Who would have thought that in 2021, we would still be writing about thigh gaps? Alas, here we are. Although we, as a society, seem to have shaken off such a disastrous trend that had us in a chokehold over ten years, its remnants can still shockingly be found scattered across the web. You may be surprised to discover that #thighgap hosts over 100,000 posts on Instagram—saturated with images of women and girls showcasing their thigh gaps.
However, times seem to have changed from the body insecurity bloodbath that was the internet in the 2010s—if you know, you know. Here’s looking at you fellow Tumblr kids. It truly was a dystopian time. Now, there are some things—emphasis on ‘some’—that have progressed. While there is still a terribly large number of posts dedicated to such a trend, Instagram provides a sensitivity block when searching the tag—providing an alternative option to look at resources pertaining to body image issues rather than the triggering feed. This seems to have done little to slow the demand for the beauty ideal, but before we get into the horrifying reality, let’s explain what it is.
Okay, if you don’t already know what this is, a few things may have happened. Either you have been living under a rock for the past decade, you’ve blissfully escaped the clutches of such toxicity—if so, then honestly, good for you—or, you’re probably too young.
The term ‘thigh gap’ refers to the space between someone’s thighs while maintaining a posture of standing upright with their feet together. In other words, it’s the idea that your thighs should not touch each other. The trend first began its march on teenage girls back in the early 2010s and catapulted a generation into a now-historic battle with eating disorders—one that has only grown over the years. Much of the photos circulating at the time were shared countless times, which Insider describes as, “thinspiration.”
This toxic movement’s aim was to push people to achieve a certain body type and frame in order to be attractive or used as an indication of ‘health’. We now know this to be complete and utter bullshit—well, you’d hope. It appears as if not everyone has got the message.
Despite the widening position on body positivity and the supposed increased monitoring of such toxic trends on social media, this doesn’t seem to be stopping people from finding such harmful content elsewhere. One quick Google search on how to ‘achieve’ the look brings a whole host of worrying results—the most concerning being the YouTube ‘thigh gap exercise’ black hole. To this day, the platform still presents a variety of exercise videos—lacking in any scientific merit—that detail how you can achieve a thigh gap.
One video, created by verified YouTuber Sanne Vander, is titled ‘How I Created a THIGH GAP in ONE WEEK *fast results*’. Now, if the title was something you needed to get over, then wait until you hear how many views it has. The top-ranking video, posted in 2019, has garnered over 5 million views thus far. Another video, with a similarly distressing title, ‘Thigh Gap in 7 DAYS | 10 Min Inner Thigh Workout’ by April Han has nearly 14 million views, and guess when it was posted—2020. Unfortunately, the list seems endless. While there are valid exercise routines aimed at targeting the thighs, videos titled in this way, and citing having a thigh gap as the goal, has nothing to do with health and everything to do with toxic beauty standards.
Despite this advertising, the science shows it is clearly false. While some of these creators swear by their methods in getting this look, it is not something everybody can feasibly achieve. Elizabeth C. Elizabeth Gardner, MD—professor and surgeon of orthopaedics at the Yale School of Medicine told Insider, “A thigh gap is most affected by your bone structure, specifically the width of your hips and the position of your hips within your pelvis. It is also affected by genetics, specifically where your body stores fat. Thus, for the most part, there isn’t a lot that you can do to achieve a thigh gap, nor should you try.”
Not only may it not be feasible for you, it also may not be feasible for the thigh gap influencers themselves. Much of the content we see online—particularly more infamously on Instagram—is doctored, photoshopped or of course, Facetuned. Serious work needs to be done to create a seismic shift in the content allowed on certain platforms. I mean, we all know by now about Facebook’s plan to make us feel like shit on purpose.
While some may argue the thigh gap’s existence is no longer as influential as it once was, its prevalence has had lasting effects. From this OG toxic beauty standard, new iterations have fallen off it through the years. Take the latest bikini bridge trend, at-home botox, the CICO diet, Apetamin and the resurging low-rise jean trend—toxic beauty is still well and truly alive.
