For someone like me who struggled with an eating disorder as a teen, I am grateful I grew up in the age of Kodak Instamatic and not Facebook Instagram.
Unless I had a Polaroid, snapshot selfies took at least a week to view, after dropping off the camera’s canary yellow canister of film at the local drug store to develop.
Once the Kodacolor pictures came back, I would rip open the envelope anxiously scrutinizing each image with the precision of a forensic scientist looking for any and all inconsistencies and flaws. Mercifully, the photos were limited to a mere 12 to 24 shots in each roll for me to agonize over how I looked. And unlike today, the barrage of comparison and perfection to others was not every 5 seconds.
Because that triumvirate for teen girls, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen in whom we devotedly put our fashion faith were all monthly magazines, I had 30 days to analyze the same impossibly thin, campus-bound cuties who set the trends, were in the now, in the know, on the go, stepping out in leggy little vinyl skirts and low rising hipster pants in go-go checks.
Could I possibly turn on my pretty power and turn off the fat, learn how to make the scene, and tame my curves because, girls, wiggles are out. It was what was happening baby if you wanted to be in.
Today, the immediacy and pressure from the bombardment of images of ultra-thin women on social media seem intolerable especially to teen girls. The pressure to share only the best moments and imperative to look perfect combined with an addictive ingredient like Instagram is the perfect recipe to send teens spiraling towards eating disorders, depression, and an unhealthy sense of their bodies.
My generation, however, had our own time-tested recipes for body-related -insecurities. And they started early.
Never a skinny Minnie as a child, I always felt I was a mere Mallomar away from being considered chubby. I may never have aspired to have Barbie’s body, but I certainly didn’t want Little Lotta’s body either. By the grace of God, I was saved from the sheer embarrassment of having to ever wear any clothes with the horrifying brand name Chubbettes, – a midcentury fashion line designed to make girls 6-16 look slimmer.
If a summer at a weight loss camp didn’t do the trick for your overweight daughter, coming to a chunky childs rescue was a line of dresses with the less than woke name of Chubbette Fashions. “Is she on the plump side? Send her back to school in the slenderizing magic of Chubbettes wardrobe,” their ad copy read.
What girl wouldn’t be proud to sport a dress with that label on it?
Whereas boys like my significantly overweight older brother would shop for clothes in the Husky boy’s department at our local A&S, there was no shame attached to the name. Husky connotes strength and muscularity. There was nothing body positive for a girl about sporting a dress fashioned by Chubbettes.
How Happy Can A Chubby Girl Be?
Naturally, no mid-century mother who was herself was part of the Metrical for Lunch Bunch wanted a plump daughter.
“Your Chubby Lass Can Be Belle of Her Class, ” promised one ad from 1956. Forget studying arithmetic or boning up on social studies. “If your favorite little girl is on the plump side, dress her in Chubbettes and see her blossom into a lovely lass- as happy and self-assured as her slimmer schoolmates. Chubbettes are created for the chubby size young figure- a perfect combination of fit, comfort, and slenderizing design.”
Body Shaming- No Laughing Matter
Little Lotta might be fun for laughs in the comic books but life was difficult for a chubby child. So along with the stylish fashion Chubbettes also provided concerned parents with expert advice from a reputable doctor about how to deal with the ridicule that fat girls received.
There were no experts saying how unhealthy it was for young girls and women to be exposed to images of impossibly thin girls and women that would reinforce body-related insecurities. No worries about developing an eating disorder, because there wasn’t even a name for those yet.
Concerned parents could send away for Pounds and Personality a booklet offered by Chubbettes, full of advice for parents of a chubby girl ( ‘For parents who wants to assure the happiness of their overweight girls…what to do about her nickname, what to do about tactless remarks….her place in the home, active play, diet, appearances etc.”)
Apparently, there was no shame in body shaming.
Because fitting in was so important to a girl, Chubbettes helped give the right impression and promised with their fashion magic your little plump dumpling could be the belle of her class.
Take the case of Connie Chubbette:
Because this may be the year Connie forms lasting friendships the impression she gives is all important. This makes Chubbettes fashions important too because they’re designed specifically to slim and trim plump figures and let Connie ( and other chubby girls like Connie) look and feel their very best at school and play. Just a few of the Chubbette styles are shown in this catalog.
