Move Over Muffin Top, The Thigh Gap Is Here

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Posted At: December 7, 2013 8:28 p.m.
by Sarah de Jong.

The fashion industry has historically obsessed over weight and weight-related issues. In addition, speaking about a woman’s weight invites much scrutiny in our society. Just think back to Abercrombie & Fitch’s controversy about only making clothes for “skinny people” and Lululemon Athletica founder’s recent remarks about women’s body types. Weight-loss trends such as the thigh gap are coming into society in full force, and fashion companies are only egging them on.

Captured by DavidNin, this photo features the 2nd annual yoga festival at the Washington Monument sponsored by Lululemon athletic wear.
Captured by DavidNin, this photo features the 2nd annual yoga festival at the Washington Monument sponsored by Lululemon athletic wear.

Thigh gap trend

What is a thigh gap? According to ABC News, it is “a clear space, or gap, that can be seen between the thighs when a girl is standing with her knees together.” In order for a woman’s thighs not to touch, she must be very thin or have a particular body type. Thigh gaps are usually not about a person’s weight, but how their body is built. With the amount of negative press the thigh gap trend has attracted in recent months, even models have addressed the problem. Gap model Robyn Lawley spoke out about the backlash she has received for having her thighs touch as a model.

“The sad reality is that I’ve known about the ‘thigh gap’ since I was 12 — and there is nothing about this trend that’s new to me. Watching countless fashion shows as a teenager, I was unfortunately inundated with images of women and girls who had pronounced space between their thighs. The models’ legs would never come close to touching, even as they stomped down the runway. Staring down at my own thighs, I can safely say that has never been the case for me. I’m now classified as a ‘plus size’ model in the fashion industry,” wrote Lawley.

Kim Bissell, Ph.D., is an associate dean for research and a professor of journalism at The University of Alabama. Her research areas include exercise, nutrition and body image in adolescents. She is also a certified personal trainer and works with overweight and obese children to teach them how to get in shape. Through her research, Bissell believes that the media help to set the standard for how women see themselves with the thigh gap trend specifically and weight in general.

“Indirectly, the fashion industry is setting the standard of ‘normal.’ By seeing images of attractive women, we (as viewers and consumers) think that what we are seeing is average or the norm. So, by normalizing extreme thinness in the fashion magazines, these magazines are partially responsible for making young girls and women feel as if they need to diet their way to extreme thinness or exercise themselves to the point of being extremely thin,” Bissell said.

Companies’ reactions and how they deal with body image

Lululemon’s founder, Chip Wilson, spoke about his company’s yoga pants (ringing up at around $100 a pair) and the complaints about them piling in the thighs and being see-through. He blamed these problems on the women who wear the pants — more specifically, on their weight. Wilson said that some women didn’t fit the pants, not the other way around.

Huffington Post writer Alena Dillon responded to Wilson’s remarks on women by posting her own warning label for Lululemon yoga pants: “. . . Do not wear if you buckle your seatbelt. [Author’s note: That one’s real.] . . . Do not wear these pants if you are too curvy; your body pressures the pants to perform the responsibility of being pants, when really they aren’t much more than status symbols. Think of us as the Goldilocks of the clothing industry: we’re only suitable for bodies that are juuust right. . . .”

While Dillon’s response may be extreme, she succeeds in revealing how inconsiderate many people thought Wilson’s comments were, leading some to boycott the brand.

Crosby Noricks, the founder of PR Couture and a fashion branding strategist, said that she thinks the remarks were a careless and unfortunate incident for the brand, but that the media had a part in the backlash.

“I also think that media, both social and more traditional, are thrilled to jump on these types of stories as a means to drum up public outrage (and page views),” Noricks said.

Bissell said she boycotted Lululemon all together after Lululemon’s founder made his infamous comments.

“I used to buy Lululemon gear for working out; however, I have moved over to Athleta exclusively because of comments like the one made by Chip Wilson. We have to be smarter and resist the temptation to have the brand that ‘everyone else is wearing’ when really inappropriate comments like this are made. Truly as long as we continue to buy the products, very little will change, and Chip Wilson and other CEOs know it,” Bissell said.

So, is it the consumers’ fault, the companies’ fault or the media’s fault that so many consumers and companies are speaking out about weight?

“That is a huge disconnect. I am not suggesting that the media should be a mirror of society; however, I do think that socially responsible companies would take note of the fact that plastic surgeries have increased exponentially over the last two decades, the sale of dieting pills and products has increased exponentially over the last two decades, and the number of young girls suffering from low self-esteem and low body self-esteem has increased exponentially over the last two decades,” Bissell said.

