body image · diets · eating · motivation · weight loss

Why the “Thigh Gap” Makes Me Sad

thigh gap push pushIt’s not the newest news, but the whole “thigh gap” thing, especially among young women, has been a simmering pot that came into media focus a couple of weeks ago when I was off the grid on a sailboat vacation.  It was on the news and in the paper and on the web. It’s a popular hashtag on Twitter.

Sam alluded to it in her post about bathing suit anxiety.  The “thigh gap” aspiration is the newest thing driving young women to obsessive dieting and disordered eating.

I am a woman in her late forties with no teenagers, so I’m a bit out of the loop sometimes. When I discovered the world of tumblrs (such as “fuckyeahthighgap” and “thigh gap” ) devoted to the thigh gap, I confess to being not just shocked, but profoundly saddened.

I don’t even want to link to the sites because they are so terribly disturbing (to some) yet so many teenaged girls seek them out as thinspiration (that is, as inspiration to keep dieting and being thin). If you’re curious, they’re just one google search away.

The sites invariably include photo after photo of incredibly thin young women who look like they could use a few good meals. In some of the pics there is visible evidence that they engage in the further self-harm of cutting.

The thigh gap is just another example of the false idea that achieving a certain (often unattainable by most) aesthetic will bring happiness. Seeking inspiration from representations of unattainable ideals is a set-up — at a minimum it leads to disappointment and demoralization, at worst it can lead people to under-eat, overexercise, and develop eating disorders.

The messages and themes on these thigh gap websites is all about hating the body you’ve got and pushing yourself until you’ve got the body you want.  But as Sam noted the other day, love is much more motivating than hate.

I’m also quite convinced from my own experience with hating the body I had and “achieving” the thinness I thought I sought, that getting there doesn’t make you love yourself more. As an adult, I have weighed 106 pounds to 146 pounds and I’ve felt equally horrible about myself at both ends of the scale and lots of places in between. Thankfully, I now feel good about who I am and what I am about. Thigh gap or not (not), I like the way I look today too.

I can’t imagine that many, if any, of these young women are feeling good about themselves even if and when they attain that ever elusive thigh gap.

And in any case, it should come as no surprise that genetics dictate a large part of who can and cannot attain a thigh gap. At times in my life, especially as a young woman, even though it wasn’t a “thing,” I hated that the top of my legs rubbed together. My guess is that I’d have to be pretty darn skinny, like about ready to die skinny, to have a thigh gap.  But being in the company of Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce on that score is perfectly fine with me.

In one interview, a therapist said that girls aspire to the thigh gap as an objective marker of beauty.  Some thigh-gap aspirants use  the (not surprisingly) twisted logic that since J-Lo and Beyonce have other things going for them in the beauty department, they don’t need a thigh gap. But for an ordinary girl who is not a captivating beauty, having a thigh gap makes her more attractive.

As a feminist, I don’t just lament the skeletally thin aesthetic associated with the thigh gap. I also question what it represents with respect to sexual access. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but I can’t help but think of this in the context of sexual access to women’s most intimate parts. Why is the thigh gap the thing to aspire to instead of, say, losing that loose flesh on the back of the arm (not to give any thinspos a new idea of what to go for next)?

Given our blog emphasis on performance and athleticism and our de-emphasis on weight loss, weight loss programsdiets, and strictly aesthetic goals, it should come as no surprise that we aren’t big proponents of “thigh gap” type fitness goals.  I also agree with Samantha about the underpants rule. It’s not up to me to tell people what to do and how to live their lives.

That doesn’t stop me from feeling that this thigh gap phenomenon is sad.  Many of the girls chasing after thinness as a goal in and of itself are setting themselves up for self-hatred and disappointment, if not illness, or in some cases death.