“She Can Have a Tummy …and Still Look Yummy”
It wouldn’t be long before a girl would outgrow her pretty Chubbette party dress. Girdles for the developing pre-teen were just waiting in the wings.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
OMG does this ever bring back memories! I was born in 1960, so I didn’t go through any of this until the 70s but I DID go through it … my own mother called me “matronly” when I was 15!! I look back at the pictures of myself as a teen & I was anything but “matronly”! I was a beautiful young girl … curvy, yes, but not fat, not even plump! I was healthy & strong, just the way I was supposed to be. But that statement … the endless remarks about me being fat … not just from my mother but from my siblings … put me on a lifelong craving to be thin … diets, drugs, detoxes, purges … you name it. At age 61, I am finally able to eat & not feel guilty about it.
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Those words that stay with us forever! I can only imagine being called matronly at 15.. When we go back and look at pictures of our younger selves, and see healthy young girls, I want to travel back in time to my 11 year old self and hug her and tell her she is just fine. I may have been 5 pounds over the desired weight ( whatever that was) but identified myself as “overweight” and it forever scarred me. But these early experiences so inform us for decades. I am glad that now you have come to a peaceful and accepting self with your body and with food, and the joy of eating which is our birthright and yet for so many many women a lifetime struggle.
I remember this sort of stuff, and the ads following it in the 60s and 70s and up, and I recall going to Weight Watchers with my mother every Tuesday afternoon as a free guest, while the poor woman lost and regained what she called ‘the same 89 pounds’. She had been a ‘chubette’ in high school and later, and it finally drove her to diet drugs, which is not a good combo with a heavy drinker, let me tell you–poor woman. The family even talked about ‘the family curse’ of being stout, but in retrospect, other than a few women who had had children and illness and tvs and couches and put on a modest amount of weight, nobody except my mother got seriously hefty (she was over 200 in high school and still active in sports etc.) Girdles were always evil to me and I avoided them, as I did spanx and other versions of them later. Older photos show me being perfectly healthy weight range although I always thought I was ‘fat’. I thought I was fat at 121, 133, 142 pounds at an adult height over five and half feet, and now would love to be that size in healthy ways!
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Whatever weight women are they never feel quite ok or satisfied. This past year during COVID, unlike many who gained the classic COVID 15, I actually lost weight quite unintentionally, not a lot but enough to get me to under 105 which at 5’4 1/2″ would be considered thin, yet, that still didn’t convince me. I normally never weigh myself just for that reason and only inadvertently found at at the doctor. I don’t like to get caught up in numbers because they are always triggering and whatever number it never seems good enough.
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I agree. Zoom makes me very unahppy,m by showing me their version of me looking like crap–another article there?–and my poor 90+ mother is finally frail to near-emaciation and thinks it’s good. Poor little thing–
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Agree about zoom, it has opened a whole other can of worms. The amount of time I put into proper lighting and placement is worthy of setting up for a film. It can be unsettling seeing yourself constantly on the screen and I am sure everyone is constantly scrutinizing how they look. So sorry to hear about your mother, its hard seeing someone so robust suddenly so frail and having them think they look good. Boy does that say a lot about our culture.
Chubbette!? What cretin came up with that name?! Why couldn’t they call it something ethereal like, “Curvaceous” or “Hourglass”? It’s all in the terminology, as you mentioned.
I can’t even imagine the brainstorming ( or lack of) that went on coming up with this name. Better than “Fattie’s Fashions” I guess. But it was very different times.
I only realized lately (in my seventies) that when I try on clothing, my first thought is always, “Does this make me look thinner?” I’m not really joking when I say that you can tell how a woman feels about her body by counting the number of black slacks in her closet. When I’m size 12, I’m always aware that I might need those old size 16s again someday….
Recently I realized (in my seventies) that whenever I try on clothes my first thought is, “Does this make me look thinner?” For 60 years: does this make me look thinner? I was put on a medical diet when I was 11, and more successfully when I was 13 and synthetic thyroid meds became available. By 14, I was a normal size, and stayed at that weight for 14 years. But …. I am only partly joking when I say that you can tell how a woman feels about her body by counting the number of black trousers she has in her closet. I may be a size 12 this month, but I can’t make myself get rid of those size 16s or the XLs because I might need them again…. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in a store window, and I’m surprised, not that my hair is white, but that my body
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Looks like a normal person…. I’m not sure we ever get over being an overweight girl.
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We really don’t. There is not a day goes by that in some small way I scrutinize my body to make sure I’m not “fat.” Even though I am underweight now,it never goes away fully. Hopefully, it just gets slightly quieter, so that it is no longer a constant roar but a slight buzz.
I think nearly every woman can relate to your story. It is sadly universal. Every one of us has those “in reserve” slightly larger pieces of clothing “just in case”. I don’t think that concept has ever once crossed a man’s mind.