There comes a time in every fat boy’s fat young life when he realizes he is, indeed, fat. The discovery usually occurs during a shopping trip, when his mother takes him to buy new clothes, and he finds himself in the “husky” section of the boys’ department. Or maybe when he’s alone one morning, getting dressed for school, only to get blindsided by the fact that his pants say “HUSKY” on the inside of the waistband.
Husky, huh? the boy thinks to himself. As in … fat. Like one of those fat kids people are always talking about. Holy shit, I’m a fat kid?!
And the rest of his fat young life is wracked by insecurity, bullying, shame and profuse sweating. (Not that I speak from experience or anything.)
This totally hypothetical scenario may seem hyperbolic to some—fat-shaming young boys ranks pretty low on our list of pressing social issues—but there’s ample proof that “husky,” the term retailers use for plus-sized boys’ clothing, causes lasting harm to the psyches of young boys who wear it.
When Mattel rolled its new line of Ken dolls last month, it used “broad” to describe the plus-sized figures, because focus groups revealed men have an intense negative association with “husky.” They’re “traumatized” by having to shop in the husky section as kids, Mattel spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni told GQ.
Strangely, retail and linguist experts don’t know when husky became the industry’s preferred term for plus-sized boys’ clothing. Richard Feinberg, professor of retail management at Purdue University, posed the question to more than 100 academics and retail executives over email, and none of them knew the term’s origin. Neither did Indiana University English professor and American slang expert Michael Adams. Nor did husky as a euphemism for fat appear in any of the dictionaries he regularly consults for such information.
Historically, Adams says, “husky” had another meaning, one quite distinct from its current one. “‘Husky’ was a reference to corn or vegetable husks, which are sinewy,” he says. “The word had to do with being tough, strong and vigorous. Size was just kind of implied in that somehow.”
But somewhere along the line, the word’s meaning got warped. By the 1950s, retailers such as Sears were using “husky” to market their big-boy clothing, and the word continues to wreak havoc on men to this day.
“I have painful memories because I was husky,” Feinberg tells me. “I not only shopped in the husky section, I became identified with it. Kids made fun of me. In my mind, husky equals pain.”
Other men have similarly harrowing experiences with the “husky” designation. “I was teased as far back as 1st grade, and I remember feeling ashamed of shopping in the husky section for clothes (which, now that I think about it, is a shitty name to subject fat kids to),” writes Reddit user TopherTheChives.
Another Reddit user also confesses to feeling embarrassed about shopping in the husky section when he was 8 years old. “Do they even use that term anymore?” he asks.
They do. Despite all the anguish caused by “husky,” a cursory Google search finds that a number of large retailers (including JCPenney, Kohl’s, Macy’s and Old Navy, to name just a few) still use the term to describe their clothing for rotund boys. The term primarily refers to pants, but is used for shirt sizes as well.
Feinberg says retailers continue to use “husky” because it’s a handy way for moms to buy clothes for their large, non-adult sons. “They don’t realize that they’re unconsciously fat-shaming their kids, and it will last with their kids forever,” he adds.
Which is not to say male body standards are nearly as strict and damaging as those for women. Indeed, in the 1970s, Sears marketed plus-sized girls’ clothing as “chubby” or “chubby-sized,” which is an even poorer choice of words than husky.
But our stereotypical view of men—that they have the emotional range of a slab of granite, and are thus immune to body-shaming—prevents us from seriously considering the detrimental effects of a word like “husky,” according to Bruce Sturgell, founding editor of Chubstr, a website for plus-sized men.
“As a kid, husky definitely made me feel a little more singled out,” Sturgell says. “Things are hard enough when you’re a kid trying to navigate friends and school. Something that distinguishes you from everyone else in a way that’s generally thought about as negative, is not great. It sucks.”
So what’s to be done? Sturgell recommends retailers drop “husky” and offer a wider range of numerical sizes, while Feinberg suggests they use the word “strong” instead. But as the evolution of “husky” demonstrates, any word can be twisted into an anti-fat epithet as long as we continue to stigmatize fatness. In 20 years, grown men will be talking to their therapists about their classmates teasing them for being “strong” growing up.
And that torment can leave a lasting impression. Every year, Feinberg asks his students to disclose their life’s greatest pain. The most common issue is always divorce. “And number two is being fat or being called fat, and that’s what husky does to you,” he says. “We don’t really think about fat-shaming men, but the pain is real.”