Tuesday, November 05, 2013


Did the Guardian just lead you, too, down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out what "thigh gap" consists of (while eating cranberry muffins)? There are two separate articles on the topic, one for each morning muffin. The second, by Hadley Freeman, notes that girls and women from 14 to 29 have this concern, which may well explain why my own thighs had thus far escaped self-examination. But today's young people are, it appears, too transfixed by their charming bowleggedness or lack thereof to learn how to drive.

Actually, after devoting a minute or two to figuring this out, I'm still not entirely sure what thigh gap consists of. An image search reveals photos of thin women standing with their legs apart, or otherwise posed in ways that put space between their legs, which, well, thin women with their legs spread is lo and behold a popular source of online visuals, but that's about all I can say with confidence on this matter.

As with all such Very Concerned journalism (and I might include this post), there's always the question of, is mentioning the topic at all actually causing harm, alerting people to an "obsession" they'd never have come up with on their own, and wouldn't have heard of if it weren't for some well-meaning intervention? You know, like when someone comes to the middle school to warn the kids against bulimia, and in doing so, gives 10% of the class the idea to vomit after meals to lose weight?

Regardless, Freeman is spot-on as always:

[T]o suggest that there is a dichotomy between having body neuroses and being intellectually stimulated isn't fair and misunderstands the problem here. When I was a teenager in the 90s, I happily read Charlotte Brontë and Chaim Potok novels, but simultaneously became so obsessed with having a flat stomach when I was 14 that I pretty much stopped eating for a decade. Turns out that intellectual pursuits are no guarantee of good mental health. To reduce body obsession to empty-headed narcissism feels like yet another way to criticise women and girls.
Indeed. It's a bit like the notion that a sign of female seriousness is a lack of interest in guys, except without the male counterpart (i.e., boys and men aren't thought less serious for liking girls/women). The cultural cliché of the bright girl above all that girly nonsense - think Saffy from "Absolutely Fabulous" or Alex from "Modern Family" - doesn't have much basis in reality.


Thigh gap, heirloom Judaica edition.


Londoner said...

Pheobe sez:

girls and women from 14 to 29 have this concern

Hadley sez:

became so obsessed with having a flat stomach when I was 14 that I pretty much stopped eating for a decade

I've noticed that girls in the 13-25 age group are at the highest risk of eating disorders. Beyond this bracket, the odds of developing an ED seem to fall off considerably.

Is there any explanation for this?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Phoebe "sez" what Hadley Freeman does - this was from her article. But there are actually quite a few eating disorders among grown women, including older women. Googling "eating disorders" "older women" provides many articles on that topic.

Lindsay Lennox said...

"The cultural cliché of the bright girl above all that girly nonsense - think Saffy from "Absolutely Fabulous" or Alex from "Modern Family" - doesn't have much basis in reality."

I dunno. I'm familiar with this cliche, but have always thought it was about girls who were uninterested in dating within their social milieus (high school or whatever) but not driven enough to seek outside experiences. My assumption was always that those girls would go off to college and meet some attractive grad student or something. In other words, it wasn't a lack of interest in men per se, more a lack of interest in whatever boys/men happened to be around at that early date.

Getting back to the topic of this post: it's certainly true that intellectually-oriented girls/women are just as likely to develop unhealthy body obsessions as their 'girlier' counterparts; arguably, given that they're likely to be a bit socially isolated, it might even be true that those girls are especially prone to extreme obsessions and behaviors since they may not have a female social group to normalize weight concerns (everybody hates their bodies now and then, even fit or thin people). Seeing my girlfriends, thin and less-thin, all complaining about their bodies as teenagers reassured me that mostly we all looked fine even though we all felt like we didn't.

