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Help! I’ve Lost My Thigh Gap and I Can’t Find It Again

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.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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