February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We’ll be sharing information about this important issue throughout the week, from what to do if you or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to how to love your body just the way it is! Be sure to check out all of our content here.*
The “thigh gap” has taken the nation’s female population by storm. It’s an unhealthy obsession with thinness that’s causing women to seek often unrealistic standards, fueled by the never-ending stream of social media that puts the coveted thigh gap on a high pedestal. Her Campus is taking a closer look at the gap between perception and reality behind this disturbing trend.
What is a thigh gap?
You’ve probably seen it all over the web—there are Tumblr accounts devoted to photos of thigh gaps, Twitter accounts dedicated to Cara Delevingne’s thigh gap and even articles with step-by-step instructions on how to get thigh gaps. The thigh gap is a diamond-shaped gap between the thighs that is visible when a woman is standing upright with her feet together. The thigh gap obsession is an alarming new trend focused on achieving and maintaining this space between the thighs, and it’s particularly prevalent among females who are in their teens through their early 20s.
Why is it so popular?
The thigh gap is not a new concept—models have used the thigh gap as a standard barometer of thinness for a while— but social media platforms like Instagram have allowed the concept of a thigh gap to reach females and female-identifying individuals everywhere.
Katie Szymanski, a junior at the University of Michigan, first came across the thigh gap trend on a Tumblr blog she follows. “What I thought was a satirical video has turned into an entire movement of young girls dieting and starving themselves to achieve this gap,” she says. “It sickens me that girls my age, and even younger, are going to drastic measures to feel beautiful.”
Women on Twitter and Instagram use hashtags like “thinspiration” to post selfies of their thighs as inspiration for weight loss and dieting. Images of slim, attractive models and celebrities in shorts and skinny jeans flood mainstream media, promoting the idea that thinness and fun go hand-in-hand. Fashion trends such as high-waisted, high-legged shorts are causing the thigh gap obsession to become even more prevalent.
“[The thigh gap] becomes something easy to focus on and compare amongst others and becomes a visual goal for which to strive,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology.
Some women are convinced that having a thigh gap is attractive to their desired partners. When there are pictures of women who have thigh gaps with good looking partners all over social media, “the implication is you’ll get him (or the desired sex) if you have the thigh gap,” says Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist.
In addition to the promise of male attention, some women want to have thigh gaps because having one is like becoming a member of an exclusive club.
“It is something [females and female-identifying individuals] feel they can control when so much else in their lives feels out of control (relationships, home, school, emotions, puberty, etc.),” says Dr. Kimberly Dennis, CEO and medical director of Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center. “For many girls, it gives them something concrete in which to root their identity—‘I am special because I have a thigh gap’… ‘I am loveable if I am thin’ and ‘the thinner I am the better I am.’ And society and media perpetuate this.”
Why is the thigh gap unrealistic?
Given the normal fat distribution on the bodies of women of a healthy weight, achieving a thigh gap can be absolutely unrealistic. Women tend to carry additional fat around their hips, upper arms, buttocks and thighs. Fat on a woman’s body has always been distributed this way.
“Sadly, our standards of beauty involve being unrealistically thin in all of these areas,” Durvasula says. “There is a small, small proportion of girls and women who are naturally thin, and this kind of appearance is effortless for them; for the vast majority, maintaining this appearance can require dangerous caloric restriction and unhealthy habits. Women who live like this can actually miss out on life, so focused on food and appearance that they lag in their academic performance, job performance and ability to engage with other people and build relationships and friendships.”
Genetics and body structure play the biggest role in determining whether you’re able to gain a thigh gap in the first place. Many models are tall and skinny, and they have wide enough hips to have thigh gaps. Most women, however, have hips that are set too closely together to achieve a thigh gap even if they don’t have much fat on their legs. Many women can only get a thigh gap when they’re too thin to be healthy and there is muscle wasting in their legs due to restrictive eating behaviors. For someone with wider-set hips, however, a thigh gap is possible even with a healthy body weight.
Why is the thigh gap dangerous?
Greenberg says that because very few women are actually genetically built to have thigh gaps, women relentlessly diet, starve themselves and set themselves up for eating disorders, yet they still can’t achieve the desired gap. Greenberg equates striving for a thigh gap with trying to naturally turn your hair blonde if you’re a redhead.
“The behaviors needed to create a thigh gap change the brain and the rest of the body, not just the thighs,” Dennis says. “In states of starvation, the heart shrinks, the brain shrinks, the liver can get inflamed, the immune system is diminished. Once someone crosses the line into full-blown anorexia nervosa, it can be impossible to stop without help; the obsession takes over and begins to have a life of its own, like a cancer.”
Many women’s attempts to belong and feel in control spiral into unhealthy behaviors that can set dangerous precedents for adulthood. “Being over-focused on any physical characteristic is unhealthy, and in this case, it is focused on something that is not a realistic standard (so often when this image is portrayed photographically in the media, on fashion models, etc., it may have even been digitally enhanced or created) and can push girls to dangerous dieting, starvation, compensatory behaviors such as excessive exercise, laxative use or vomiting,” Durvasula says.