Of course, there are those who rail against the thigh gap. And you can also find protest tumblrs like this one that celebrate touching thighs.  I really like what I see here on this anti-thinspo pinterest page, including this:

no thigh gap no problem

I do worry for girls and young women.  And I really like this reminder (from that same pinterest page) about what kinds of compliments can help to nudge them in a healthy direction that might make them feel good about themselves. The caption reads, “Compliment girls on their characters, not their bodies.”

compliment girls on their character

53 thoughts on “Why the “Thigh Gap” Makes Me Sad

  1. “the whole “thigh gap” thing, especially among young women, has been a simmering pot that came into media focus a couple of weeks ago when I was off the grid on a sailboat vacation.” Translates to “thigh gap? I can’t be bothered cause I’m ON A BOAT!” Love it! Rock on, Tracy!

  2. Also, most men and children don’t have thigh gaps. Most bodies don’t do this. And also, who wants to be “fragile”? Yikes!

  3. I also wonder if there isn’t a racial element to this whole ‘thigh gap’ thing. Judging from the pictures it sure looks like a skinny white girl thing. And notably the two non thigh gap stars you mention aren’t white.

    On sexual access and why this body part, I think you’re right. The images on GapNation a Facebook thigh gap group, which actually includes how to measure if you meet the standard ‘is this enough gap to count?’ are very sexualized. Thigh gap and big breasts! Good luck managing that without some cosmetic surgery.

    Anyway, I’m with you. It’s sad.

  4. @Kim: it wasn’t *quite* like that. The “I can’t be bothered” extended to just about everything that might have been news that week–I didn’t single out the thigh gap. 🙂

  5. @Samantha: I wonder about that racial element, too. Great point. The demographic for anorexia has always been young, affluent white women.

    GapNation is disturbing and I see what you mean about the sexualized nature of it. It appears to be a sight for men, with guidelines for a “test” they can perform on their “girlfriends” to see if they have the thigh gap. But there they say it requires some fat. So it’s a slightly different look than the thinspo thigh gap look on tumblr.

  6. About a week ago, my 8 year old daughter said that she has a little bit of fat on her but that’s okay, because she’s beautiful just the way she is. I don’t know where she got this from – at school, from a particular teacher, a website for all I know – but I am so grateful because she really believes it (and should believe it!) I said nothing but: “Well of course, you’re right. You are beautiful.” She just smiled and said nothing. I so hope she keeps on smiling.
    On a totally different sidenote, the “thigh-gap” thing, in my view, is not very different from a guy being ripped. For whatever reason both are considered sexy. I admit that on women, I find it sexy. For some reason, it just makes women look fit and athletic (if they’re not too skinny). I really don’t think it’s connected to an “opening to the sexual area” thing. I also very much like big boobs. So what? Does that also make me sexist in some way? I really don’t think so. Sorry, but fitness models do look amazing, even if it is nothing that most of us can achieve or should even consider trying to achieve.
    But feeling bad about yourself for not being able to achieve “fitness model” standards, or for not looking like Beyonce? Annorexia and bulimia? Shame and body-hatred? It is despicable that people – women in particular – are taught to hate themselves unless they achieve such results.
    Do we hate ourselves for not being as smart as Einstein? Do we hate ourselves for not being Olympic athletes? Do we hate ourselves for not being double-jointed? The degree to which our popular culture is celebrity and image-driven is insane, misguided and quite stupid, in my opinion.
    I am no defender of religious institutions, that’s for sure. But it seems to me that secular society has made images our new gods – and so we really only hold up mirrors and want to see Beyonce and Fabio in them and so don’t really look beyond ourselves and what we ourselves yearn to look like – we do not concentrate on becoming wiser, more compassionate, more able to truly connect to others and thereby ourselves -no, we concentrate on looking like Beyonce and Thor, and having thigh gaps. That is one of the problems with new age religion and spiritualism – in which man strives to become god, in my opinion.

  7. I tweeted a link to this blog and someone commented that 40 years ago, as part of gym class, the school nurse would weigh and measure girls and tell them that their thighs shouldn’t touch!

      1. my mother has a story of a certain pectoral exercise that all the girls had to do in school in the 50s in Wisconsin – kind of pumping your arms across each other in front of you, while chanting, (I shit you not), “We must, We must, We must improve our bust!” over and over.

        Not much has changed, huh?

