If there is one consistent adult behavior over the years, it's freaking out about what horrifying, disabling, possibly forever damaging things teens are doing now. Such is the case, I fear, with the "new teen body obsession," noted by Good Morning America and ABC News today. In a piece (ironically? accidentally?) punctuated by links to Victoria's Secret runway show imagery, it is explained that there's a new body trend in town: "It's the thigh gap — a clear space, or gap, that can be seen between the thighs when a girl is standing with her knees together. Some runway models have it, and teen girls want it." Wanting this thing that runway models have, it's explained, is not very healthy. It's upsetting. It's damaging. And it can't even be achieved. (Note: A lot of men have a thigh gap, without even trying, because men's bodies are different.)
Of course, women throughout history have been unhappy with parts or wholes of their bodies, coveting other unachievable forms and making themselves feel bad in the process. And, in fact, "thigh gap" is not new. When I tweeted about it earlier today, I got responses explaining that the "trend" was just as big (and unattainable) in the '70s, that it used to be called "the horseshoe shape," that it was also described as "ITC" (inner thigh clearance), and that it's genetic, not a dieting thing. You can't just stop eating cheese and get a gap. Your body is either built that way or it's not. So please. Eat cheese.
Personally, I recall vividly back in high school being told that if one's ankles, knees, and hips were the only parts of the legs that touched from top to bottom, that was the "ideal." And that was long, long ago, way back in the vintage '90s. My legs did not do that, however; they never did, and they still don't.
Thigh gap, not new. What is new—or, if not new exactly, is at least not from way back in the '90s—is the way that the Internet allows for the easy dissemination of images of such "ideal" bodies, and gives girls a place to stash and retrieve "thinspiration," i.e., the images they look to to remind themselves they don't look that way themselves and that they want to—images that aren't realistic and aren't healthy, either. As The Wire's Rebecca Greenfield has written previously, such pictures can be found on Tumblr, and elsewhere on the Internet, too, on Instagram and Pinterest and Facebook and Twitter and various websites devoted to such things. Even as various places try to crack down on the proliferation, this is the Internet, and there's infinite room for new such posts and sites to crop up.
But the difference between hating one's body in the old days and hating one's body now is not "thigh gap," and it's not even the Internet, exactly. It's that there are so many more points of access at which one might find ways to enforce the worrisome view that they're not perfect, and it's that our broader culture enforces that sense that we're not perfect (or even good enough), either. Thinspiration doesn't go away when adults find out about "thigh gap." Bad body image doesn't go away until whatever causes the producers of an article about bad body image to link to "MORE: Victoria’s Secret Models Share Secrets Behind Their Toned Bodies" is eradicated, too. Until we stop worshipping impossible-to-attain bodies—until these bodies are not the focus of our catalogs, our magazines, our runways and TV shows and movies, and therefore, our desires—there will always be women who feel badly about their bodies. But the more we get out the message that what one's body looks like doesn't come with a status of good and bad, that one should not aspire to an unattainable model of so-called "perfection" but instead should merely be the best person one can be—that happiness comes from within, not from a thigh gap—the better we all will be, inside and out. And eat. Please, eat.
On the plus side, the Internet does allow for many more places to easily find supportive conversation and groups that want to promote healthy bodies and healthy body images. In the old days, maybe, you'd find yourself staring at a Victoria's Secret catalog full of photos of impossible figures, and you'd close its pages and go off feeling dissatisfied and unhappy. Now, you can shift from "thinspiration" to googling "healthy body" or maybe "support against eating disorders," and, hopefully, in so doing, you might achieve some balance, realize that it doesn't have to be like that, and maybe someday stop looking at sites that make you feel bad.
Eating disorders, skewed body images, and the promoting of unhealthy expectations about how women should look are not good, and these topics—and how to stem the tide of "thinspiration"—deserve thoughtful discussion. They're complicated conversations and problems, and there's no surefire, one-step solution to solving them. I'll give Good Morning America and ABC News the benefit of the doubt that their intentions were good, and the teen girls they brought on the show seem very reasonable and self-aware. But a piece sensationalizing "thigh gap" as the dangerous new teen scourge, interspersed with links to pictures of Victoria's Secret models, is far more cluck-cluck-worthy than it is helpful in the effort to find ways to make teen girls, and adult women, feel O.K. about with the wide range of human shapes and sizes that exist. If there is a way to help prevent eating disorders and bad body image, it should probably start with the very stories that talk about such things. A few rules of thumb: Don't sensationalize, don't be hypocritical, and don't call something a trend when, in fact, it's been around for decades. Don't call an eating disorder a "trend."
If it's any consolation to those suffering "thigh gap" envy now, my lack of a gap has not caused any extensive suffering in my life, even before the '90s came and went. It does get better.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.