Aug. 5, 2013 at 12:13 PM ET
Hey, ladies: Here's something about your body you didn't even know you needed to worry about - the "thigh gap" -- or, more likely, your lack thereof. As in, your thighs are so thin that they don't touch when you stand with your feet together. (As in, the opposite of some good old chub rub.)
It's become something of an online obsession for many teenage girls and young women, who post and pin image after image on photo-heavy social media sites like Tumblr and Pinterest. The preoccupation with the idea of a thigh gap itself isn't new, says psychologist Mia Holland, who remembers it from her own girlhood.
“To be honest with you, I remember -- oh gosh, late 80s, early 90s -- this coming out, so girls would be in the locker rooms and everybody would stand up in the mirror and see which one had the largest (thigh gap),” says Holland, an American Psychological Association expert in eating disorders.
“It’s definitely something that’s been sort of a barometer, if you will -- it’s sort of a barometer in the anorexic’s mind, or in the eating disordered person’s mind. It’s another indicator of ‘success,’” says Holland, who is also Capella University's chairperson in the department of studies of human behavior and social work.
What is newer, of course, is the social media being used to share and obsess over images of thigh-gapped models. It's hard not to get lost in the images, especially with Pinterest's infinite scroll. And that's problematic for anyone battling negative thoughts about their body images -- but it may be especially harmful for those who may be at risk for an eating disorder. “It’s psychologically harmful because it actually gives a physical indicator the dysfunctional idea of what ‘success’ is for an eating disorder,” Holland says.
And the thing is, Holland and other experts we spoke to point out -- for many girls and women, this look is not even physically attainable, no matter how much dieting and exercise you may do. “It is the position of the hips and just the way the femur is attached in the hip socket, whether it’s turned in out or straight -- and you can’t change that; you can’t change your physical makeup,” Holland says. “So for those who are seeking this ‘thigh gap,’ their physical makeup can make it easier to achieve or not easier to achieve.”
Plus, most of the images have likely been Photoshopped, points out Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorders Association. "Most of these ... are not even real images.”
If you're a parent worried about your daughter obsessing over "thigh gap" images, psychologists offer a few suggestions. “It is very difficult for parents to keep their kids away from negative media,” Holland says. “However, role modeling healthy lifestyles is probably the most effective thing a parent can do.” Don’t use words like “diet,” “skinny,” or “thin,” she advises – instead, use words like “healthy” and “nutrition” to talk about food and your (and her) body.
Cincinnati psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke suggests focusing on making fitness fun. “Like, let’s you and I practice and go hiking once a week,” she says.
And it might even be worth registering for a Pinterest or Tumblr account yourself, to keep an eye on things out in the wide world of the web. “Get on the Internet -- search these kinds of things and see what kinds of images are there that their kids could come across,” Holland says.