Dear Media: The "Thigh Gap" Is Not A New Teen Craze

When news outlets cover eating disorder issues as if they are a brand-new thing, or just a craze among some teen girls who have been exposed to too much Photoshopping, they’re delegitimizing the struggle of eating disorder patients past and present.
Publish date:
October 10, 2013
eating disorders, media, triggers

*Trigger warning: This article uses terms and phrases which may be triggering to those who have struggled with eating disorders. Do what’s best for you.*

I wish I could say that the last time I measured my own (lack of a) thigh gap was after reading one of the onslaught of concern-laden articles about the “new teen craze,” but if I’m being honest, it was this morning because I do it every single day, because old habits die hard.

If you (or someone you know) has had an eating disorder -- particularly in the digital era -- you’re aware that the thigh gap, which an AP article from last week has everyone abuzz about, isn’t so much a freshly-lost battle in the war on poor self-esteem. Instead, it’s just one of many, many measurements women (and men) have used to fuel their own self-destructive behavior.

The thigh gap has been eating disorder currency for years.

See also: the pencil test. See also: back dimples.

Please don’t Google these terms -- if they’re unfamiliar to you, you probably haven’t spent much time haunting thinspo message boards, and you should keep it that way. Just know that they are the kinds of harmful attributes that people of all genders who struggle with eating disorders know.

Because, see, eating disorders are driven by metrics beyond weight and calories. When you will do anything to lose weight, you will do anything to prove to yourself that you are losing weight.

See also: progress photos. See also: goal clothing.

Among pro-ana Tumblrs and Pinterest boards, the thigh gap is a popular subject, particularly for photography. It’s so popular that it’s one of the tags that could ostensibly get your Tumblr flagged as pro-eating disorder. Instagram, too, is awash with these images. Hashtag beauty. Hashtag thin. Hashtag perfect. And before these social platforms, there were old-school bulletin boards and galleries that displayed photos of stick-limbed women. There were magazine cut-outs in spiral notebooks swapped between friends. There were Lifetime movies.

But it’s so much more pervasive than that.

The thigh gap is so not-new and so mainstream that there are there diet books dedicated just to achieving that particular (and potentially impossible, depending on a host of genetic factors) feature, to which I won’t link. It’s so not-new and mainstream that there are hand-wringing articles about it dating back to the early 2000s, and that’s just on the Internet.

It’s so not-new that I -- as a media professional and a person in recovery -- can’t believe how many news organizations are covering it as if it is new. And not only that, but how irresponsible the coverage has been. And beyond that, how unkind the response by readers has been.

I had a thigh gap once. I also have a compulsive need to log everything I ate, a 600-calorie-per-day diet, and had an exercise regimen that kept me in the gym for no fewer than 14 hours per week. I also had a compulsive need to read any and all news article about eating disorders. I fed off the shock. I consumed the digust and repulsion of other, “normal” people. The more I felt like a freak, the more I felt compelled to keep it up.

When news outlets cover eating disorder issues -- and especially ones as old and entrenched as the thigh gap -- as if they are a brand-new thing, or just a craze among some teen girls who have been exposed to too much Photoshopping, they’re delegitimizing the struggle of eating disorder patients past and present. The ones who are well aware of its existence, its power. The ones for whom it isn’t something that can be cured by more realistic Barbies or, much as we wish it could, Amy Poehler’s advice videos.

By calling this a “disturbing new trend” or a “toxic craze,” they are boiling down an issue that huge and convoluted and deeply rooted in the psyche of millions of American men and women into the a news snack with as much legitimacy and weight as an article about Miley Cyrus’s newest tattoo/song/antic. It’s worrisome, it’s symptomatic of a much larger problem -- one which we all know exists -- but it’s not legitimate. It’s not for adults.

This isn’t Silly Bandz we’re talking about. This isn’t a frivolous teenage vanity thing. This is someone’s life. This is something that exists in adult life. Just because you didn’t know about this particular facet of eating disorders doesn’t mean no one else has -- and it certainly doesn’t mean it hasn’t tormented someone you know.

That “shocking” article you posted to Facebook, warning other mothers about the thigh gap? I assure you, there’s at least one person in your feed -- maybe another mother -- who has her own story about it that’s far more shocking and probably a good spell older.

Shedding light on the pain and isolation of eating disorders is an admirable cause, and plenty of organizations -- Proud2BMe, NEDA, etc. -- are doing it right. They’re doing it with compassion and understanding. They listen as well as speak. They don’t gawk.

But being shocked by the grossness and otherness of something that is frankly a reality for a lot of men and women isn’t helpful, it’s hurtful. It furthers the feelings that those who have suffered from eating disorders are sick weirdos with sick weird habits and sick weird desires to look sick and weird.

So, please. Stop sharing this “news” as if it is news to everyone, and not just you. Stop identifying disordered behaviors as “crazy.” If you’re concerned about the self-esteem of teens (and adults), which you should be, consult the organizations who are doing it right, and kindly pick your jaw up off the floor.