Of thigh gaps, calories and ignorance about how bodies actually work
When I was about twenty-two years old, I had this idea that I was going to see if I could become a model – because that’s what tall, thin, slightly insecure girls do, I suppose – so for a summer, in an attempt to slim my entire body down, I restricted my calories, did a bunch of yoga and spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to do spot-reduction exercises aimed at my “problem spots.” (Basically, I did everything wrong.) I was particularly obsessed with my thighs, and I had this daily routine of weighted leg-lifts that I’d do in my bedroom, all in a futile attempt at slimming them down to what I thought of as model proportions. I was particularly maddened by my inner thighs, which touched no matter what I did.
I thought about that summer this morning when I read Tracy’s post at Fit, Feminist and (almost) Fifty about the “thigh gap” obsession, which seems to be ongoing among a certain set of young woman. Obviously this isn’t a new thing – see my first paragraph - but thanks to the internet, it’s been getting media coverage under the guise of the “disturbing new trend” in teenage body image problems.
Tracy lays out the biggest problem with the fixation on the thigh gap:
The thigh gap is just another example of the false idea that achieving a certain (often unattainable by most) aesthetic will bring happiness. Seeking inspiration from representations of unattainable ideals is a set-up — at a minimum it leads to disappointment and demoralization, at worst it can lead people to under-eat, overexercise, and develop eating disorders.
The rest of the post is great, so make sure to go and read it.
I sometimes come across thigh-gap thinspo in my various travails around the internet, and one thing I am always struck by is how the thighs held up as the ideal are little more than skin stretched over bone. Like, where is the muscle? Muscle is necessary to being able to walk, jump, lift boxes, squat down, you name it. Thighs need muscle to be functional! Muscle should not be considered optional!
And not just muscle, but body fat, too. Body fat is not an evil thing. Body fat provides you with padding so you don’t bang your bones and organs against things all the time. It keeps your body warm. It produces hormones, especially estrogen, which is another thing that is not really optional!
The obsession with the thigh gap is an example of the way the biological realities of our bodies have become totally divorced from the aesthetic ideals against which they are held. It’s not even a matter of form versus function. In this case, obsession with form – the thigh gap – obliterates function – the thigh’s ability to do what thighs do.
I see this with calories, too. Somehow the calorie has become this terrible evil that needs to be minimized at all costs, with the ideal being as close to zero as possible. It’s as if calories are thetans and we are all Scientologists and we are supposed to do whatever is necessary to become free of them. But what this mindset fails to grasp is that calories are necessary. Every living thing needs to take in some kind of fuel to burn – because that’s what a calorie is, it’s a measure of heat, not evil soul-destroying awfulness bent on ruining your life - and a certain number of them are absolutely essential just to exist.
I remember reading Wasted by Marya Hornbacher several years ago, and being struck by a passage in which she describes having an epiphany about food, and how food was something she actually needed. Her belief that food was inherently evil had so thoroughly absorbed her that she’d all but forgotten that food is an essential part of life.
As much as I want to believe that this is a mindset that is limited to people with eating disorders and those who seek to emulate them, the reality is that I see this kind of thinking showing up all over the place: in daily conversations, on healthy living blogs that promote seventeen-calorie “desserts,” even in fitness magazines and on daytime television. It’s as if we have become so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as apart from – and in some ways, above – the natural world, like science does not apply to our bodies, like the only thing forcing us to eat more than 1200 calories a day is lack of willpower and not, you know, our metabolism.
There’s a lot of nastiness to unpack when it comes to things like the obsession with the thigh gap and zero-calorie everything, and a basic lack of understanding about how bodies work is only one part of that, but man, it is a really big part of it. Knowledge like “food is necessary to live” and “your body needs muscles so it can do stuff” isn’t esoterica, and yet when I see pages after pages of thigh-gap instructions like “don’t cross your legs because you’ll retain water” or diet tips like “roll your fruit in diet Jello for a tasty calorie-free dessert” or “don’t starve yourself but only eat a little bit every two hours” and I’m reading these not in some Dark Ages of science but in the 21st century, I can’t help but think we’ve somehow failed in a really basic way. Like, we aren’t even succeeding at being alive. Like, amoeba do this whole “feeding and existing” thing better than some of us supposedly highly evolved beings.
Or maybe I’m just morose because I spent an hour searching “thigh gap” on the internet and it was a lot like looking into the darkness and seeing the darkness staring back at me. That’s probably it, isn’t it.
P.S. To the person who wrote an article in which they asked, “Is your thigh gap the right shape?” – go fuck yourself.