If you can stand straight with your knees together and see a space between your upper thighs, you have what thousands of teen girls are willing to starve themselves for.
The thigh gap, as it is known, is a small, hollow cavity with a huge following on social media. You can follow supermodel Cara Delevingne’s thigh gap on Twitter or peruse thousands of thigh gaps on Tumblr with images of ultrathin women in bikinis, hiked up skirts and lingerie, all baring thighs so thin they don’t touch. The photos, shared by young women, come with captions like, “Three more inches to go” and “All I want in life is a thigh gap.”
Women have long been bombarded with unrealistic images of beauty and digitally altered bodies. A decade ago, teens flocked to pro-anorexia websites that shared similar photos and tips for disordered eating. But the thigh gap is the first “thinspiration” voice in social media, where sharing with friends spreads and fuels the obsession.
The thigh gap’s social media presence is, in fact, a “perfect storm,” says Debra Milinsky, a licensed clinical social worker of the Feminist Therapy Connection in Berkeley, Calif.
“Girls are at a developmental stage where their bodies are changing, and when it comes to what they’re supposed to look like, they’re most likely to listen to their peers,” Milinsky says. “That’s what the Internet is all about. Seeking community.”
Of course, not all girls want to join that particular one. Maya Sweedler of Los Gatos, Calif., calls the thigh gap trend “awful.”
“I can’t believe what some girls are encouraging each other to do, to be so unhealthy and all look the same,” says Sweedler, 16.
She also points out that nature plays a role.
“I think some people have the bone structure for a thigh gap just like some people have high cheekbones,” she says. “In general, I don’t think the human body is supposed to look like that.”
In fact, any number of factors play into whether a woman has a significant thigh gap, including genetics, ethnicity, pelvic size and width, says Laura Tosi, a pediatric orthopedist and director of the bone health program at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Weight loss is proportional, so most girls who don’t have a natural gap — one bigger than a peephole — would have to lose a lot of weight to achieve the kind of thighs coveted on social media, she says. And that can be particularly dangerous during puberty.
“Weight gain is actually a natural and very important signal that a young woman is entering womanhood and starting her periods,” Tosi explains. “It is absolutely essential to helping girls build the best possible skeleton so they will have strong bones as they age. Delaying the onset of menses by severe weight loss can impair a young woman’s skeletal development and lead to fractures even as a young adult.”
Try telling that to an impressionable girl who has consumed unattainable images of beauty since 5, says Lucie Hemmen, a psychologist and author of “Parenting a Teen Girl.”
“That’s how early girls fall prey to this issue,” says Hemmen, who is the mother of two teenage girls. “I feel like thigh gap is just the newest incarnation of a ridiculous standard that’s depicted in the media. It used to be a concave stomach. Next, it’ll be a dimple here or there.”
To combat the spread of thigh gap worship, Hemmen says parents must teach their daughters media literacy and hang around when their teenager is trawling Tumblr or watching a YouTube video so they can say, “Honey, that’s been digitally enhanced. No one looks like that.”
That has been a central goal at the Girl Scout Research Institute in New York. In 2010, researchers released a study on body image among girls 8 to 17. The findings are contradictory. Sixty-five percent of the 1,000 girls surveyed think that the body image represented by the fashion industry is too skinny and 63 percent say it’s unrealistic, but nearly half wish they were as skinny as those models and even strive to be.
“The girls have a cognitive dissonance,” explains Kimberlee Salmond, a senior research strategist at the Girl Scout Research Institute. “They know it’s wrong for them and yet they continue to aspire to it.”
Meanwhile, a small, anti-thigh-gap movement is developing online. Tumblrs like Touching Thighs and No Thigh Gap give Hemmen hope, she says. They also remind her how much teenagers love to push back against the status quo.
“We need more people to post anti-thigh gap pages,” she says. “And more celebrities, like Beyoncé and Adele, representing diverse and realistic body images.”