From foot-binding to neck-stretching to skin-lightening, different cultures have defined beauty, and particularly women’s beauty, in ways that have seemed both extreme and unhealthy. There are ancient traditions in cultures around the world of doing things to women’s bodies (and sometimes male bodies, too) that seem to the outsider to be terribly unwise, unhealthy or downright dangerous. The history of cosmetics—items we consider safe, and relatively innocent—is one of death and poisoning, with early versions of paints and powders containing toxins so dangerous that women died after using them. We have all heard about Barbie: the reality behind the doll is that a real human being could not achieve those dimensions. They are all but impossible and absurd. Is trying to have a thigh gap (the elusive space between your upper thighs) just the latest in a long series of efforts to define women’s beauty in impossible-to-achieve ways? What is a thigh gap? Stand up straight in front of a mirror: do your upper thighs touch? If not, you have a thigh gap. Apparently some models do indeed have this gap, although most people, super models included, do not. Whether your thighs touch is determined more by genetics than by weight or fat. Strong, muscular legs will likely be large and most female athletes do not have a thigh gap. A bit like an uncommon eye color that is suddenly seen as the most beautiful eye color on the planet, the thigh gap has suddenly become “all the rage” for teenage girls. But like an unusual eye color, there isn’t much chance you can create it without real risk. Achieving the thigh gap can be a dangerous mission upon which too many girls are embarking. Like so many other foolish fads, won’t this one just fade away after a while, supplanted by the next terrible idea? Isn’t navigating these fads part of growing up female and just another “normal” bad idea to avoid?
The Thigh Gap Spider Web
The thigh gap is a spider web, or perhaps a better analogy would be a plate of spaghetti: no matter which thread you pick up, you’re in the middle of a bunch of threads that interconnect with all sorts of other issues before you get very far at all. To understand why the whole issue is worth reading about and discussing with your children (daughters and sons), you need to understand these interconnections. The first and most powerful is the modern teenagers’ relationship to social media and the tyranny of this online world. The notion of shoulds: how a girl should look (thin and gorgeous), how she should behave (right up to but not over the line of slutty), the life she should be living (never bored, always having a wonderful time surrounded by adoring friends) creates such unrealistic expectations that most of real life pales in comparison. The constant pressure to be “that girl” along with the constant availability of interaction with others creates a situation almost as strong as a drug for teens and it takes a level of maturity and personal strength to move beyond the intoxication of constant posting and commenting and into something more real. The seduction and addiction aspects of the social media world are real and powerful for teens, male and female. The intensity and compelling nature of the social media world is one thread in the spider web; the cyber-bullying potential within that world is another thread that plays into the dangerousness of the thigh gap issue. For girls who are not slender, and don’t meet the current definition of gorgeous (and also for those who do), the nastiness, vicious comments, teasing and bullying that goes on can be fatal. Add a third thread in this tangled web: self-esteem. For teens, appearance is a key component of self-esteem. These kids haven’t been in the world long enough to have generated other ways to feel good about themselves: they don’t have careers or accomplishments to fall back on when they feel low. They need to remind themselves of all they are beyond a pretty face or good hair, but for many teens, they come up dry when they try to look beyond the mirror. Eating disorders are yet another issue that the thigh gap fad requires parents deal with. For the vast majority of girls, to obtain a thigh gap would require a severe restriction in calories coupled with equally severe exercise, and even then most will fail. Any teen who pursues “getting” a thigh gap is in real danger of developing an eating disorder.
Talking to a teen about weight and body image is not an easy conversation to have. In a follow-up article, I’ll share some tips and suggestions for identifying warning signs that your daughter has taken one too many steps down this pathway, and some ideas about how to broach the subject.