  8. I wish we could all adopt a cat’s perspective in regards to our bodies. Who cares what it looks like? Some of us kitties have big, floppy tummies – so what? Some of us kitties are fat and some of us are lean – who cares? We are all fine the way we are and deserve to lie in the sun, chase stuff when the spirit moves us, eat until we’re full or we puke – whatever comes first!

  9. Wow, I had no idea this was a thing, but I as a younger girl I was also frustrated that my thighs touched. That said, I went the route of being fit and running and I was a happier person for it! Muscle! It’s very sad that there are websites and tumblrs devoted to it.

  10. Yeah, I’ve been a pretty wide range of weights at my adult height (or close enough to it), corresponding to a lot of changes in my body type. Even at my skinniest (early adolescence, about 120 pounds and maybe 5’7″ tall), I always had thighs that touched. I’m pretty sure that, like you, I would have to be at death’s door in order to have a thigh gap and even then I’m not sure I would. My body really, really likes to store fat there, regardless of how much, or little, fat is on me overall.

    I am having a serious problem with that first image! Her thighs look like they might be thinner than my forearms. HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE??

  11. I am so happy to have found your blog, and I like and appreciate the links and articles you write. I am new to fitness, and am here because I was diagnosed with breast cancer (free and clear now). I chose bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction, so body image is newly important to me. I would like to create a new standard for myself (and others-) I am not the first woman to opt out of reconstructing my body, though I may be on the forefront of not wanting to wear forms to make me look like I have the accepted body image of a woman. I have begun a home workout program utilizing kettlebell training and am cashing in on some initial results and I love how it makes my body feel and look. When I began the journey to find a fitness program that worked for me, I found what equates to 12 minute fitness porn sites, many fitspo and thins sites, so it is great to settle into sites like yours who think like I do and voice opinions that match my own, thanks for adding your voice to the roar. As for body fat being good and useful? I have a bit of body fat on my belly and I like to stroke it and admire the fact that the yogurt (full fat) and granola (healthy, not too sugary) I love to each for breakfast is part of it. I liked it going down and I like it on my body. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment. It’s so great to hear from ‘fellow travellers’ who are finding our perspective worthwhile and who share it. Sounds like you’ve found a workout that makes you feel strong!

  12. I completely agree with the ‘thigh gap’-skinny obsession being unhealthy, but I just want to point out that, from what I can tell, there are two types of ‘gap’. There is the ‘thigh gap’, and the (obviously) more sexual ‘box gap’. The thigh gap (where all or most of your thighs don’t touch) is achieved through a ‘don’t eat’, super skinny look. Box gaps (where your thighs can touch but there is a small triangle gap at the top) are more focused on curves, training, toning and and fitness.

    That GapNation FB page is referring to the much more sexually focussed ‘box gap’. The thigh gap isn’t overly sexualised, from what I can see. The whole ‘gap’ thing started with the box gap, and then evolved into the thigh gap due largely to our general society’s obsession with stick thin body shapes, so much of the time when sexual pictures are posted referring to just ‘the gap’, its talking about the box gap, not the thigh gap.

    In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the box gap, as it is achieved though muscle training and eating well, as opposed to the thigh gap that, more often that not (especially if it isn’t your body type), is achieved through food restriction and excessive cardio.

    Wow, have never written the word gap so much in my life.

    See images for examples of Box VS Thigh Gaps.

  13. I’d love for more folks especially adults to see the compliment thing. I’m so tired of being qualified of fragile, delicate, it’s insulting. I don’t see myself as fragile at all and have lived stuffs proving that I’m not. Does it make them feel better about themselves to see me as fragile?

