'Thigh gap' trend for some young women worries culture watchers
A new body-image obsession showing up in Twitter feeds and Tumblr pages is causing concern among the medical community and female-empowerment advocates.
There are hash tags, handles, even entire websites dedicated to the “thigh gap,” the empty space between the legs of very thin women. The idea behind the trend — that when a woman stands with her feet touching, her thighs shouldn't — can be physically and mentally dangerous, doctors say.
“It's debatable that it's natural for any adult or teen to stand and not have their thighs touching,” says Dr. Jonathan Pletcher, clinical director of adolescent medicines at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. “It's very unusual, especially for women.”
Pletcher attributes trends like the thigh gap to “thinspiration,” a group-thought disorder involving unhealthy ideas about body image and weight loss.
“They see things on the Internet and believe if their thighs are touching, it's a sign of weakness or a lack of self-control,” he says. “It's particularly damaging because it impacts body fat and muscle mass.”
Searching #thighgap on Twitter returns hundreds of results. The vast majority are people criticizing the practice, with comments like “Beyonc doesn't have a thigh gap, so why should you?” and posts of cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek who have comically wide gaps.
But some young women admit to wanting a thigh gap and even offer tips on achieving the look. On Tumblr, posts include signs reading “I wish my thighs didn't touch” and “I want a flat stomach and a thigh gap.”
Britney Brinkman, assistant professor of counseling psychology at Chatham University, says taking in all these images can cause a person to “internalize an outsider's perception of the body. ” When people spend time focusing on something they consider a flaw, it can lead to depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem and decreased performance of cognitive tasks.
“The potential consequences can be pretty severe,” she says.
Despite the damaging messages and images posted there, Brinkman says social media can work as a tool to combat these kinds of trends.
“Social media is part of the problem, but it can also be part of the solution,” she says, pointing to organizations like SPARK, an activist movement to demand an end to the sexualization of women and girls in media, which can use it to promote their messages.
“There are groups that are using it as a tool to fight back,” she says.
Seeing positive messages and using their virtual voices to express concern about harmful body-image trends can empower women, Brinkman says.
“Women can say, ‘I'm not OK with this. I want to be part of the change,' ” she says. “When they see other women and boys saying, ‘Wait a minute…,' they see they're not alone.”
Meredith Colaizzi, program/council director for the Pittsburgh chapter of Girls on the Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping girls be healthy and confident through running, says when positive attention is paid to celebrities — like Beyonce — who buck society's obsession with the emaciated look, it helps girls ignore dangerous ideas about body image.
“I don't think things like this will ever completely go away, but if you focus on athletes, celebrities and role models who are healthy and comfortable in their own skin ... it can empower girls,” she says. “Beyonce is never going to try to attain something unattainable or unrealistic like a thigh gap.”
Combating these trends is “all about the adult connection,” Pletcher says. He encourages parents to “see what's on the Internet and have an idea of what's influencing their child's worldview.”
Then, it's key to talk to them about healthy body types. If parents notice a problem, it's imperative to seek assessment from a doctor, he says.
“It's the perfect storm for compromising their health,” he says. “Their bodies are already going through such rapid changes.”
Several students and recent graduates enjoying the sunshine on University of Pittsburgh campus addressed the thigh-gap issue.
Amelia Hohenadel, 22, says some of her friends walk intentionally bow-legged in order to give the illusion of a gap.
“I think it's very stupid,” she says.
“No one looks at your legs that closely,” says her friend, Laura Victorelli, 19.
Paige Sharifi, 22, says she saw an Instagram post showing two women from the waist down, one with a gap, one without and asking which the viewer preferred. Many of her already-thin friends worry about their weight, she says.
“I have friends who say, ‘Oh, I need to lose 20 pounds,' and it's always for a guy,” she says.
Stephanie Quinn, 21, says she knows some men who prefer “stick-thin” women, but “a lot don't.” Women are often their own worst critics, she says.
“Girls are more scrutinized than guys,” she says.
Hohenadel is encouraged that media is shifting toward showing more-realistic body types, particularly in advertisements.
“Now, there is more emphasis in the media to portray women in the correct way,” she says. “There is a push for women to tell other women it's OK to love your body.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.