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Fostering a Healthy Body Image: Social Media, Thigh Gaps, and Competition

I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for some time now, but each time I would sit down, I found myself getting angry.  Not angry at anyone in particular, but angry at media, angry at society, and angry at the general lack of awareness we have when it comes down to creating and accepting a healthy body image.

The idea for this post was sparked after the series of articles by the Huffington Post on the “sheen” of Lululemon Yoga Pants, and that the tight pants were “see-through.”  While this might not be controversial, it’s what happened next that relates to this post.  Lululemon issued a standard product recall though women who wear the pants continued to complain.  Then one of the co-founders of Lululemon proceeded to say “They don’t work for some women’s bodies…It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there over a period of time, how much they use it.”

There is a growing media phenomenon on social media sites such as tumblr, Twitter (#thighgap), and Instagram (#thighgap, #thinspiration) about achieving a thigh gap – the ability to have space between your thighs if your feet are together.  This phenomenon has targeted primarily women and young girls with the notion that if your thighs do touch, then you are “overweight, obese, and less physically desirable.”

“I hate this photo but I need to track progress. Restricting starts tomorrow #thighgap #gotgap #skinnymeplease”

Many women and young girls have now made this their fitness and physical goal, often going on extreme diets or not eating at all to extreme exercise – sometimes to the point of developing an eating disorder.  Don’t believe me?  Run a Google search on “Thigh Gap,” “Getting a Thigh Gap,” and “Operation Thigh Gap.”  It is unfortunate to say that for many, achieving a thigh gap is an unhealthy obsession. (See also the criticized book: “Thigh Gap Hack.”)

Thigh Gap: The Facts

The truth of the matter is, a “healthy” thigh gap exists based on specific factors, many of which are genetic.

Pelvic Structure:

“There are absolutely differences in pelvic structures — and more specifically in femoral neck angulation — that can predispose someone to having more of a gap than others,” says Dean Somerset, exercise physiologist, strength coach, and creator of Post Rehab Essentials (cited in jensinkler.com) ”Essentially, the wider the pelvis and the closer the femoral neck angle is to 90 degrees, the greater the spacing between the thighs will be, irrespective to leg length, body fat, muscle mass, and so on.”

So what does this mean?  You can have two women who have identical leg lengths, thigh circumferences, and body-fat percent and distribution, and the one who has the right combination of bony alignment at the pelvis and femoral neck will show a gap, whereas the other won’t.

Tendon Length:

“Another feature is the positioning of the belly [the thickest part] of the adductor muscles [of the inner thigh] in relation to the tendon. Some people are born with the thicker part of the adductor muscles in a higher relative position on their thigh than others, which would limit the amount of spacing in between the thighs,” says Somerset. “If someone is born with a longer tendon length to her adductors, she will show a gap much easier than someone with a shorter tendon length, completely irrespective of fitness, body composition, or workout history.”

The Issue of Body Image

The reason for this post is to not only highlight the unrealistic expectation that society places on women, but what it is that many young girls and women internalize about “beauty.” To be beautiful from the lens of a thigh gap or yoga pants means to have a certain physical appearance and discounts an individuals personality, sense of humor, and “who” the person is as opposed to “what they look like.”

Media and society are consistently pigeon-holing women (and men, but mainly women) to a double-binded notion of perfection.  Take a look at the winner of “The Biggest Loser.”  First she was “too fat” and now she is “too skinny” and lost weight “too fast.”  While I won’t offer an endorsement or reflection either way, it’s important to recognize the amount of judgement that we have a society have on others which can in turn, create an increasing amount of judgement on ourselves. This judgement impacts self-esteem and self-worth, fostering the creation of a society to “strive for the perfect body type” without accepting the value of ourselves as a person.

I challenge each of you, especially if you are a parent, to think about what message you are delivering to your child about love, beauty and self-worth.  If you are a woman, think about that most judgement and criticism about physical appearance comes from other women and not men.  What do you think it would be like if women supported self-love over self-deprecating competition?  And for everyone- you are a stake holder. The next time you offer someone a compliment, consider the difference between these two statements: “I love the way you look” and “I love who you are.”

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About the Author:

David Songco, Psy.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at New Insights, LLC located at 1845 N. Farwell Ave Suite 104 in Milwaukee, WI. He specializes in the treatment of mood, anxiety, and trauma related disorders, with a special focus in college student and young professional development, body image concerns, perfectionism and women's issues. He is credentialed with the National Register of Health Service Psychologists and is a Fellow with the American Academy of Psychoanalysis. Dr. Songco also serves as an Assistant Professor in the Graduate Clinical Psychology Program at Cardinal Stritch University and Adjunct Faculty at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.