The Skinny on Back to School

The Skinny on Back to School

Well, it’s that time of year again! The temperatures are dropping, the days are shortening, the leaves are beginning to turn, and the calendar is indicating that backpacks, pens and pencils, and school projects will become part of daily routines. For some of us, there also might be trips to the retailers (or clicks online) to shop for new back-to-school clothing.

Back-to-school shopping, especially for the middle class, is a yearly tradition harking back to the 1920s. Retailers, by that time, recognized the child as an important facet in the consumer market. Although mothers were the principal shoppers, retailers sought to shape the desires of children early on. Department stores marketed children’s retail goods with the understanding that when mothers purchased the objects of their children’s desires or even just what they needed, consumer behavior became part of children’s lives.

A Penny's "Back to School Days" advertising button, ca. 1930s. (Busy Beaver Button Museum)
A Penny’s “Back to School Days” advertising button, ca. 1930s. (Busy Beaver Button Museum)

I can definitely tell you that strategy worked. My children are quite the consumers, and we are trying to teach them responsible behavior. Now, I would not say that they love to shop, which is fine with me, but when we do shop they definitely know what they like and dislike, especially when it comes to clothes and, of course, toys and electronics. I hate to be gender specific here, but shopping for my son has always been easier than shopping for my daughter because I’ve always liked boys’ fashion more than girls’ clothing. Even though there is a bigger selection in the girls’ department, I felt more comfortable buying outfits for my son. This year is no different. In fact, shopping for my daughter has become increasingly frustrating and worrisome.

Part of this stems from shopping for jeans. My daughter primarily wears jeans. She is not into dresses, skirts, or anything that remotely looks “girly.” Before this year, purchasing girls’ jeans was relatively simple, but that easiness has disappeared as I’ve grown wary of the emerging styles available for girls. Depending on which retailer, girls can choose from the assortment of skinny, super skinny, jeggings, skinny boyfriend cut, and bootcut, all of which boast a fitted shape, hugging the waist and hips, and sitting low on the waist. This presents a quandary: should girls have jeans that are fitted in the hips and thighs, or sit low on the waist? For my daughter, who is blessed with my curvy body shape, she has already remarked that she doesn’t like most jeans because they are “uncomfortable.” Mainly the jeans are too tight in the hips, waist, or thighs. Should she being worried about feeling uncomfortable?

While shopping for her jeans, I took a closer look at the various types of boys’ jeans and their descriptions, and I realized that although there are skinny jeans available for boys, most of the fitted varieties (girlfriend cut, super skinny, jeggings, and a boot cut that is also tapered through the waist and thighs so that “curves” are accentuated) just don’t exist for boys.1 In fact, boys’ jeans are designed for comfort and ruggedness, whereas girls’ are for fashion and shaping the body. Comfort does not seem to factor into the design for girls. If a young girl does not fit the shape of the jeans perfectly, what message does that send? Fashion over comfort? Bodily display vs. free bodily movements?

1948 Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog advertisements for dresses.
1948 Sears, Roebuck and Co. Catalog advertisements for dresses.

The history of girls’ fashion has found that girls’ clothing manufacturers sought to delineate between young girls and teens mainly through hemlines and the cut of dresses (jeans for girls seemed to only become available in the 1960s). Hemlines lengthened and fashions became more sophisticated, teaching young girls that at a certain age they did not have to look like babies anymore. The age of this demarcation was around six throughout most of the 20th century, but in the past few decades, girls (and even babies, as I wrote about last year) are encouraged to look much older than they are at an earlier and earlier age. What I want to highlight here is that the differences in style, cut, and description of children’s jeans highlights how we expect clothing to dictate gendered behavior. Where girls’ jeans accentuate the body, boys’ jeans allow for activity. Even in super skinny jeans, boys can jump, whereas girls can only preen. Is this true in reality? Maybe not, but it sends a strong message.

Are yo a “One-Date Dick” or a King of Muscle?

The marketing of skinny and super skinny jeans for girls and boys not only highlights the gendered performance of jean-wearing, but it also raises concerns about how we define thinness for both males and females. Two years ago, I wrote a piece about the history of skinniness and how we perceive what is thin and what is fat. Even though I focused on female bodies, there are many conflicting messages about male attractiveness. Today, the six pack abs are the rage, as ripped muscles display power. This message is not entirely new. In the late nineteenth century, the muscled (white) male body displayed a new message about masculinity, male health, and male (hetero)sexuality. Male skinniness was scorned and replaced with muscle, which reflected strength, dominance, and virility. A skinny male was a weak man.

Skinny jeans for boys.

That message for men continued well into the 1960s and 1970s. By then though, hippies, punks, and skaters (in the 1980s) challenged the buffed male body with activities that an over-muscled body might find difficult. The “new” skinny male provided boys and young men with a new image of coolness. Yet, the skinny male body is (and was) a body in motion. It skates, it runs, it jumps, it thrashes, and it dances. The skinny girl is less so, unless posing counts as an activity. The current advertisements for skinny jeans and the super skinny jeans for boys and girls only emphasizes this even further. Boys can be skinny, wear skinny jeans, and perform their boyish behavior with ease. Girls, on the other hand, are to wear skinny jeans to display their femininity and perform “girlish” tasks.

Kids clothing: skinny jeans.

As I look at these advertisements, I think about my daughter’s preference for denim and her insistence that this year’s selection is uncomfortable. What messages are children receiving when they cannot fit comfortably into skinny or super skinny jeans, but still wear them anyway? What about those kids whose bodies just cannot be molded to these styles? What message are they receiving about body image, movement, and gender? And for the children who can wear them now, what happens when the day comes that they can no longer fit?

Further Reading

Jacobson, Lisa. Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Cook, Daniel Thomas. The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.


Old Navy is the exception to this, as they do offer Super Skinny for boys. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Stationary. (The Wizard/Flickr | CC BY-NC)

Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.

1 thought on “The Skinny on Back to School

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      Fortunately, my daughter developed a healthy body image. While she, too, prefers jeans to other types of garments, comfort is her priority, style is a poor second consideration. xoM

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