Thursday, October 10, 2013
Dad: The disturbing body image trend among girls
According to a number of eating disorder experts, there is a disturbing new body image trend among girls and young women seeking to emulate the physiques of wafer-thin supermodels and television personalities. In trying to reach a new “standard” of attractiveness, girls are now focusing their attempts at dieting and exercise to achieve a benchmark known as the “thigh gap.” The thigh gap refers to how much space – if any – a woman has between her upper thighs. The more space inside that triangle, the thinner the girl and, so the thinking goes, the more attractive she is.
The problem is that this particular region of a woman’s body is affected by a number of factors outside of body fat, specifically the width of the pelvis and angle of the femurs, two things that cannot be altered without some insane surgical procedure that I’m certain is illegal in most countries. Aspiring for this so-called thigh gap is an impossible goal for most and presents a number of health concerns for those attempting it. Sadly, however, the concept of thigh gap is nothing new. It has taken many forms over the years, focusing on the girth of various body parts and how reaching a certain measurement, number on a scale or body-part-to-body-part-ratio is proof that a person – man or woman – is certifiably attractive.
The first time I heard of such a thing was in my first high school English class, taught by a woman who, for the sake of pseudo-anonymity, I will call Mrs. H. The image I remember of her was a woman in her mid to late 40s who probably lived a bit of a wild streak in her youth and had settled on the noble profession of giving life advice to high-schoolers and poorly masking it as teaching.
Ms. H had three things she liked to talk about: 1) her high school ex-boyfriend who her parents couldn’t stand because he drove a motorcycle and smoked cigarettes; 2) how she meditated every morning with her cat in her lap, and how we should all do the same; and 3) how once upon a time she had a “diamond shape.” The diamond shape, Ms. H told our class of impressionable high school freshmen, was a measure of a woman’s physical perfection. If when a woman stood with her feet together, the contour of her legs opened at three specific spots to form a diamond – between the ankles, top of the calves and between her upper thighs – she had a perfect figure.
Unfortunately, being a 14-year-old boy already soaking up every bit of high school knowledge I could, I believed her. I’m sure my female classmates did the same, and I assume many of them went home that afternoon and looked in the mirror, only to discover that, sadly, they didn’t have Ms. H’s coveted diamond shape and were, thus, imperfect. Meanwhile, I added “diamond shape” to my ever-increasing list of things I thought made a girl “hot.”
It didn’t occur to me until many years later how screwed up this was. Here was this grown woman telling a room full of 14 and 15-year-old boys and girls – who, by the way, were starting to deal with their own insecurities about their bodies – that if a woman wasn’t genetically predisposed to having this arbitrary measure of sex appeal, then she wasn’t perfect and probably never would be. If my daughter ever comes home from school telling me her teacher said something like that, my response will be, “Well your teacher is full of sh*t,” followed by the immediate scheduling of a parent-teacher conference.
The thigh gap measure has gained national attention recently because of how social media has perpetuated the standard among females. A quick Twitter search of “thigh gap” revealed a handful of tweets by women (nay, girls) either bragging that they had achieved thigh gap status or lamenting that their thighs still touched. Several of their followers either congratulated them or told them to keep working at it.
Social media, however, is not the problem. While Twitter and other sites make it is easier to track such trends and document the shocking regularity in which they are accepted and pursued by America’s youth, these arbitrary standards of attractiveness have always been prevalent. Furthermore, they’re not exclusive among girls. They’re the teasers on magazine covers (“Add two inches to your biceps in a week!”), and they’re the slow-motion beach scenes on television, rife with narrow hips and six packs. They can be passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, father to son, mother to son and father to daughter; from sister to sister, brother to brother, and so on. Perhaps this very instant, a teacher trying to show how hip she is telling a room full of high-schoolers how hot she used to be and how, if they’re lucky, they might someday be too.
Parents can’t possibly shield their children from being bombarded by products and images extolling the aesthetic virtues of straight blonde hair, Schwarzenegger-esque deltoids or a proportionate bust-waist-hip ratio. My daughter is only 18 months old, and my wife and I already fear for the day she comes home crying because somebody said her nose is too big, or that her ankles are fat, or whatever terrible insults come out of the mouths of children who reach that challenging time in their lives where they begin to notice such things.
What parents can do, however, is instill in their children from a very young age that what they think of themselves is far more valuable than what others think, and that they should define beauty for themselves and not look to the latest edition of Cosmo or the dozens of muscle magazines out there to define it for them. The people on magazine covers and television aren’t real … yes, as people they’re real, but the final product portrayed in print or on the screen is the result of hours of photography, makeup, digital alterations and who knows what other tricks of the trade.
I’m not immune to any of this, and I imagine few people are. My wife and I both work out regularly, which is motivated, to some degree, by a vanity-driven desire to look good for each other. But when talking about these things in front of our daughter, we try to be conscious of how we present it. I don’t want her to think the entire purpose of exercise is to look good for others, and that by lifting weights my end goal is to look like The Rock. I simply hope to impart to her that it’s more important to be healthy than thin, that it’s better to be strong than “ripped,” and that a boy (or girl) who doesn’t want to talk to her because her thighs are a little wider than (s)he’d like is a person on whom she shouldn’t waste her time.
I hope we can teach her that her personal concept of beauty should be entirely her own and not influenced by what she sees on the magazine stands, so that one day when her friends stand around and compare who can see the most daylight between their thighs, she’ll just laugh because, frankly, who cares?