In school, obese teen struggled to fit into his desk
Furniture makers are designing larger chairs and desks for overweight kids
Obese and overweight kids now exceed growth charts
Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a series exploring the issues surrounding childhood obesity.
In middle school, Taylor LeBaron struggled to fit into his seat. The desks in class had a ceramic plate attached to the chair.
“I was so large, I couldn’t fit in there,” said LeBaron, now 19. “Every other student could. I couldn’t get my legs to fit underneath the desk or my stomach to fit between the chair without getting the desk stuck with me.
“It was really embarrassing. When class is over, everyone gets up, I would take a few minutes extra, tactfully maneuvering out without looking like a fool.”
But LeBaron, who weighed nearly 300 pounds at age 14, never requested a separate table and chair because he didn’t want to draw more attention to himself.
As children are getting bigger, their clothing, their furniture and other objects that support their weight must also expand.
Seventeen percent of children are obese, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And one in three kids is obese or overweight. The rate of childhood obesity has tripled to the point that pediatricians say growth charts no longer apply to today’s kids.
To accommodate larger kids, some schools have instructions for teachers to provide separate chairs and desks for students who cannot fit into the pupil chairs. And school furniture makers are increasing the size of chairs and desks to accommodate larger students.
“Other students snickered as I would try to get out of my chair,” LeBaron recalled. “You could hear them snickering. You don’t forget how that feels – that embarrassment and that redness in your face.”
Being set apart from peers by sitting in a different chair means “their peers recognize them as large, different,” said Dr. Phil Wu, a pediatrician who leads Kaiser Permanente’s pediatric obesity prevention and treatment effort.
“At all ages, kids don’t want to feel different,” Wu said. “They get ostracized by the peers in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It’s more of that social psychological impact that’s insidious in a way that’s more profound than what the child might experience than sitting in a standard seat.”
Hertz Furniture, a company that resells office and school furniture, started offering 19-inch chairs for schools three years ago. The biggest desks available before had a height of 18 inches. The taller chairs have deeper depth and wider seating.
“The desks are getting larger, because if their thighs are larger, you have to move the desks up,” said Amy Hoffman, Hertz’s director of marketing.
Newer student desks with adjustable heights can accommodate bigger bodies. The student seats are designed to look just like the other ones, so they don’t make obese students appear different from their peers.
“That is an obesity trend reflected in the furniture,” said Tom Brennan, president of School Outfitters, which sells school furniture. “For perspective, when we look at import product from China, you can tell the difference from the China market and the U.S. market. The buckets are generally not wide enough. They have to be designed specifically for the U.S.”
Shawn Green, vice president of design and product marketing for KI, a company that designs and manufactures school and hospital furnishings, said the diameter of the metal, the supporting structure and the width, depth and height of school chairs have to be modified to work in the American market.
“People are not only heavier but also getting taller,” Green said. “In general, we’re getting bigger in scale; that affects children as well.”
Chairs made for older and bigger students are being used in middle and elementary schools to comfortably fit overweight and obese students. Schools prefer the “big and tall” sizes for educational furniture, said Tony Ellison, CEO of Shoplet.com, which sells office and school furniture.
In the past five years, the biggest seats have been selling better than the standard sizes, he added. These items also cost more.
It’s not just school desks that don’t fit.
A 2005 Pediatrics study found limited child safety seats for the increasing number of obese young children.
“There was a risk of kids not being covered for safety,” said the study author, Lara McKenzie. “If there are bigger kids, maybe there are some safety devices or equipment that wouldn’t fit them properly.”
The study suggested that car seats should maximize “the protection of obese children.” Another study in 2009 suggested that most children in the study were too heavy to be compliant with child safety seat laws.
Childhood obesity affects their safety in matters beyond child seats and ill-fitting school furniture. Obese kids are more likely to get heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure and are more prone to diabetes, bone and joint problems. Their health problems are also more likely to follow into adulthood.
In extreme cases, pediatricians have reported toddlers with hip displacement problems from carrying too much weight and metabolic abnormalities in their insulin, liver enzymes and cholesterol – usually problems detected in older adults.
Children of this generation have exceeded the growth charts used in the United States since 1977. These charts are a series of percentile curves that illustrate how young children grow.
“Right now, if we say that 15 or 17% of all kids are over 95th percentile for obesity, statistically that doesn’t make sense,” Wu said.
But that’s what has happened.
“Compared to a population of Americans when these growth charts were created, more and more people today are exceeding what would’ve been the top percentile for weight and BMI back then,” he said.
It’s not a matter in whether the growth charts need to be redone, Wu said.
“Our population today has become so large that now, it looks like more and more people are over the limits. It just highlights the problem that we have.”
LeBaron, who wrote about his battle with teenage obesity in his book “Cutting Myself in Half,” said the safety bar at amusement park rides barely locked over his abdomen. He couldn’t find T-shirts with the style he liked in his size.
Clothing is often an issue. Many obese kids and teenagers find that the plus sizes aren’t fashionable. At his peak weight, LeBaron wore 42-inch-waist pants and triple-X-large shirts.
People of that size don’t have many choices except sheet-like T-shirts in bland solid colors, LeBaron said.
“It was difficult because I’d go into Walmart or another clothing store, I found something cool, like a video game T-shirt, and I wanted to get it,” he said. “It’s not in my size. If they did, I’d have to dig through special drawer of extended sizes. It really hurt. They’re setting you apart.”
In recent years, the apparel industry has paid more attention to the growing size of kids, tweens and teens. Retailers such as the Gap, Forever 21, Old Navy and Target have plus-sized clothing lines for kids and teenagers. The boy’s plus sizes with bigger waist sizes and baggier tees are called “husky.”
It’s a growing trend criticized by MeMe Roth, founder and president of the National Action Against Obesity.
“Anyone making money off this health crisis for children should be ashamed of themselves,” she said. “I’m not surprised people want to benefit from it. There’s such a demand. That’s a societal failing that there’s a hyper growth for plus-sized children.”
Kids should be able to dress in fashionable clothing, but Roth said the fact that children need special sizes is a major health concern.
“Our kids should be the healthiest,” she said. “If outside influences were causing damage to our children this way, a nation or a group, we would be at war. … We should be angry that this is happening to children.”
The shame and embarrassment didn’t motivate LeBaron to get healthier, he said. Instead, it just made him depressed and overcame the confidence that he could ever change. He would retreat home and eat junk food.
What helped, he explained, was having people around him who brought a balance of honesty and compassion, who wanted him to feel good about himself by encouraging healthy choices. Receiving a gym membership gift from his grandparents and hitting 290 pounds spurred LeBaron to start exercising.
LeBaron, now a college freshman in Georgia, lost 152 pounds. One of his proudest moments was being able to shop at Macy’s instead of a special plus-size store.