THE Sausage Casing Girls are everywhere this summer, their muffin tops hanging over their hip-skimming jeans, clothes shrink-wrapped around fleshy bodies that look as if they've been stuffed -- like forcemeat -- into teensy tops and skintight pants.
Visit the local mall, any beach boardwalk or the sidewalk in front of your neighborhood high school and you will see why healthcare professionals are so alarmed about expanding waistlines. And while chunky teen boys and young men hide in cartoonishly large basketball jerseys over big T-shirts and elephant-legged shorts, girls generally do not. They may be getting bigger, but their clothes are getting smaller.
One is tempted to applaud the Sausage Casing Girls; after all, Southern California is an epicenter of body consciousness, and here they are thumbing their noses at the idea that they must be whippets or Lindsay Lohans to wear the current styles, which for the last several seasons have been exaggeratedly body-hugging and skin-revealing. Perhaps all that self-esteem building has finally paid off.
But this phenomenon does not appear entirely to be about self-acceptance and the conscious abandonment of repressive physical ideals. It is far more complicated than that. Yes, there are plenty of young women who can confidently say that they are happy with their less-than-svelte shapes -- and that is to be applauded. But there are many others who in the rush to be fashionable are unable to admit that they are larger than they wish to be, or that their bodies just don't look good in the clothes they are choosing. Instead of reveling in their big, beautiful bodies, many girls instead are deep in denial, pouring themselves into clothes that are putting them in a python squeeze.
Luisana Sanchez, an athletic 19-year-old college student who lives in South Gate, likes to wear tight clothes. She would also like to drop a few pounds, but she insists on buying clothes that fit her. As a result, she has no fat rolls squeezing up into a muffin top above her belt. Her T-shirts do not climb, leaving a bare expanse of skin showing around her middle.
However, at Potrero's, her local 18-and-older nightclub, she said she can't believe the number of overweight women in teensy clothes, with everything hanging out. "Fat or skinny, it doesn't matter," she said. "The guys in there will look at you if you're wearing a little skirt and hoochie tank top."
After years of observing her peers, Sanchez has a theory about the Sausage Casing Girls: "Nowadays, you have kids eating so much junk food that they're overweight and they're trying to fit into junior sizes. They don't want to go to bigger sizes. But junior sizes are for, like, tall, thin girls. So you have girls wearing tight jeans and you see their love handles sticking out 'cause they want to fit into the tight pants that are in style."
Her theory is supported by those who study the psychology and self-images of girls and young women.
"Everyone wants to buy a small size, even if it looks terrible," said psychologist Nancy Etcoff, who directs the Program in Aesthetics and Well Being in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. "There is shame in buying sizes that are above 8, which some think is already a big size."
Etcoff said that one of her patients, a 16-year-old girl, was traumatized in front of friends when one held up a pair of her size 7/8 jeans and said, "You wear these? I could get two of me in here."
"It would be great if they were wearing these clothes and had body pride," said Etcoff, author of "Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty," which argues that the appreciation of human beauty is innate and that attractiveness confers survival advantages. "For most girls, though, this is not the case."
Advice columnist Jessica Weiner, author of "A Very Hungry Girl," believes that girls are at the mercy of several forces: the oversexualization of teen girl clothing, peer pressure and relentless messages about self-esteem. Plus, said Weiner, the "image diet" they are on contributes to a distorted body image: They don't see anyone who looks like them on TV, in movies, in ads, or in fashion spreads. "It's like a cocktail for disaster," said Weiner, 32, who suffered from eating disorders in her teens.
Fifteen-year-old Nattalie Tehrani is a junior at South High School in Torrance who developed an eating disorder after gaining weight when she quit the swim team. "Fifty percent of the girls at my school wear low pants and short tops, and their stomachs are hanging out. It's unflattering and unattractive, but there is not one kid at my school who does not have a pair of Frankie B.'s or True Religion," she said, alluding to popular and pricey denim brands known for the lowest of low-rise waists. "Parents don't seem like they give their kids the truth anymore -- they don't tell them that it's inappropriate to wear clothes like that."
Susan Bartell, a psychologist and the author of "Dr. Susan's Girls-Only Weight Loss Guide," said there are multiple reasons for this trend. Some girls just want to fit in and they end up in uncomfortably tight clothes because the culture demands it, some girls rationalize that they look good in the clothes because they aren't ready to confront the idea that they are overweight and some are honestly OK with how they look.
"And there is something to be said for feeling so comfortable with your own body," she emphasized. But, she added, a hallmark of teenage minds is egocentricity and the ability to rationalize away what they don't like about themselves. Some of these girls, she said, "don't want to admit that they need bigger clothes. The little skinny girls are still shopping in juniors, and the big girls don't want to admit that their bodies aren't little."