Self-deprivation is as unhealthy as chronic overindulgence, and such behaviors can develop into life-threatening eating disorders that can negatively affect a person’s mood, brain function, electrolyte balance, heart function, reproductive health, bone health, skin and other major body systems. Sometimes, the effects are irreversible, like developing osteoporosis. “There is nothing inherently desirable about trying to change the shape of your body, and in fact, it’s more likely to make you sick and unable to achieve,” Greenberg says. “You can do irreversible damage by developing an eating disorder. Anorexia nervosa has one of the highest mortality rates of all the psychiatric disorders.”
These behaviors are not only physically damaging but also emotionally and spiritually damaging, as well. Purging, dieting and over-exercising may turn into an addiction or dependence; some girls find that they are addicted to the way starving makes them feel—high, powerful, good.
“Inherently it says your body (and you) are not good enough just as you are or just as you were created,” Dennis says. “If a girl is focused on changing her body to the point that it becomes an obsession, I always wonder what is underneath it; what is really going on there? Because it is never just about being thin.”
What can you do to avoid the pressure of having a thigh gap?
Social pressure to belong can push many girls to take extreme measures to get thigh gaps, but there’s nothing virtuous about being a member of this club. If you find yourself surrounded by friends focused on the thigh gap trend, you may want to consider finding a new group of friends.
“All of these things are very contagious,” Greenberg says. “We start developing the habits and the moods of the people we hang around.”
Females and female-identifying individuals transitioning from middle school to high school and those transitioning from high school to college are especially prone to this unhealthy trend. “Be especially cautious and get extra support when making transitions; they are stressful times when people are more prone to latching onto an obsession for grounding,” Dennis says. “Focus on what you love, find your passion and do it.”
Greenberg believes that girls should find comfort, passion, interest and self-esteem in hobbies, activities and friends—not unhealthy body obsessions. “Any time [females] put some kind of extreme standard on themselves, they should think, are the males partaking too? Are the males wasting their time thinking about a thigh gap, or are they using their energy to do better things?” Greenberg says. “It’s the pursuit that girls like, but once they get the thigh gap, they don’t feel happier. They should always ask themselves, ‘is this realistic?,’ ‘Would the males be doing this?’ and ‘is this going to make me happy?’”
Rather than striving for unrealistic standards, Durvasula stresses maintaining a healthy weight by eating healthy, staying active and embracing your own body type. “Don’t get sucked into the obsessive discussions of your classmates, dorm mates, etc. who turn this way and that and say ‘am I fat?,’ and don’t congratulate people for being thin—it’s not an accomplishment,” Durvasula says.
Instead, Durvasula encourages women to look around at all different body types. “We are so focused on ONE KIND—tall, thin, disproportionately large breasts, very slender arms, slender hips, flat stomach—that we miss the fact that there is more than one kind of body out there and all are healthy and beautiful,” she says.
Will this trend ever go away?
While there are ways you can avoid being sucked into the dangerous thigh gap obsession, the future of the trend as a whole looks grim. The obsession is being seen in younger and younger girls, and it’s likely to continue for a long time unless drastic measures are taken.
Unlike countries like Israel and India, the United States does not have a ban against extremely underweight models. “It’s more likely to stop when the United States puts restrictions on its models,” Greenberg says. “In the U.S. we don’t do that yet. And until we stop photoshopping our models and have the criteria that the models need to be healthy, I don’t think it’ll stop.”
The obsession with thinness has had a stronghold on our culture for a while, and Dennis believes that the trend will take time to eventually fade away. “I do think that someday, it will be en vogue for women to have some flesh on their bones,” Dennis says. “The obsession with thinness will yield to the next obsession.”
What can be done to stop this trend?
There have been many efforts to raise awareness and battle this obsession with unhealthy standards already. Campaigns like The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty promote healthy body image, and ads that use plus-size models encourage body acceptance. Model Robyn Lawley is known for speaking out against the thigh gap trend. Video blogger Taylor Adele Smith made a YouTube video called “5 Ways to Fake a Thigh Gap” that highlights the absurdity of the trend.
There have even been memes that use celebrities to promote healthy body image. “I later came across a meme that said, ‘Beyonce doesn’t have a thigh gap, so why should you?’” Katie says. “I think this is a great place to start teaching collegiettes to embrace their bodies for what they are. Thigh gap or not, you’re beautiful.”
Dennis says we should love our womanly bodies as they are and value “our personhood over our looks, our talents over our looks, our contributions to society over our looks.” Durvasula believes that women should stop complimenting each other for being thin and stop the “fat talk.”
The thigh gap trend has long-lasting and far-reaching consequences for girls and women everywhere. To reverse the damage this unhealthy obsession has caused, Dennis encourages women to “dream big [and] focus on taking up space in this world—not trying to get rid of your powerful, wonderful self. Be strong, not emaciated.”
Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you’re looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.
*This information is from 2015. In 2020, National Eating Disorder Awareness Week was February 24th to March 1st. Click here for more recent information.