I think there's also something interesting that happens with athletic girls and young women, who maybe are extra-motivated to perform femininity-via-body-hatred, to counter the sense that buff girls aren't attractive to boys. Another area where you'd think there might be some protective effect against thinness obsessions (since these are young women who recognize their bodies as powerful, fuel-needing machines) but in reality there are countervailing pressures.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Re: nerdy girls and interest in boys, maybe it helps to separate out a few different things that "interest in boys" can refer to. There's 1) interest in the rituals of teenage dating (prom, etc.), which are mostly about impressing same-sex friends, 2) interest in actually having sex/relationships, which can kick in a good decade after the realization that one likes boys/girls/both, and 3) the crushes that all but inevitably form on someone sooner or later, even if there are slim pickings at one's high school. It wouldn't surprise me if nerdy girls are less interested in the trappings of high school dating, or more sensitive to the potential dangers of having sex. But hormones are hormones. We as a society seem to understand that nerdy boys have 'em. Nerdy girls if anything have them somewhat younger than nerdy boys, on account of being girls.

And yes, the topic at hand! I'm not sure which is worse, adolescent-body-image-wise, being socially connected or not. To an extent, these concerns are learned behaviors, and if your friends are dieting (or telling you you should), you're more likely to do that than if you're off in a world of your own. But with the internet especially, and all the websites apparently devoted to promoting self-starvation, it's no doubt also possible to pick this up in a vacuum. Intelligent girls, popular or isolated, may see through whichever platitudes about self-esteem and notice that in our society, thinness is rewarded. Somehow this is reminding me that the notorious "Tiger Mom" essay included something about the importance of the author's power-daughters not getting fat. It wasn't just music lessons.

And, athleticism. Yes. My memory of high school track, at least, was that girls would often join because of all the "fuel" burned during the activity, i.e. as a way to lose weight, with some girls lamenting the "fact" that running made their bottom halves bulky. Now, from a Childhood Obesity Crisis standpoint, if sports keep girls and boys at healthy weights, maybe that's not something to protest. But this was - as weight-obsessions among young girls so often are - about already-thin girls wanting to be thinner.

caryatis said...

I think thigh gap exists, because there must be _someone_ who can wear the typical short women's running shorts, and run, and not end up with thigh chafing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Interesting theory! I guess it comes down to what this gap is meant to consist of. If it's about space between the thighs when the feet are together, it doesn't rule out that with certain running styles, some women's thighs wouldn't touch while jogging, even some women without "thigh gap." As the anti-thigh-gap brigade likes to point out, everyone has thigh gap if their legs are in one way or another apart.

Meanwhile some of those shorts are so terribly designed that there are bulky clumps of fabric in the upper-thigh area, so much so that I suspect even women with tremendous thigh-gap could experience chafing.

The best option, then, is to live with an area with lots of ticks, such that you have to run in long pants year-round.

Petey said...

Isn't weird ad placement Ankle Gap a more pressing issue?

Britta said...

From what I've heard, the thigh gap has to exist when the knees are together, not just the feet, for it to count as a thigh gap. There are still lots of ways to manipulate this through stance. I've noticed that about 99% of print models are all standing in positions which create or emphasize a thigh gap where one either wouldn't exist or be much smaller. If we stood around like catalogue models, we would have thigh gaps more often as well. Also, thigh gap is in large part to do with build, kind of like waist/hip ratio. Certain builds, like an 'apple' or 'banana' build, are more prone to thigh gaps, as well as having wider hips. Lots of women in China have thigh gaps, and it's not necessarily because they are thin. It's not uncommon to see middle aged women built kind of like a brick with pipe cleaner legs.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, it's about build. (And yes, it does seem to be about the entire legs touching - otherwise you could, like, plié.) Much like BMI, dress size, and other popular measures of fat-or-not, this is sometimes but not always telling you how slim a person will look.

Where "thigh gap" seems different, though, is it seems like something where, for the typical (Western?) woman, achieving it would require being not merely not fat, not merely thin enough to benefit from everyday "thin privilege," but also quite underweight. It's like a zero-cellulite ideal for grown women - it's not that it doesn't exist in "nature," but that unless that's what you "naturally" look like, the efforts to make that happen will overshoot the mark, health-wise as well as aesthetically.

Also, here's a case where Photoshop may actually make a difference. Yes, some women really are incredibly lucky in the looks department. But the prevalence of certain thigh-specific traits, even among very thin women, is probably exaggerated.

David Schraub said...

I'm so glad these poses are gaining recognition, becuase like most men, my ultimate fantasy is a penguin with legs that go all the way to the floor.