This is how I start conversations with my 12-year-old twin daughters. Because sometimes the Internet doesn’t know what the heck it’s talking about. Also, sometimes my daughters are operating on some other planet where trends don’t even touch them, because they’re too busy watching Doctor Who episodes from 1973.
“Oh! I know what that is!” one of my daughters exclaimed, as if getting a trivia question right. “It’s that thing where your thighs don’t touch.”
“Do girls in your school talk about ‘thigh gap’?”
“I’ve heard girls talk about it,” she said. “Some of the girls want it. But most of the girls are more just … talking about the fact that it’s a thing.”
Her twin sister, who has always been thin, chimed in: “It came up at the sleepover last weekend. Alexis said it’s all over Instagram, but that’s it’s really unhealthy. And then I realized that I have a thigh gap and then I was all…” [commences anxious flapping and flailing].
They’re getting the same mixed message from their peers as they’re getting from the media: Thigh gap is coveted. Thigh gap is unhealthy.
Mainstream media, like TIME, proclaims thigh gap to be the latest craze for teenage fashion victims, noting that “thigh gap images are now abounding on social media, posted by emaciated girls who are worryingly proud of their cadaverous appearance.”
But it’s not like lots of middle school girls are reading TIME. They might be reading Seventeen’s website, which simultaneously features a question: “Are you sick of hearing about thigh gap?” and a fashion piece on leggings in which, of course, the models have thigh gap. Even the photos of sweaters feature thigh gap.
But I don’t think Seventeen has the impact on tweens and teens that social media has. As Sylvia Pagan Westphal writes on CommonHealth, social media has blurred the line that used to separate peer pressure and media pressure.
My daughters’ friend Alexis knew about thigh gap from the photo-sharing social media site Instagram, where she has a mom-supervised account. There are Pinterest boards for thigh gap, and Tumblr blogs for thigh gap. It’s discussed on ask.fm. Somebody’s thigh gap has its own Twitter account and it has more than 3,000 followers.
For what it’s worth, those Pinterest boards, those Tumblrs, those Twitter accounts: they’re not new. They’re all old–like between 8 months old and more than a year, which is positively ancient in the world of social media.
As a rickety oldster myself, I am 100 percent positive that there is nothing new under the sun about wanting skinny thighs. I was born in the era of 1970s miniskirts and grew up in the ’80s, a time of skinny guys in skinny ties–and skinny girls in Jordache jeans.
In fact, I am so old that I remember an episode of Facts of Life where Blair tells Sue Ann that boys won’t like her if she’s too fat, so Sue Ann goes on a crash diet and faints.
(Unrelated: anyone else remember that a young Molly Ringwald was on that season?)
(Somewhat related: Quick, someone make a reboot of Facts of Life.)
There was a brief reprieve in thin thigh interest in the late 1980s, when we all decided that pleats were flattering. Plus, you couldn’t peg the legs of skinny jeans. But of course, thin thighs marched on. How quickly we forget that in the mid 1990s, it was inexplicably decided that looking like a heroin addict was “chic.” As late as 2009, the Queen of Thigh Gap herself, Kate Moss, proclaimed that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” (I assume this means she has never had the Bada Bing sandwich at Primo’s in Philly, which makes me sad for her.)
But yes, thin thighs. They’re back. Or they never left. Whatever. But things are, in fact, different, and I don’t just mean that jeans are now so skinny that we had to invent a new word for them: jeggings. Yeesh.
When I was a teenager, there was body shaming and peer pressure and all kinds of horrible mean-girl stuff to survive at school. And then you went home. And maybe you listened to some Cyndi Lauper and watched some Cosby Show and you felt a little bit better. Maybe you’d talk on the phone with your best friend, but only for about 20 minutes max because then your mom would yell at you to get off the phone because there was only one phone in the house, and call waiting was for the rich kids. You’d have to wait until the next day, when you could pass a note in study hall.
Now, it’s inescapable. Middle school and high school kids have smart phones, and they’re inundated 24-7 with images and information. They’re on social media sites their parents haven’t even have heard of. And the texting, my God, the texting. Unless parents set up and enforce limits, there’s no break. Remember how you felt the day school photos or yearbooks came out, hoping that you wouldn’t be humiliated by an ill-timed shot? It’s like that, except every moment of every day, multiplied exponentially by an unknown number of social media followers.
Technology, social media, and the pressure to be thin are not going to go away. But parents can make choices that let their sons and daughters know that there’s a difference between media images and real life. Show them how filters work and explain that their classmate with the beautiful profile pic probably took eighty selfies and chose the most flattering one. Explain that the models–male and female–they see in catalogs are most likely PhotoShopped.
Beyond that, the most important thing families can do is take breaks. Although it no longer seems natural, it’s possible to step away from the smartphone, iPad, and nonmedical devices attached to your ear. You may have to do this for only a short time at first, until you get used to the delicious luxury of not having your thoughts constantly interrupted. Your whole family could do the unthinkable: turn your phones off (yes, parents too) and have a dinner without hearing incessant pings and buzzes. Imagine! A time without the reflexive, compulsive checking “just to see.”
You could use that time to, I don’t know…talk. Maybe you could even talk about thigh gaps and how a healthy human body comes in a fantastic range of shapes and sizes.
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