Remember the term ‘thigh gap’, which refers to the space some people have between their inner thighs when standing upright with their feet touching? Around 2013, the whole world (and Tumblr) went crazy for it—leading many individuals to consider it a special feature of physical attractiveness and physical fitness in women.
Among teenage girls mostly, the thigh gap had become a beauty ideal, which in turn led them to resort to extreme dieting or even surgery in order to try to obtain it. Little did we know that the thigh gap is a physiognomic feature natural only for women with a certain type of body shape and bone structure—one that most women do not have. Attempts to attain the unattainable ideal resulted in a myriad of problems like low self-esteem and even eating disorders.
But things didn’t stop there. In 2014, another harmful body image trend appeared online: the bikini bridge. Defined as “when bikini bottoms are suspended between the two hip bones, causing a space between the bikini and the lower abdomen,” the trend originated in the US in January, when a user on the /b/ section on the imageboard 4chan made up a parody of popular ‘thinspiration’ memes through the launch of ‘Operation Bikini Bridge’.
According to a posting on the website, users intended to spread content across social media regarding bikini bridges as a joke. It was quickly reported on by US television programme Today on 7 January. Several commentators critiqued the posts for displaying insensitivity or being “dangerous” for women with an eating disorder. But that didn’t help much, teenagers had already switched their thigh gap obsession for the bikini bridge.
Urban Dictionary defines thinspiration, also shortened to thinspo, as a term “used by people suffering from eating disorders to help keep them inspired. The idea behind thinspo is that it helps motivate and inspire you to lose weight and become or stay thin.” Thinspo usually consists of photos of unhealthily skinny people—sometimes even taking the forms of celebrities who have lost a great deal of weight. But thinspo can also be anything besides just photos. Book quotes, song lyrics, films…you name it.
Although thigh gaps were first celebrated as physical attributes denoting attractiveness in women because of our society’s harmful beauty standards and obsession with thinness, the bikini bridge was initially introduced as thinspiration propaganda. It goes without saying that both have had an incredibly toxic impact on those who were exposed to such unrealistic standards.
It exploded online, and Tumblr pages as well as Instagram accounts dedicated to either showcasing the bikini bridge or denouncing it flooded social media platforms. The bikini bridge became mainstream and 4chan’s little experiment proved to be a horrifying success.
Trends such as thinspiration and fitspiration provide insight into the darker side of how social media shape attitudes to women’s bodies. However, what was less understood at the time is how body ideals are communicated through social media and what makes them gain traction.
The Conversation went on a mission to analyse the viral spread of the bikini bridge and identified four factors that contributed to its notoriety. Firstly, it was introduced as a ‘simple’, singular body goal: the term ‘bikini bridge’ offered catchy mass appeal as something that users could strive to achieve.
Secondly, it didn’t really matter if the notion of a bikini bridge was real or fake—it was believable as it drew on innate cultural beliefs about how a woman’s body should look. Thirdly, the bikini bridge was accelerated by other online communities, such as pro-anorexia groups and online pornographers, who leveraged its hashtag to spread their own harmful messages.
And finally, online users helped further spread the bikini bridge trend by voicing conflicting opinions about it—creating a very public conversation. The phenomenon caught on quickly because it reflected the cultural expectations placed on women’s bodies and what was seen as culturally valuable.
Of course, the idea of beauty is constantly evolving as whom we deem ‘beautiful’ is a reflection of our values. Today, it’s more inclusive than ever, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more work left to be done. Just as it’s helped so many of these toxic trends grow, social media has also proved to be a great help in amplifying the voices of minority communities, so that their calls for representation can’t be so easily ignored.
The new definition of beauty is being written by a selfie generation: people who are the cover stars of their own narrative. Beauty is shifting into political correctness, cultural enlightenment, and social justice instead of thigh gaps and bikini bridges.