn College, of her posse's mall safaris. "I hated shopping with friends. But I wanted to be like everyone else, so I went to all the stores with them and ended up leaving miserable or with stuff that I knew was too small --I'd buy it so they wouldn't think that nothing fit me. Or they would go into a store and I would you know, go get a soda or something. They'd be all excited and I'd just, like, sit there with nothing to do. It was really difficult."
Kathryn, 5 feet 2 inches tall, says she "wasn't as heavy back then" (she now weighs 180 pounds) and found herself too small and too young for Lane Bryant, which is persistently (and perhaps unfairly) known as the frumpy aunt of all women's plus-size clothing. What did she wear? "Long skirts, plain shirts -- whatever I could find," says Kathryn, who also occasionally sewed her own clothes. "Every once in a while I would come across something in Junior XL, and that would be OK. The whole thing was a big trauma."
That was before Torrid came to town. Torrid is the curvy kid-sister company to California-based Hot Topic, a popular punk clothing chain (insofar as a "chain" can be "punk") that netted $39.7 million last year. Now four years old, Torrid offers only plus-size clothing -- that is, only cool plus-size clothing -- to fashion-starved Junior XLs like Kathryn. "We believe that plus-size young women should have just as much opportunity to feel feminine, beautiful and sexy as their thinner counterparts," says Regina Woodhouse, director of marketing for Torrid. Translation: Anyone looking for stretch pants or muumuus will be disappointed.
Torrid is working lace camis, cute hoodies, saucy tees, flouncy minis, a rainbow of bodacious panties and bras (up to size 46 DDD). The combined effect is as if Gwen Stefani, Anna Nicole Smith, Queen Latifah, Pink and Carmen Miranda teamed up for a trunk show. Shiny, sparkly, often revealing -- with roomier-than-usual shoes, boots and even expanded necklaces and bracelets to match -- the clothes seem to say, "What fat?" rather than "I'll just be hiding over here in this caftan." (Torrid does, by the way, also stock more conservative clothes.) "Torrid is like the clothing equivalent of 'Buffy.' It seems like it's for teens, but there's also this underground of 30-somethings that's totally obsessed," says Wendy Shanker, the author of "The Fat Girl's Guide to Life" and an occasional freelance writer -- but not paid spokesperson -- for Torrid's Web site.)
Launched in response to overwhelming customer demand for clothes like Hot Topic's, only larger, Torrid has grown from six stores in 2001 to 76 today -- and has plans to open 45 more this year. (Hot Topic does not break down Torrid's sales figures separately and a company spokesperson would not disclose them.) What's behind its success? Deeply devoted customers who say Torrid has not only filled their closets but also salvaged their self-esteem. Kathryn made sure to be at the Torrid store in New York City's Staten Island Mall the day it opened in 2001. "Everything looked beautiful on me," she says, describing short skirts and corset tops she'd never dreamed of wearing before. "I was like, 'It fits! It's flattering! This is so exciting! Shopping is fun!' It made me feel terrific." She now works at that Torrid two days a week, not because she has to (she lives at home and, she says, "my parents are good to me"), but because she wants to. At the store on a recent Sunday, her supervisor had to stop her from helping a customer after her shift had ended.
"They say that two-thirds of America is overweight," says Torrid devotee Andrea Ward, 16, of Bridgewater, Mass. "So why don't they make clothes for them except for sweat pants and huge ugly shirts like my drama teacher wears?" Health and business experts follow Andrea's logic, agreeing that Torrid represents a welcome, even overdue, tap into a surprisingly underserved market. "It's about time," says Judith S. Stern, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California at Davis and vice president and co-founder of the American Obesity Association. "Overweight and obese kids are actively discriminated against. The fact that they couldn't have cool clothing just made things worse. We've made a lot of progress."
But the idea's not just nice, say market trackers; it's a smart business move. "Torrid finally wised up to the fact that there's an awfully large market for clothes that are not only plus-sized but also stylish," says Rob Callender, trends director of Chicago market research firm Teenage Research Unlimited, noting that teens generally have money to burn. They spent $169 billion last year, 39 percent more than they did in 1997.
Among teenage clothes shoppers, retail research group NPD Fashionworld says, "size availability" is the "number-one factor that drives teens to stores." And, more to the point, size unavailability drives them nuts. According to the industry trade group Cotton Inc., 29 percent of 16- to 24-year-old women wear at least a size 12 -- and 61 percent of them complain that they can't find clothes in their size. According to NPD, the plus-size market in general -- the fastest-growing segment in the apparel industry -- is expected to hit $47 billion this year, up 49 percent since 2000.
