Short of starvation, a ‘thigh gap’ is impossible for most women and girls. Only a very few naturally have the slender legs and wide hips necessary.
Why then, is it so popular it has its own Twitter hashtag, through which users show off their successful transformations as ‘thinspiration’ to others? Why do girls chronicle their lack of change on dedicated Tumblrs, bemoaning the ineffectiveness of expensive and time-consuming diet and exercise regimens? Why has this become the latest body image obsession, and why among teenage girls especially?
It’s tempting to assume that it’s just because it’s the latest label advertisers are using to target the young, gullible, and insecure, and because teenage obsession with appearance is as old as the concept of the teenager itself. (That’s why advertisers invented it.) But in reality, teenagers especially have always negotiated among themselves to challenge, adapt, or offer alternatives to what their elders would have them buy and wear. What’s more, now they have social network services to help them, giving them 24/7 access to negative body image messages from judgmental peers and celebrity role models. (Adults shouldn’t presume to fully appreciate the impact of this level of exposure.)
So, as it turns out, the success of the thigh gap is largely due to teenage girls themselves.
Caryn Franklin, fashion editor of style magazine i-D in the 1980s, argues that the technological and cultural changes have led to greater homogenization, arguing that back then, “fashion culture was busy celebrating diversity. There was no media saying ‘get the look’ and pointing to celebrities as style leaders because there wasn’t a homogenized fashion look, and there weren’t digital platforms that meant that I was exposed to more images of unachievable beauty.”
Knowing the means however, does not explain the motive. Part of the thigh gap’s appeal lies in how readily it fits into pre-existing discourses and beliefs about body image – i.e., the slimmer you are, the more successful you will be in life – and it’s easy to be deceived that whatever helps you lose weight will help reduce your thighs too. Unlike with general slimming goals though, you either possess a thigh gap or you don’t, thereby providing an easy yardstick for girls to judge themselves and their peers. (This explains its natural affinity with SNS, and why so many success stories prove to be photoshopped.)
In response to criticism, some girls point out that they have one despite not even being skinny. Or, if they are skinny, that they exercise and eat healthily, and resent accusations that they have eating disorders. That said, the correlation with underweight girls is obvious, apropos of what was originally a standard of thinness among models. Model Naomi Shimada argues that the trend “comes partly from a fashion industry that won’t acknowledge that there are different ways a woman should look, and it comes from the pro-anorexic community. It’s a path to an eating disorder.” The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority agrees. In December, it forced US clothing company Urban Outfitters to remove a photo of a model with a thigh gap from its website, on the basis that it was “irresponsible and harmful.” Specifically, because the model was “noticeably underweight,” which, given the young target market, was “likely to impress upon [them] that the image was representative of the people who might wear Urban Outfitters’ clothing, and as being something to aspire to.”
Kate Sullivan, contributor to Allure, applauded the decision, but wondered if it was acceptable to effectively ban a body type. She concluded: “No offense to the model in this ad, but to me, the answer is a resounding yes. Without some protest and industry standards, it’s impossible to encourage the model diversity customers want or ensure the safety of working models and impressionable customers.”
This raises questions about appropriate strategies to combat advertisers’ roles in body image problems and eating disorders, and the responses will have a big impact on how the advertising, fashion, beauty, and dieting industries will develop in the future. Partially, because of the ineffectiveness of this case: While Urban Outfitters did indeed switch to a curvier model in the specific offending photo, the company is unrepentant, and retains many other photos of models with thigh gaps on its website. But mostly, because whereas our gut instinct may be to join the chorus in applauding restrictions on underweight models, legislating against one particular body type smacks of hypocrisy in an era of fat acceptance and encouraging celebrating body diversity. Because if slim models are fair game, why not restrict those with D-cup breasts also, on the basis that having those is likewise presented to young consumers as “something to aspire to,” thereby fueling an unhealthy demand for breast enlargement surgery? Or those with angular chins, who encourage the rest of us to undergo painful jaw shaving operations?
Demonize one body type, or part, and the possibilities are endless. To more effectively combat negative body image messages, it is much better, surely, for consumers to boycott companies that don’t present a range of body types instead. (And of races and sexual orientations for that matter). Certainly that may seem a little idealistic, and legislation is an attractive possibility given how poorly the advertising, fashion, beauty, and dieting industries have reformed themselves; however, it has yet to prove its value. On the other hand, boycotts have already proven to be a powerful tool, the recent reforms of American Apparel being a good case in point.
Finally, there are insights to be gained about Korea, where the last decade has seen the rise of a veritable alphabet soup of ‘bodylines’ and labels (‘S-line,’ ‘V-line,’ ‘bagel girl,’ and so on), which likewise have provided well-defined body-image goals for women to latch on to. In my previous writings and research, I’ve ascribed that rise to a backlash against Korean women’s increasing financial power in the 2000s, à la Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi’s Backlash about similar developments in Western countries in the 1970s and ‘80s. Indeed, I still think that – but the how has remained a mystery. Crucially, however, the example of the thigh gap suggests that Korea’s early start in SNS, with Korean women taking pictures of what they ate – or rather, didn’t eat – is an intriguing possibility as to the means. After all, a 2011 study at the University of Haifa found that adolescent girls who spent the most time using Facebook had a greater chance of developing a negative body image and an eating disorder.
Time to find a 2001 study of Korean girls using Cyworld?
James Turnbull is a writer and public speaker on Korean feminism, sexuality, and pop-culture. He can be found at thegrandnarrative.com
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