Noricks said she thinks the fashion industry shouldn’t be to blame for how the media is portraying body image in society.

“It’s easier to blame someone else, or an entire industry, rather than assuming responsibility for how we each perpetuate, reflect and cosign an image-driven culture with a very narrow definition of beauty and health. These types of remarks — whether it’s a clothing line deemed only for the popular, pretty kids, or pilled fabric where our thighs meet when we run, are powerful because they touch our own insecurities and self-belief about our own value. That’s the real rub — fashion is just an easy target,” Noricks said.

Campaigns to solve this problem

Some companies, such as Target or Macy’s, have shown diversity in body types for their clothing. Each time a company shows a model who is closer to the average-sized American in an advertisement, it has the ability to earn credibility, since it is going against the norms of the fashion industry. Other stores, like Athleta, have a different approach.

“While Athleta does not necessarily show ‘average-sized’ women, Athleta does design its clothing so that it fits a broader range of body types. Furthermore, Athleta does very well at promoting healthy lifestyles for women. So, I think that brand has done better at catering to larger segments of the population because it isn’t just about appearance, even though on face value, it kind of is,” Bissell said.

Noricks mentioned a publication that she thinks handles the issue with class: Verily Magazine. It has a no Photoshop policy, focusing on the natural beauty of women instead. Its policy states:

“Whereas other magazines Photoshop to achieve the ‘ideal’ body type or leave a maximum of three wrinkles, we never alter the body or face structure of our models with Photoshop. We firmly believe that the unique features of women — be it crows feet, freckles, or a less-than-rock-hard body — contribute to their beauty and therefore don’t need to be removed or changed.”

While it doesn’t seem as though the body image and photoshop problem will be resolved any time soon, it is reassuring to some that many companies are making a step in the right direction and not using stick-thin models or excessive Photoshop. But, even though most consumers are aware that computer editing software may be the reason models look so thin and flawless in advertisements, body-image problems still affect the masses.

“I have been researching the social effects of media specific to body image for more than a decade. I know the research; I do the research; I teach my students how to use Photoshop, so I know exactly how it all works. Yet, despite all of that, I still look at images sometimes and have moments of self-doubt. I am an ultra-runner, and because I run a lot, I have big calves and big thighs. I know it is a muscle, but sometimes, even I don’t see it that way. That is how powerful the media can be,” Bissell said.

2 Comments

  1. Mary Kathryn Woods

    Very informative and thought-provoking article, Sarah! I agree the media and fashion industry constantly reinforce unrealistic standards of beauty and size. This article references various discussions of the body image controversy, which proves that society remains very aware and critical of these standards. Therefore, we should know better than to view these models as a representation of the average-sized woman. However, we cannot seem to change our own perceptions and habits. So, that brings us to your question: whose fault is it? I think the media and fashion industry are simply providing consumers with the image they want to see. As a society, we idolize beauty. We buy clothes the models are advertising because we want to be beautiful and thin like them. We read articles about celebrities’s diets and workout plans because we perceive them as beautiful. Therefore, I agree with Kim Bissell’s comment that individually we have to make the change in the products, companies and media we support if we want to see a change in what the media and fashion industry portray. Ultimately, it’s not just our actions we need to change, but also our mindsets.

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  2. Rachel U.

    The title of this article is so great; it caught my attention and pulled me right in, great job Sarah! Seeing how many times the fashion industry has directly insulted young girls and women about their weight is heart breaking. I agree with Kim Bissell that the media continuously sets up how women view themselves with the constant changing of weight related trends. Since the thigh gap is the most recent trend young woman are becoming more obsessed with how they look and are more willing to try fad diets to obtain the gap. Although so many people are becoming obsessed with the thigh gap, there are some people that find humor in the trend. “Are they hot dogs or are they legs,” is the theme for a Tumblr account called “Hot-Dog-Legs” that is poking fun at the thigh gap trend and how woman set pictures up to achieve the thigh gap. The account shows pictures of either woman’s legs or hot dogs impersonating woman’s legs at a beach, pool, or outdoors. Despite the fact that many companies are the reason young women have body image issues, it’s great to see that some companies are using normal size models and avoid Photoshop. Overall I think that the media and companies need to stop convincing young women that they need to look a certain way and accept that “average” people are beautiful too.

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