But all this demand, some add, has a downside. People like Stern are deeply concerned about there being such a large -- and by all accounts, rapidly growing -- plus-size teen market to begin with. A few critics even go so far as to say that stores like Torrid -- precisely by catering to, and even glamorizing, the plus sizes -- could be contributing to the problem.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 9 million kids age 6 to 19 are considered overweight or obese. Sixteen percent of adolescents age 12 to 19 are overweight, up from 4.6 percent in 1965. "We should be alarmed about this epidemic because we know the consequences," says Yale-New Haven Hospital dietitian Lisa Tartamella, a coauthor of "Generation Extra Large: Rescuing Our Children From the Epidemic of Obesity" Such as? Well, death. Last month, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association established that while smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, excessive weight and obesity now represent a close and gaining second. Also last month, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (called "excessively gloomy" by an accompanying editorial) went so far as to assert that the rise in obesity, especially among young people and minorities, could reduce life expectancy in the United States -- this century -- by at least two years. To be sure, weight itself is not universally toxic; many plus sizers are quite healthy -- possibly more so, in fact, than the skinnies who live on Whoppers "because they can." But being overweight has been linked to all manner of serious problems, from heart disease and type 2 diabetes to cancer -- not to mention the ill effects of trauma and depression caused by, say, evil taunting schoolmates. And, says Dr. Stern, "If you're obese as an adolescent, you tend to be obese as an adult."
Fat teens aren't thinking about being fat grown-ups, though; they're thinking about surviving being a fat teen -- an experience that's basically hellish and, by most accounts, getting worse. Researchers recently repeated a 1961 study in which fifth and sixth graders were asked to choose which kid they liked best from a series of drawings of children with various disabilities and disfigurements, plus one who was visibly chubby. In both years -- and by a much greater proportion in 2001 -- children "liked" the fat kid least of all.
Cool clothes really do make a difference, it turns out -- at least in terms of how much an overweight kid likes herself. "Having fashionable plus-size clothes is great body-image therapy. It removes a really distressing stigma for overweight girls -- that of not looking good in clothes and having only alternatives that are big and baggy and hide their bodies," says James Rosen, professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, a clinical psychologist and an expert in obesity and body image.
Jessica Weiner, author of the memoir "A Very Hungry Girl," has worked on self-esteem issues with girls around the country for years. "The biggest complaint I've heard from plus-size teens has been the incredible lack of fashionable clothing. They've had to buy men's or boys' clothes, sew their own, and just get resigned to the misery of not finding anything amazing in their size. That affects their whole personality. It makes them feel like an outsider," she says. "But walking around in trendy clothes made to fit your body raises your self-esteem because you feel included in the pop-culture fashion world -- and that's what it's all about for that age. That's the purpose clothing serves; it's a uniform. It communicates an image and an identity. And if there's nothing for them to dress up in, they feel nameless and faceless."
Torrid fans bear her out. "Torrid helped me come into my own," says Rachel Vickers, 15, a high school junior in Kansas City, Mo. "I was your average 'fat girl,' the nice one. The one who you could always ask for a pencil, shy and mousy. I was actually surprised that I wasn't invisible by the time I was a freshman. I was wearing Wal-Mart average stuff that every fat girl tried to wear: preppy things, or at least trying to fit in with the crowd. But after I started buying Torrid clothes, people started to notice 'Rachel,' and now I'm in 11th grade and lots of people know me! I am nuts about Torrid, and I will always shop there as long as they are near."
For some girls, even one piece of clothing can mean the difference between enjoying a party and hiding in a corner, or not going at all. Erica Santiago, a 17-year-old with orange-streaked hair, giant rave pants, and zipper-pull earrings, was shopping recently in Torrid's Staten Island store. While fielding calls on her pink cellphone, Erica, who says she feels "really comfortable" with herself at about 185 pounds, described the thrill of finding a trendy bathing suit that fit. "Before, I wouldn't even dare try them on. I would just guess, get home, have them not fit, and then return them," she says, noting that those that did fit were hideous. If forced to go near the water, she'd wear a T-shirt over whatever abomination she'd settled for. At Torrid, however, she found a suit she loves, black with star-shaped studs near the neck. She's now done away with the coverups, she says. "I feel more confident -- really good. It feels great to be able to go to a pool party and actually wear a bathing suit." (Torrid also does big business at prom time and Halloween.)
Of course, Torrid is hardly the only purveyor of teen-wearable plus-size clothing. The Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy all offer extended sizes, as do J.C. Penney, Sears, Nordstrom and many others. (However, as only two of my messages to such department stores -- in which I specified my topic -- were returned, I have to wonder how much they want people to know about it.) Ann Taylor and Talbot's now have larger lines -- as do designers such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Liz Claiborne -- which works for teens with plus-size allowances and grown-up taste. Hip-hop star Nelly, he of "Shake Ya Tailfeather," has launched Apple Bottoms. There's also Avenue (but it's considered a little square) and Fashion Bug (but it's called "Fashion Bug"). And with online shops such as Alight and Beauty Plus Power, the Internet is a gold mine for cool plus-size clothes (but could someone please find J.Lo an actual plus-size model?).
