A new obsession amongst teenage girls, achieving the thigh gap — or space between the thighs when a woman is standing with her knees together — has become an unhealthy and dangerous trend.
A new and surprising body trend has become an obsession amongst young women — achieving the thigh gap. Some teens see the thigh gap, or the space between a woman’s thighs when she’s standing with her knees together, as a symbol of the “ideal body.” But what at what lengths are they going to achieve it?
Why Focus on the “Thigh Gap?”
Young women have always been flooded with images of people considered to be beautiful, but with the advent of social media sites such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, there are more outlets than ever before for teens to see women with bony figures and a sizeable space between their thighs. It’s common for teens post “thinspiration” images like these and share their thoughts with friends, further fueling the obsession.
Because the thigh gap is one of the first of such obsessions across social media, its stronghold over young women is more powerful that it might have been decades prior, when being thin was still “in” but there were fewer places to find images promoting these body types.
The reason people are drawn to physical traits like a thigh gap stems from a theory called cognitive averaging, Al Aly, MD, FACS, spokesperson for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery says. According to this theory, attractive faces or body types are closer to the average population in their makeup and are seen as more familiar and typical than bodies that deviate from this average.
“We are genetically programmed to be attracted to averages, which change constantly,” Dr. Aly says. “Women are now being faced with [thinness] and seeing people with this trait receiving accolades and appearing attractive to others.”
While the “ideal body” has changed from decades when actresses like Marilyn Monroe were considered to be the epitome of attractiveness, thinness has had a tight rope over our cognitive averages for the last 20 years, Aly says, making it easy for young women to see hundreds of images of models with thigh gaps and want one for themselves.
The Dangers of Obsession
From social media to magazines to television, the amount of beauty content, combined with a desire to be thin, has put more pressure on young people than ever before, says Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Harry Glassman, MD.
It’s a dangerous and tenuous age, Aly says, and can pave the way for an obsession over something like a thigh gap — an often-unattainable goal unless most women are below their normal weight. The health risks associated with dieting to these extremes include malnutrition, anemia, a change or stop in the menstrual cycle and development of bulimia or anorexia. Genetics also play an issue in achieving a thigh gap, as not every woman’s bone structure is set in a way that will naturally create one no matter how much weight she loses, Aly says.
The word “obsession” is also a red flag to plastic surgeons, Dr. Glassman says, and many doctors who see women with unhealthy obsessions won’t consider performing surgery on them.
“If you’re obsessed, you’re likely to be disappointed if the result doesn’t turn you into a movie star, which of course it isn’t going to do,” Glassman says. “In addition to finding the right people anatomically, we have to find the right people emotionally, especially if their issue isn’t severe.”
When to Consider Surgery and How to Help
Although many teenagers aren’t mature enough to make the decision to undergo plastic surgery, Glassman says that if he saw a young woman who was not obese and hated the fact that her inner thighs rubbed together when she exercised, he wouldn’t hesitate to perform liposuction on her – provided that she was secure and mature enough for the procedure.
“There’s a lot of pressure to fit in, and now that plastic surgery is mainstream, it’s a great option for people to turn to for easing their anxiety,” Glassman says. “No one gets through their teen years without being insecure, but it is our responsibility not to prey on people that come to you with that level of insecurity simply because we get paid to do it.”
Whether or not surgical procedures are appropriate for young people vary greatly from one family to another, Glassman says, and it depends on the maturity level of the potential patient, whether or not they have realistic expectations of what a procedure can correct and how the relationship is between the teenager and their parents.
“I’ve seen mature young men and women come into the office with emotionally supportive parents that trust their children and support them,” Glassman says. “These children understand the ramifications of surgery and are making a mature choice.”
Outside of surgery, having supportive parents that can help build their teen’s self-confidence and self-worth can help give them the sense of belonging they might otherwise find on a “thinspiration” message board, Aly says. “When kids are having trouble with their self image, their parents [can be] the only rock-solid things in their lives and can help them.”