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Sears Has Filed for Bankruptcy, but Its Mortifying ‘Husky’ Jeans Endure

A common scene at department stores nationwide: a poor child gets dragged to the “Husky” section by his mother.
A common scene at department stores nationwide: a poor child gets dragged to the “Husky” section by his mother. Photo: Graham Roumieu

FOR JOHN SPIER, last Monday’s news that Sears was filing for bankruptcy brought back a 7th grade-shopping trip he wished he could forget. His mother steered the young Mr. Spier, in need of jeans, to a section of their suburban Massachusetts Sears he’d never noticed before. The section “was pushed off into the corner, very delineated from the rest of the stuff,” recalled Mr. Spier, 25, who now works in technology and healthcare public relations in Boston. “There was a sign that said ‘Husky.’” Though he hadn’t thought much about his size until that point, he recalled suddenly feeling “crappy” that he had to shop somewhere different from the other boys.

Though Mr. Spier felt like an isolated loser in that moment, he is certainly not the only boy to have frequented the “Husky” section, where jeans and khakis with larger waistlines and fuller pant legs accommodate heavier-set kids. “I think you’re still sort of growing into yourself, and they invent this other category for you to fit in,” said Keith Barry, 28, a law student and musician in New York City who recalled wearing “Huskies” when he was still a baby fat-plagued tween.

Memories of the Husky section, which worked its evil at Sears, Target and J.C. Penney among other stores, are far from fond. More than one man I spoke with said that the mere mention of the word “husky” could trigger painful memories of insecurity and schoolyard teasing. “Having to wear these swingy, MC Hammer jeans—I really hated it,” said Jake Lahut, 23, a political reporter in Keene, N.H., who wore Huskies as a kid.

Husky clothes stretch back to the mid-century, when Sears catalogs showed stockier boys in “Tough Skin Husky” jeans. Dr. Michael Thompson, 71, a child psychologist in Arlington, MA. wore Husky clothes in the 1950s and says that back then the term may have been intended as a compliment. “I think Sears meant it to [describe] a healthy strong boy,” said Dr. Thompson. Yet 18 years ago, a reporter described Dr. Thompson as “husky” in a magazine article, and he didn’t like it at all. In the intervening decades, “husky” had become a word that stings.

As childhood obesity rates in American rose, “husky” no longer connoted ruggedly beefy. The percentage of children under 19 who are obese has tripled since the 1970s. Today, nearly one in five young people are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it follows that the percentage of children in need of larger clothes has expanded significantly. “Obesity is certainly a serious problem in the U.S. and it is increasing the demand for a plus-size selection,” said Ayako Homma, a senior analyst at Euromonitor International, a market research group. Childrenswear brands like the Children’s Place have subsequently extended their size offerings.

Yet, strangely, a better, less provocative term than “husky” has not been found. Gap, JCPenney, Old Navy, the Children’s Place, Kohl’s, Levi’s, Target, Land’s End—all of these retailers still use the term, a fact that shocked most of the Husky vets that I spoke with. “It’s terrible. It sounds offensive,” said Mr. Spier. Added Mr. Lahut, “It sounds like something from ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” describing the word as a “euphemism for a fat kid.”

That’s exactly what it is, for better or worse, said Dr. Alan Kazdin, 73, a professor emeritus of child psychiatry at Yale University, who likened the use of the term to saying “passed away” instead of “died.” It’s meant to be polite and, as Dr. Thompson explained, at one point it was. Yet, today, when so many view it as a negative, why do brands still use a term that dings the delicate pre-teen psyche and lingers for years? (The aforementioned brands either did not respond to request for comment or declined to comment for the article.)

In adult clothing, companies have updated terms to keep with the times: Plus-sized women’s clothing is often called “curvy,” a term that is generally viewed as less judgmental. Could a similar alternative be found for “Husky”? Each former Husky wearer I spoke with had a different suggestion. Evan Waldenberg, 26, a clothing designer in New York, proposed a color-coded system in which a “green tag meant slim straight and then an orange tag meant wider fit.” Mr. Lahut thought “‘comfortable-cut’ would not offend anybody.” For Mr. Spier, numerical sizing, as used in adult clothes, made the most sense: “Why not just call it size 34 or 36?” In the end, replacing one euphemism for another is challenging. Do you have ideas? Send them to me. Or better yet, send them to Gap.

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Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com

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