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Over the past several years, "thigh gap" -- the space formed between some people's thighs when they stand up straight with their feet together -- has become somewhat of a beauty trend and a source of heated cultural debate.
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While countless advertisements, celebrity social-media feeds and pro-anorexia blogs glorify the gap, many critics are outraged, believing that the mass marketing of thigh gaps encourages eating disorders and the pursuit of unattainable body ideals. For example, Target received tons of bad press when it was caught enhancing a model's thigh gap using Photoshop.
One social-media platform trying to protect users is Instagram, which shows no results when you search "#thighgap." If you search the closely related "#thighgaps," you'll get a pop-up warning you about graphic imagery and providing directions to access eating-disorder resources.
With all of this press, you might find yourself inspecting your own thigh gap (or lack thereof). But before you start cutting calories and heading to the gym, here are the facts about thigh gap.
Some Healthy People Have a Thigh Gap …
As both sides argue over whether thigh gaps are acceptable, remember that some healthy, fit people have a natural thigh gap. Importantly, having a thigh gap doesn't necessarily mean that someone is obsessed with a certain beauty ideal or that they are unhealthy. For these people, a thigh gap is simply one aspect of their physical appearance. As Dr. Amy Herold, a gynecologist and the medical director of ShimmerTeen.com says, "In these cases, it is not a bad thing or a good thing, it's just a body-structure issue."
… But Thigh Gap Is Uncommon
Dr. Herold explains, "A thigh gap is a physical trait found in only a small percentage of healthy, well-nourished female body types." The media can make thigh gaps seem like a cultural standard, as though everyone has or can have one. But most people do not have it and may not be able to achieve one, meaning that a thigh gap is not necessarily a goal one should pursue.
Like Height and Shoe Size, Thigh Gap Is Tied to Genetics
Your bone structure and body shape determine whether it is physically possible for you to even have a thigh gap.
The first trait to determine the space between your thighs is the width of your hips and the angle of your pelvic bones. "The width of your pelvis combined with the angle at which your thigh bones attach to your pelvis determines the distance between your thighs, regardless of how much muscle or fat you do or don't have," Dr. Herold explains. "Some people with wide pelvises may have leg bones that are farther apart, while people with narrower pelvises may have leg bones set closer together, closing the gap. Obviously, this can't be changed with diet and exercise."
The second factor in determining space between thighs is your body type. Some people have a very difficult time gaining weight, whether from fat or muscle. Because of their low body mass, they are more likely to have a gap between their thighs. However, most women's bodies tend toward accumulating either muscle or fat in the thigh area, which can cause a closure of any gap.
As Dr. Norman Rowe, a plastic surgeon based in New York City explains, "The size of a person's thighs are determined not just by fat, but by muscle. In the middle of our thighs are sartorius and gracilis muscles, which help us walk and move our legs in and out."
Trying to Create One Can Put You at Risk
"It is not a healthy achievement to have a gap," Dr. Herold says, "if it means you must starve yourself to decrease fat, lose important muscle mass and force your body into a shape it wasn't built for." It may not even be possible for some people to achieve a thigh gap, regardless of how much weight they lose.
Thigh Gap Surgery?
Dr. Rowe sees many teen patients desiring a thigh gap. He emphasizes that plastic surgeons cannot remove muscle or alter leg bone structure: "If someone does not have a genetic predisposition to a thigh gap, plastic surgeons cannot create one. If someone is genetically predisposed to having heavier muscles, there is no amount of suction that can change that."
A Passing Trend
If you are feeling inadequate because you don't have a thigh gap, Dr. Rowe encourages you to remember that thigh gaps are likely a passing trend. "Right now they are in, but two years from now, they might be out. What is attractive and fashionable now may not be in five years," he says. "Be happy with who you are." Think about it this way: Pastel hair may be in right now, but do you think your favorite celebs will still have lavender and baby-blue hair a few years from now?
You Are Beautiful Without a Thigh Gap
There are some beautiful, strong, healthy bodies that have a thigh gap and many beautiful, strong, healthy bodies that don't. "The best goal," Dr. Herold says, "is to be strong, fit and healthy for your body type."
Readers -- What do you think of the thigh-gap trend? Do you think it sends the wrong message to young girls? Did you find this article informative? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Kimberly Wolf, M.Ed., is the founder and editor in chief of ShimmerTeen.com, a new health, wellness and lifestyle destination just for teenage girls. Kimberly graduated from Brown University, where her senior thesis exploring the history and evolution of sexual-health content in girls' magazines earned honors in Women's Studies. She also holds a master's degree in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studied adolescent health and media. She is a national speaker, and she has been quoted on websites including CNN.com, WebMD, and Health.com.