What is My Teen Talking About When She Says She Wants a “Thigh Gap?”

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The urge to be thin among young girls has been a feature of our society for some time now. Thin models are on display on nearly every magazine cover, TV commercial, and billboard a teen is likely to come across in her day-to-day life. The pressure to maintain a slim figure can be overwhelming for a young girl. The latest fad amongst slimness-obsessed teens is the term “thigh gap.”

What is a thigh gap?

A thigh gap is quite literally the space between a woman’s thighs. The idea is that an ideal woman should be so thin that there is a visible space between her thighs when she’s standing upright. The term arose a few years ago on social media and has taken on a life of its own on social networks like Tumblr that are popular among young adults.

Unhealthy Obsession

Obsession with being skinny can be fantastically unhealthy. If your daughter starts talking about, and obsessing over having legs so skinny that they don’t touch, it’s possible that she could end up developing depression, or even an eating disorder. Trying to keep up with photo-shopped models in ads is an impossible proposition.

According to Dr. Anne Lewis, psychologist at the IU Health Charis Center for Eating Disorders, an inner thigh gap is often seen on very lean individuals or young girls prior to puberty. It is not something that can be achieved simply through dieting, rigorous exercise or posture as it is largely due to bone structure. For example, a young woman who has bowed legs may find she has a naturally occurring thigh gap simply due to her anatomy. Her inner legs cannot touch! Attempting to achieve this “thigh gap” is just as realistic as attempting to make yourself grow 4 inches or have smaller feet.

The current cultural trend for thigh gaps stems from a need in our culture of finding a way to objectify value. If it seems rare or harder to achieve, we believe it has greater value. Consider women from starving cultures who might “naturally” achieve this thigh gap due to malnutrition. We do not covet being malnourished or living in an impoverished culture, so why does it become an aim to achieve a similar look? Moreover, the desired look in many impoverished cultures is the look of a well-fed woman because it indicates reproductive health, vitality and wealth.

What to Do?

Let your daughter know that her physical appearance is not her most valuable trait. Intelligence, hard work, and a good sense of humor are far more attractive than a thigh gap. Let her know that a healthy body IS an attractive body. Eating and exercise should serve to strengthen the body and make it healthier- not cause it to waste away to nothing. It’s important to stress to a teenager that their sense of self-worth should come from themselves- not from what anyone else thinks about their body.

Dr. Lewis had more thoughts on how to help teens. Teens tend to respond very well when you teach them how to make their own educated decisions. When passing billboard signs or seeing countless social media posts by friends, it is useful to help them think critically. Sometimes teenagers will make comments about wishing they looked like a celebrity or a friend who is all too focused on appearance. Develop a great quip to a comment of, “I wish I looked like her!” like “I bet she wishes she looked like that too!” can start a conversation about reality. Remind her that changing camera angles and Photoshop apps can alter social media posts that often get misconstrued as being “real.” Challenge if she believes this celebrity or friend wakes up looking amazing or if she probably wakes up with bad breath, crazy hair, and no make up.

Thinking deeper, help them understand what image is trying to communicate. How does a glamorous celebrity help sell a pair of shoes? What does that image actually tell us about those shoes? Likewise, is this a friend who posts countless selfies? It may be useful to ask your daughter to think about what a friend gets from having a lot of “likes” (external validation and an ego boost) as well as what she isn’t getting (positive self esteem). The danger is learning to value “likes” from 10,000 social media friends instead of valuing the “likes” we get from the people we love the most. Additionally, have a discussion about what your daughter enjoys about her friends. They often will tell you that things they value have to do with characteristics. Help them realize that it’s important to value friends who are funny, smart, and easy to talk to and let them know that these are wonderful things to invest in – and focus on, themselves.

Lastly, what do you model to your daughter? As touchy a subject as this is for many women, learning to love your body and accept yourself can be the most impactful, unspoken truth of body acceptance that teenagers today need. If you feel as if that pesky “x” pounds you’ve gained over the years is the difference between chronic dissatisfaction and happiness, think about the message you may unconsciously be communicating to her about what you personally value. Learning how to love your body can be just simple steps away in refocusing yourself, and your teenage, on how to enjoy your body and love the person you are.

Generally, talking about body-positivity is a serious conversation you need to have with your children at some point. Obsessing with a thigh gap might seem like nothing, but it could also be a sign of an unhealthy obsession.

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