Social media’s “thigh gap” trend not to blame for eating disorders

Originally published Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 in the Journal Inquirer
by Kristen J. Tsetsi

The website wikiHow, which offers step-by-step instructions on how to build a door, drive a car with manual transmission, and accept not having children, also explains how to achieve thigh gap.

Thigh gap, an aesthetic desired by a segment of young people (primarily females), is a space that exists between the thighs even when standing with the feet together. It’s a look somewhat common among very skinny runway models that might occur naturally in people with wide-set hips, but which is otherwise difficult to achieve without extreme and unhealthy weight loss.

It might seem because the thigh gap is currently trending online that this is some newfangled danger threatening America’s children, but what is more likely is that it’s simply another way for people with eating disorders to measure their weight loss, one eating disorder expert said.

“I think checking thighs is one of many what we call ‘body checking’ behaviors,” said Rebekah Bardwell Daweyko, licensed professional counselor and programming director of the Walden Behavioral Care Center in South Windsor, Conn. “People of all ages who struggle with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, or pathological body image stressors do behaviors we call body checking. Often we see people who measure their wrist with their fingers, or they check themselves in the mirror multiple times a day, or they utilize other methods. Thigh gap is just another body checking behavior.”

Much of the media focus on the thigh gap trend blames social networking sites like Twitter and Instagram for fueling the thigh gap obsession among teens because they provide platforms for sharing pictures of emaciated thighs, which could help lead to eating disorders. But according to Daweyko, the emergence of eating disorders in individuals is a bit more complicated than that. Social media makes it easier to share ideas and learn new tricks, she said, but people who have an eating disorder will find a way to act out the disorder with or without social media.

While much of what a “thigh gap” search returns on Twitter is criticism of the trend, there are some Twitter users whose posts about thigh gap are expressions of longing for the elusive look. One Twitter user, whose Twitter name is “Sigh” flanked on either side by a heart and whose handle is a letters-and-numbers variation of the words “broken soul,” wrote in her feed, “You know what I would love? My thigh gap to still be visible when I sit down.”

When contacted through Twitter and asked why she wanted that gap, her reply was, “I just would rather have skinny legs rather than big thighs. They just seem nicer to me. I just feel like I need one to be skinny.”

thinspirationShe said she wasn’t emulating a famous person or a model, and that she hadn’t seen anyone in real life who had a thigh gap. “I just feel the need to have one,” she said. She added that she had seen typical “thinspo” images, or images of skinny women that are also called “thinspiration,” but a scroll through the 13-year-old’s Twitter feed suggests there is more to her desire for the skinny thighs than a need to conform to whatever images are circulating on the internet. For instance, she had a strong reaction — “That made me cry. Thank you so much” — to a YouTube video of a man speaking to the camera about the effects suicide can have on friends and family. It was sent to her by a Twitter follower in response to one of her tweets, which read, “I want these scars to fade on my wrist. if I need to cut that will be on my stomach. I dont have the confidence to wear crop tops so why not.”

Several anti-thigh gap posts on Twitter attempt to reassure girls that they’re attractive when their thighs touch, and that famous beauties like Beyoncé don’t need thigh gaps to be desirable, but those reassurances are likely to be ignored. Daweyko said it’s a misconception of people with eating disorders that they’re motivated by vanity.

“Things can start out that way, but there’s a nature vs. nurture component to it,” she said. “Nature loads the gun, but nurture pulls the trigger. People don’t have eating disorders because of the media.”

Another Twitter user who said she wanted a thigh gap has the Twitter name “Fading and Broken.” Asked her age via Twitter, she said she was 15. Her profile picture is a photograph of a young woman, not herself, with an emaciated shoulder, and her photo gallery is filled with thinspo images and text graphics communicating feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. She tracked her fasting periods — “I’ve fasted for a day, eighteen hours, and fifty-six minutes” — and wrote that she wanted to weigh 100 pounds, to have a thigh gap and hip bones, and to be “beautiful” and “thin.” In an earlier tweet she wrote, “Death seems more inviting than life will ever be.”

Eating disorders often go hand in hand with psychological disorders, and some people are simply susceptible to forming eating disorders in much the same way some people are susceptible to forming drug or alcohol addictions, Daweyko explained. There may be someone in the family with a history of depression and anxiety, perhaps a toxic relationship with parents, or some other family disturbance. Maybe they weren’t taught healthy coping skills, Daweyko said, or maybe they were abused at some point and no one believed them.

“Maybe they had the perfect storm happening, they decided to go on a diet, and it started out as, ‘I’m going to lose five pounds.’ Then, before you know it, that turned into an addiction,” she said.

According to statistics compiled by the South Carolina Department of Health, 95 percent of those with eating disorders, which include bulimia, bingeing, excessive exercising, and the rarer anorexia, are between the ages of 12 and 25. What makes teenage eating disorders so dangerous, Daweyko said, is that bodies that haven’t yet stopped growing are at risk of being stunted from malnourishment. Worse still is that anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, the Department of Health Statistics says, and 20 percent of those suffering from it will die prematurely of disorder-related complications. Suicide is one of those complications.

The National Institutes of Mental Health classify eating disorders as treatable medical illnesses, but the South Carolina Department of Health statistics said 80 percent of females who access treatment don’t receive enough, and only one in 10 people suffering from an eating disorder receive treatment at all. Whether a person seeks treatment and then recovers is dependent on several factors, Daweyko said.

“It depends where they are in their willingness to change. We have different stages. If someone doesn’t see a need to change, it’s not likely they will just because someone wrote a comment on a website. People change because something happens,” she said. “Maybe a medical scare, or parents become aware of it and push them to. People don’t change because they see the light. They change because they feel the heat.”

When asked what will happen once she achieves her thigh gap, whether she’ll be happy with how she looks, the Twitter user named “Sigh” said she already has a gap. She just wants it to be wider. “Same with normal weight,” she said. “Like once I hit my goal weight, I’ll want lower.”

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kristen j. tsetsi