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.
“It started when I realised I was constantly drawing a certain type of beauty standard for my Instagram page,” Lucie Finger says. “I saw I needed to challenge myself to draw different types of beauty, different types of femininity, and this was where I got the idea to make an art book.”
That idea became ZÜCKER, a Kickstarter project for an NSFW art zine about femininity, love, lust, and being queer—live on Kickstarter now. Away from the oppressive ideals Instagram repeated over and over again, she’s been able to poll her backers on the kinds of representations they want to see and to devote dedicated focus to a depiction of sexuality she feels is much more real.
For many creative people, Instagram is the default platform for sharing work. But it has a history of censoring lesbian art, acknowledging its moderation rules have been unfair to Black and plus-size women, and choosing to stay behind the times on sex education.
“It’s very difficult to present any slightly sexual or nude artwork on Instagram,” Finger says. Sometimes her art is taken down, but even what is allowed up seems to get hidden behind a shadowban. “I’m struggling a lot with the algorithm,” she says, “and I’m trying to make everything as ‘safe-for-work’ as possible on there.” Essentially, censoring herself.
In doing this, she’s noticed that artwork about heterosexual couples typically gets through moderation much more easily than anything with a queer couple. From what she can tell, the standards aren’t applied equally. “I think it’s very toxic,” she says, “It’s art and not porn that I’m doing. Not that there’s anything wrong with porn, but I think there’s a difference, and it is not inappropriate for people to see art online.”
Even when Instagram isn’t applying regressive social standards, it makes images into commodities, all competing for a limited supply of attention and likes. “On Instagram, you only have this one fast little picture that you maybe spent hours working on,” Finger says. The content that rises to the top tends to reinforce very traditional tropes of the male gaze? Big eyes, pouting lips, and hourglass figures.
When Finger decided to redirect her creative attention into her erotic art book project, she was able to develop a more feminine gaze. “For me, it’s more like an equal gaze,” she says, “you see the person you’re drawing as an equal, not as a purely sexual being or purely beautiful being, but you put all of the pieces together. And in the end, everything can be beautiful in a very different way. I feel a book makes it way more personal and way more in-depth.”
“I really try to not have this very typical view on beauty image,” Finger says. “I try to challenge myself more to see different aspects of beauty.”
Part of that, in her Kickstarter campaign, has been asking supporters what they think is beautiful and what they want to see more of. “I mostly had positive feedback about trying to include different queer identities,” she says. “Since I’m queer myself, I had especially a lot of trans people being happy that I’m trying to include gender queer and trans identities in my work. Everyone who sees that I’m including their suggestions, their requests, and their role models is very happy—it’s a very positive conversation, I think.”
It shows that, given the freedom and space to say it, many people want to see more than the narrow definition of beauty and sexuality allowed on Instagram.
The feedback from her Kickstarter supporters has inspired Finger to think deeper on her work in general. “I learned to explore even more aspects of femininity and sexuality,” she says. “It was like, ‘Okay, I include body-positive and sexual images. How can I maybe include historic figures, trans people?’ I’ve been reading into trans history, and I’m learning.”
Spending the time reflecting on her book layout helped her treat these topics in a more intersectional way, too. “In the beginning, I tried to have an order with different themes but realised this will not really work. I want to have a flowy vibe to it.”
But maybe most importantly, the community of supporters who’ve been weighing in on her Kickstarter campaign have inspired her to keep learning and growing.
“I learned to trust myself and my work and be confident in what I’m doing,” she says, “because I’ve been struggling with my art early last year. Focusing on the positive feedback from followers, from friends, from family and personal reviews on my Etsy shop really gave me the push to just connect with people. If I’m being genuine, if I’m being honest, they will support my project.”