  14. Hey I also think this is over the top and ridiculous.

    Tumblr sites like the ones mentioned are all over the site. On the other hand, unlike thinspos that show these pictures of skinny girls on the verge of starvation, there are other “fitspos” that offer more inspiration to become fit and healthy instead

  15. For me, I seek the thigh gap not because of wanting to be thin or fragile, but to end my physical pain. My thighs rub… I can’t wear dresses, skirts or shorts or they will bleed… I’m 66kgs, it’s not exactly overweight but if I want this nightmare to end, I need to lose weight… I like to say that girls shouldn’t aspire to have the thigh gap… But if they are experiencing the pain I am in then by all means let them lose that weight, for their sake. Please don’t think that the thigh gap is a horrible thing because for me it’s my only hope if I want to comfortably wear what I want and not be crying in pain at the end of the day…

    1. Since some people will have thigh rub no matter how little they weigh, it might not be the best solution to your problem. Wear tightly fitted shorts (like rugby liner shorts, or bike shorts) under skirts and dresses. No modesty worries either in case of breeze. That’s been my solution for years. I started b/c I wanted to wear dresses on bike and kept doing it even without the bike b/c it’s so comfy.

  16. Some people naturally have a thigh gap- I wouldn’t be considered thin by any stretch of the imagination, but my hips are wide and that results in a thigh gap, although it is nowhere as pronounced as these thinspiration images. So can we not hate on the thigh gap but recognize that, like a flat belly, it happens naturally for some people but not for others?

  17. I know there are a wide variety of opinions out there, but I just wanted to share that I don’t find the thigh gap attractive at all. I’ll choose the woman with curves every time.

    I guess I can claim that makes me less of a chauvinist than the guys demanding that their lady friends damage their health to achieve this dubious goal, but no, I’m still talking about what appeals to me.

    Once a pig, always a pig.

  18. Reblogged this on engagedbody and commented:
    LOVE this. The media is so messsed up..since when does weak, starving and unhealthy mean beautiful? Be strong and healthy everyone! love yourselves for who you are, not for reaching a certain appearance accepted by the media…

  19. I’m a 17 year old girl and I was so happy to read this blog, so many of my peers either starve themselves, excercise beyond a healthy level, or simply bend over and squat to make themselves have a “box gap”, it makes me sad! Thanks for sharing your view!

  20. I take exception with the remark that the girls “look like they could use a few good meals.” Naturally thin people can eat good meals and still look the same. Eating more food does not necessarily equal gaining weight, and frankly, telling someone they look like they need a good meal is just as rude as telling someone they look like they could afford to lose a few pounds.

    In your next sentence you make the observation that it appears “they engage in the further self-harm of cutting.” This intimation that having a thigh gap is self-harm is completely unsubstantiated. If you were trying to refer to the fact that eating disorders can constitute self-harm, that should have been stated explicitly.

    1. Point taken. I honestly do not think i would write it the same way now, since I have become quite a bit more aware that body shaming is not only directed at people perceived as overweight.

      As for the gloss over where self-harm comes in, okay fine. Eating disorders constitute self-harm. The thigh gap alone does not. But trying to achieve a thigh gap using starvation methods of dieting is a form of self-harm. I think that the meaning is fairly clear from the context. The whole post is about the evolution of “thigh gap” rhetoric as a new way of framing “pro-ana” rhetoric so that it flies under the radar.

  21. I was named fat as a teen being short 5ft n weighing 8st2. Buy the time i was 21 i weighed 6st2 with no body fat or colour to my body at all. With a huge thigh gap that i never intended on getting. I still would excercise everyday running up flights of stairs or biking along with indoor excercise. The lack of eating led me to lack in concentration n having a brake down and while recovering i realised i had a stretchmark on my cheek next to my smile line. Young girls need to know the damage being skinny brings. I eventually had a child and thats when i began to love my body bcos even though i had no thigh gap i had my child at the end of it.

  22. Reblogged this on Fit Is a Feminist Issue and commented:

    Sam and I have been reviewing our older content lately to get a sense of our most read posts and topics. I’ve also revisited “the thigh gap” topic this week proof reading a paper I wrote that’s coming out in the Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics (Ann Barnhill, Mark Budolfson, and Tyler Doggett, editors) very soon. The paper is called “Food Insecurity: Dieting as Ideology, as Oppression, and as Privilege.” It’s almost five years since I posted these thoughts on the thigh gap. And it and any other arbitrary thin ideal that makes people, especially women, feel poorly about themselves if they don’t achieve it, still makes me sad.

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