But here's the problem with shopping online -- and off -- for teens, though: For many of them, shopping is inherently, or at least ideally, a group event. "Girls especially are incredibly social about shopping," says Callender of Teenage Research. When they shop online, they miss potential hangout time with their friends. But when they shop in an actual store, one that's not wall-to-wall plus sizes, it sucks. "I typically avoid certain stores because the people that work or shop there make me feel uncomfortable, says Savannah Rios, 16, of Las Vegas (who wears size 14 to 16). "There have been a few times where I'll be at a store and I'll ask for my size and they give me a weird look and tell me they don't have it. It's frustrating." But at Torrid, she says, "You feel comfortable when you're in there because you don't have girls looking at you weird because you're not a size zero."
Even the stores that have your size don't always offer an excellent shopping experience, says Andrea Ward. "Stores with plus sizes have, like, special cordoned-off areas. It's like, 'Look out, here come the fat people!' And there are like six kids over there, like, hiding behind the racks." She says that for her, shopping at Torrid is a welcome journey into Bizarro World: "Usually it's me getting all angry that I can't find clothes that fit. But now I go to Torrid with all my skinny friends. One time my friend who weighs like 20 pounds was like, 'Oh, I want this!' But it was way too big. So I was like, 'Ha ha, you're skinny, you don't get cool clothes like me!' That makes you feel better about yourself."
Now, no one wants heavy teens to feel bad. But a handful of weight-management experts wonder if there's such a thing as feeling too good. "If the teens are overweight and are physically healthy then I think the 'cool' plus-sized clothing can help overweight teens become comfortable with their bodies," says T. Joel Wade, a professor and the chair of psychology at Bucknell University, who focuses on body image and self-esteem. "However, if the teens are overweight due to diet excesses and a lack of exercise and physical activity, then I think the clothing can simply reinforce that they do not need to exercise or care about their physical health."
Lawrence Miller, a clinical health psychologist with the Nutrition, Exercise and Weight Management (NEW) Kids Program at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, says that feeling attractive in clothes could decrease a teen's motivation to lose weight -- though only insofar as "feeling attractive" is her or his main goal. "Lots of kids that we've seen here say that they want to be able to keep up with their peers and not get out of breath when they go walking or running around," he says. "So having clothes that fit the styles, and them, isn't really going to change that." (Miller also notes that from what he's seen, Torrid isn't for everyone. Some of his young clients, he says, "think that the clothes might... make them look... cheap, or" -- and here he hesitates, searching for a word -- "'slutty'?")
Some studies have shown, however, that overweight people who receive body-image therapy (as opposed to weight-loss treatment) do not -- contrary to the predictions of some obesity researchers --gain weight, nor do they lose their motivation to slim down.
Indeed, many scoff at the notion that such clothes themselves could encourage kids to stay heavy. "That's like saying 'Don't give the kids condoms because it'll make them want to have sex,'" says Abby Ellin, the author of "Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight, and How Parents Can (and Can't) Help," which will be published by Public Affairs in June.
"It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard, right up there with the idea that if you 'punish' people by charging them double for airplane seats they'll be motivated to lose weight -- uh huh, let's just make all the chairs smaller so everyone will be skinny," Shanker says. "Weight loss is not motivated by outside sources. You don't lose weight by tough love, whether from your mother or your local clothing store. It's a personal choice, and a difficult choice -- and if I can't do it for myself, I'm not going to do it for the Gap."
Weiner says, "If you want to make kids healthier, start by taking the processed food and soda out of the schools and putting back P.E. -- not by taking away their plus-sized stores."
On the other hand, there's only so much that cool plus-size clothing can do. After all, it's not as if a teen who scores a killer corset is going to forget -- or not care -- that she's fat. "It's very painful to be an overweight teen, and clothes do not change that," says Janet R. Laubgross, a clinical psychologist in Fairfax, Va., who specializes in weight management. To some degree, no matter what they're wearing -- and no matter what "I'm big and beautiful!" banners they're waving -- they're still suffering. "I think they're trying to convince themselves," Laubgross says of some teens who say they feel 150 percent fine about how they look. "I'm glad they're being acknowledged as real people who deserve to dress nicely, that they're feeling like they do matter. And it's great that they can say, 'Well, this looks nice.' But it's still 'nice' from the fat-girl store."
Yet if anything is going to help teens feel somewhat better -- and possibly, where necessary, help them take charge of their health for the long term -- it's precisely the feeling good that comes from looking good. "When you're trying to change your behavior, if you're depressed or feeling bad about yourself, it's more difficult to be successful," says Lauren Solotar, an eating-disorders specialist and the chief psychologist at the May Institute in Norwood, Mass. "If you feel good about yourself, you're more likely to be able to follow through."
Dr. Caroline Cederquist, the medical director of the Cederquist Comprehensive Weight Control Center in Naples, Fla., agrees. "It's not like all of a sudden we're saying they shouldn't be healthy," she says. "But they might as well feel more comfortable in their skin as they determine how they're going to get there."
Ashley Demauro, 19, recently stood at the Staten Island Torrid counter in a knit cap and comfortable nondescript earth-toned clothes. Having searched through the clearance racks, she'd finally settled on a single item: a lacy crimson bra. Any special occasion? She grinned. "You know, just hanging out, looking pretty."