Chances are, the first time you heard the term “thigh gap” it was from someone warning you not to worry about having one. In this world of lightening-fast information dissemination, it can be nearly impossible to trace the course of a term, idea, image, etc., that has gone “viral.” But all to often, it seems that the people professing the greatest concern about something spreading are the ones most responsible for the act of spreading it. Eating disorder awareness is at an all-time high worldwide, as are diagnoses of eating disorders. This increased awareness almost certainly means that more people suffering from these illnesses are identified and treated. But it also means that the general public sometimes transforms into the eating disorder police, eager to make snap diagnoses of eating disorders for every celebrity who appears to be underweight, and quick to be loudly horrified over the latest body conscious terms that enter the public consciousness.
To Speak Out, or Not to Speak Out
So what is the best way to address this kind of trend, and concerns that it may add fuel to the fire for people on the brink of, or already suffering from, an eating disorder? Should the public ignore it completely, hoping that it will die out if it is starved of high-profile attention and broader public awareness through legitimate news sources? Or will it continue unabated if concerned individuals don’t step in and point out the mental and physical health risks associated with the pursuit of a certain trend? A quick Google search shows that six of the top 10 search results for “thigh gap” are for blogs or articles decrying the thigh gap trend, while only one is promoting it. As with most information, these results can be interpreted in different ways. On one hand, these popular articles and blogs are clearly playing a role in keeping the term in the public eye; how can a trend die out when highly-trafficked sources continue bemoaning the fact that the trend is alive and well? On the other hand, those people concerned about the proliferation of terms like thigh gap, bikini bridge, muffin top, and others must also be encouraged by these results. If impressionable people search for more information about the thigh gap trend – particularly teenage girls, who are the primary devotees of the thigh gap ideal – it is surely preferable if the first results they see are pages that ridicule and poke holes in the trend. From this point of view, pages denouncing certain body conscious terms are not perpetuating the trends, but elbowing back the pro-trend pages that would come flooding happily to the fore if they weren’t there.
Are These Trends Really New?
At the end of the day, what influence do these trends really have? Perhaps it is naïve to think that these new terms that appear online and spread like wildfire are actually creating body image fears where none existed before. As the term “thigh gap” began to generate buzz, many plastic surgeons have noted that the thighs have long been an area of concern for people – mostly women – seeking liposuction or other cosmetic surgery. People who struggle with a negative body image, and particularly those with eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, or other illnesses that cause them to have distorted views of their own bodies, need no help identifying parts of their body that fail to meet arbitrary standards of perfection. On the other hand, many experts fear that these kinds of trends can normalize and affirm unhealthy body images and behaviors. People who used to recognize, or at least suspect, that their extreme concern over a certain part of their body was unusual and unhealthy, may be able to rationalize their thoughts and behaviors once that body part becomes a matter of Internet-wide dissatisfaction. When it is made to seem as though “everyone” is worried about achieving a certain body effect, it can also be more difficult for family, friends and even medical practitioners to recognize when eating or exercise habits reach unhealthy and obsessive extremes.