One weekday afternoon in front of the auditorium at Venice High School, 16-year-old Ivonne Lopez was hanging out with a couple of friends, waiting for her ride home. "The girls who wear tight clothing," she said, "well, it's kind of hard not to. This is because everywhere you look, this is the only type of clothing available.... The only clothes that are cute and pretty are the ones that are tight. This makes me feel bad because I feel the fashion industry forgot what being a normal size was."
Her instinct is correct: According to a study of more than 6,300 women by Cynthia Istook, an associate professor of apparel design and technology at North Carolina State University, only 8% of American women actually have the hourglass-shaped body that the apparel industry uses as its standard. Istook found that most women (66%) are either shaped like rectangles (the waist is closer to the circumference of the bust and hips) or pears (hips are larger than the bust by 2 inches or more).
The fashion world does make accommodations, though. In the last decade or so, manufacturers have adjusted sizes to reflect the reality that Americans are getting fatter. "They've changed sizes because girls are bigger. A 6 is no longer a 6," said Laura Groppe, president of Girls Intelligence Agency, a research and marketing company that studies girls and women up to age 29 for clients who include apparel, cosmetics and entertainment firms. "Psychologically, we all remember when we had to go to the next size up. And so the apparel industry has said, 'They can't handle being told they are size 5 already, so let's make it a bigger 5.' "
Tim Kaeding is creative director for 7 for All Mankind, the Vernon company that helped launch the premium jeans craze of the last several years. "Women, I have learned over many years, believe they are one size, and in the jeans world especially, size is not a precise science. It's almost an irrelevant, made-up numbering system." However, he added, he knows many people who have a firm notion about what size they are. "I know girls who think they are a 28," he said, referring to the waist size, "and if they are a 29, then, by God, they are going to buy a 28 anyway."
But no matter what size someone thinks she ought to wear, if her body is not built to hold a low-waisted pair of jeans in place, she's going to have trouble, said Istook. "If you want them to stay on, they have to be tight. We've noticed that this style makes people look fat who aren't really fat, and it makes the people who are fat look much worse."
Young men are not oblivious to the legions of girls wearing too-tight clothes. Bryce Widelitz, a 19-year-old college student who works as a day camp counselor in Cheviot Hills, said he thinks two things when he sees this: "My first impression is that it's just disgusting," he said apologetically. "My second impression is that they are just trying to be like everyone else and fit in: 'Everyone else is wearing it, so why can't I?' "
His friend Daniel Treibatch, also 19, pinpoints the disconnect between the images the culture hurls at young women and what young women really look like. "I see it every day on the streets. These girls see what is stereotypical in L.A. -- all the advertisements and all the girls on TV -- and they want to emulate what they see."
The whole issue of overweight and appropriate fit is ticklish, which quickly became apparent one recent Saturday at the Lakewood Center. The mall was full of shoppers, and it was easy to spot Sausage Casing Girls, though difficult to engage a conversation. No young woman wanted to admit -- to a reporter, anyway -- that she was chubby and her clothes simply didn't fit. Two 14-year-olds from Compton strolled along, one of whom, a plump girl named Veronica, looked uncomfortable in her sprayed-on jeans and body-hugging yellow T-shirt. She denied that she was uncomfortable and denied her clothes were too small: "We still shop in juniors. We'll go to bigger sizes when we're not juniors anymore." Other people, she said, "probably pick smaller clothes to look skinnier."
For the last four months, Sophana Soth has been a sales associate at Forever 21, a chain store that sells trendy clothes at a bargain. When Soth stands watch at the dressing room entrance, she said, she sees a stream of girls who try to squeeze themselves into too-small outfits. "For me, it's really uncomfortable seeing them because their bellies are popping out and you can see the tight marks and on their arms too," she said.
Browsing the Forever 21 racks with the ultimate accessory -- a tiny dog named Toby -- 20-year-old Jennifer Fuentes was stylishly dressed in a short skirt, low-cut top and leggings. She'd like to lose a few pounds, she said, but isn't interested in getting "all thin and anorexic." When an overweight girl in very tight clothes walked by, she said, "The thing is, sometimes big girls try to wear something tight, thinking it will make them look better, but they should cover up. Their shirts rise up and their bellies fall out. People try to squeeze themselves into something that doesn't fit right."
Blanca Perez is a self-confident 26-year-old Los Angeles County animal control officer who is 5 feet, 8 inches and 230 pounds. "There is such a thing as a cute fat chick," she said, "and that's me." She loves body-hugging clothes and she loves dressing up, but she will not wear clothes that are too small just to make a point to herself.
"I do see that a lot, though. I see too many girls with their belly hanging out and their jeans too tight and it's not cute." She has a younger cousin who is chubby and insists on wearing clothes that are a few sizes too small. "She thinks she looks cute," Perez said. When she called the cousin to see if she would consent to an interview, the girl burst into tears and hung up. Three days later, Perez reported, her cousin was still hurt and upset.