While I was writing a column on Victoria’s Secret and their “Bright Young Things” marketing campaign, I learned in the same set of articles about a new worry among adolescent girls about a “thigh gap.” This is when you have a space between your upper thighs when you’re standing with your knees together. In the way that teens can pluck out a trivial detail of their physical appearance and torment themselves with it, this is apparently a new gold standard of beauty.
I’m sorry to report that I don’t really have much of a thigh gap anymore. My thighs are on more intimate speaking terms than that, shall we say.
Of course, I will count myself as extremely lucky if the only thing that I have to worry about physically is the non-problem of a Thigh Gap. That would be an extraordinary bit of good health fortune for me.
I’m close to 47. I’ve not really struggled with my weight in my life, or worried about it too much, but I do see changes now, in where weight goes, and how stubborn it is. I look less like the brutally photo-shopped images that appear on the covers of women’s magazines, which are basically chimeras of photography and art, a thin body made more so by massive rendition and editing (readers need to interpret these images as art, not documentary, that has only an oblique relationship to reality).
I’m trying to approach my nostalgia for my 25-year old body (hell, for my 40-year old body) with graciousness and self-tolerance. But it’s not easy—even for someone who’s enjoyed a positive body image. I think each of us has a memory of ourselves at our maximal sexiness in our head, however we define that, or whatever our body type. Over time, that maximally sexy body becomes like an estranged friend that we remember wistfully, but that disappeared from our lives many years ago.
After I learned of the thigh gap, I started almost that very day to notice my lack of one. And I’d only encountered the phrase through blog posts and items from parents who were worried about this new fixation.
There’s no reason that I should be vulnerable to the thigh gap “problem,” and I’m not an impressionable person, but I have to be honest: I can’t say that I didn’t notice, after the term was introduced. If I can be vulnerable as a secure 46-year old, what about an adolescent who’s deeply impressionable to peers and still trying to figure out her identity and sexuality.
According to an item in the December, 2012 National Geographic, the thigh gap ideal is lucrative business: Lipoplasty to reduce the thighs is the most common cosmetic surgery procedure worldwide. Overall, the United States ranks 5th in the total number of cosmetic procedures performed annually.
Anne Klesse, a researcher at Tiburg University in the Netherlands, wondered if pictures of skinny models would incite greater weight loss among female dieters, by way inspiration. She got the idea from a weight loss commercial about a woman who posted a picture of a skinny model in a dress that she liked as incentive to stick to her diet.
Klesse had her participants keep a daily diet log. One group recorded their food consumption in a log with a neutral image of a measuring tape on the cover. The other recorded their consumption in a log with a picture of a very thin model.
The thin model didn’t help. The group with the measuring tape lost more weight. Actually, the group that encountered the skinny supermodel each day slightly gained weight.
If that much influence can be statistically instantiated from low-level “exposure” to one idealized image each day, or one viral case of thigh gap judgment, what about a media environment saturated with these images?
This research and my very mild Thigh Gap Crisis show that we’re impressionable to cultural material, and messages. We’re not islands. We’re not living in private citadels, armed and impervious against cultural signaling, and noise. And this point retorts the free market sexual libertarians, as I think of them. They hold the perspective that things like “call me” bikini underwear marketed to 15-year-olds or what have you are all just in good fun, and girls and women can “make their own choices”—a murky but rhetorically omnipotent concept today that’s defended with an almost religious zeal. Who are we, as parents, activists, fellow citizens and community members, to say anything. Girls should be able to “enjoy their femininity” (as defined by Victoria’s Secret, that is).
It’s interesting. These defenses only get stated when girls and women are: going to strip clubs designed to please heterosexual men; wearing underwear designed to please heterosexual men; watching porn designed to please heterosexual men; buying high heels and lipstick designed to please heterosexual men; playing sex games designed to please heterosexual men; or buying pinked-out Princess crap.
You don’t hear this “lighten up” defense about girls just having fun, enjoying their femininity (as if that term had fixed meanings) and “making their own choices,” the hallowed creed of consumer capitalism, when they’re doing things such as: not shaving their legs; ignoring their thigh gap problem; discreetly breastfeeding in public; deciding not to wear, or buy, make-up; flaunting a muscular body in a demanding sport; or finding ways to have a sensual life with themselves, or a sexual life with men, or women, or both, that doesn’t mainly involve taking something that men like and saying that they like it, too, in a “me, too” sexual adaptation of the male norms.
In these cases, such as non-leg shaving and the like, you won’t hear a live and let live defense. Instead, you’ll hear the old indictment, “Feminism Made Them Do It.” Yes, feminism has turned young women into unkempt, Birkenstock-wearing frumps in burlap bags (Huh? I’ve spent my entire life around feminists and have yet to meet this cartoon figure of one). In these cases, critics happily argue that cultural influences, set by the loathed “feminists,” do indeed influence young women’s decisions, making them “feel bad” about wearing lipstick (not), even if they give Victoria’s Secret a free pass as a putatively natural, transparent expression of “real” choices and desires that exist pristinely beyond of the corporation’s efforts to prefigure and define them.
For as irrelevant as its critics charge that it is, feminism is accorded great powers of cultural persuasion that a huge multinational corporation with hundreds of millions in their advertising budget isn’t. As I find myself writing a lot these days: Go figure.