Thigh gap discourse is back, thanks to TikTok
A number of creators are trying to cancel the problematic Tumblr-era beauty standard, but it's more complicated than that.
Photos via TikTok
If you were on Tumblr in the early 00s, you’ll know the horny platform was filled with problematic pro-anorexia content. One of the era’s infamous trends and fixations, in particular, was the thigh gap. Pictures of people with large gaps between their upper legs were circulating alongside those searching for tips on how to achieve them through exercise routines or eating next to nothing. For many, the pursuit of a thigh gap had a grip over our teenagers years, despite it being a characteristic that’s pretty much tied to genetics.
Today, the term “thigh gap” isn’t as much a part of our cultural dialogue, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t ingrained in our brains as an unattainable beauty standard, alongside new body trends such as the BBL physique. In fact, during the pandemic — with social media the only form of social contact for many — doctors warned there was a “tsunami” of eating disorders among children and young adults. The thigh gap may have been trending back in the 00s, but it’s still disturbingly relevant today. Some creators on TikTok are trying to change that.
The revolt against the thigh gap gained traction on the app earlier this year, around the same time that 21 Savage’s “Red Opps” song started trending. The song goes “You can keep the skinny bitch 'cause I like a fat ass and thighs.” Many creators shared videos that showed off their curves to the lyrics, but like so many trends started by and for plus-size creators on TikTok, the sound soon became co-opted by those with thin bodies. That’s when the thigh gap entered the chat.
Fitness trainer and founder of the WeGlow app, Stefanie Williams made a video referencing that clip of Rihanna walking in a pink ASAI tie-dye dress (you know the one) as her reason for not wanting a thigh gap. “Every single person and their body is built differently. For example, those with wider hips but a slim frame would be more predisposed to a thigh gap,” she says. “For others — like me — having a thigh gap would be almost impossible without pushing my body to unhealthy extremes which would be damaging long term, not to mention unsustainable and very unenjoyable.”
Younger creators have also shared their previous experiences of being bullied for having thick thighs. One of those creators was 19-year-old Cassandra Costello, who’s based in Ontario. “Growing up, I was always bullied for my weight and how my thighs were too big and would jiggle when I walked in shorts,” she told i-D. “When I got to high school it was still a thing to be skinny and have a thigh gap. I actually developed an eating disorder and would always wish I had small legs.”
Cassandra says seeing larger thighs celebrated on TikTok is a confidence boost, but she’s still frustrated about the body shaming and harassment she experienced when she was younger. “It feels like all that pain was for nothing and now I don’t care as much that it’s praised upon,” she says. Others have echoed the sentiment, adding that the skinny Tumblr era was too ingrained in their thought patterns to fully grapple with the thigh gap being “over”.
Dr. Laura Choate, a professional counsellor and professor of counsellor education at Louisiana State University, says replacing the thigh gap with another unattainable beauty standard — in this case, thick thighs with a small waist — could be confusing and potentially harmful to young girls. “When girls measure their self-worth based on how they measure up to impossible, ever-fluctuating beauty ideals, they will always be dissatisfied and disappointed, thinking they need to work harder, buy more products or starve themselves in pursuit of this ideal,” she says.
Dr. Choate says that content focusing on the thighs at all, whether it be the pursuit of thinner or thicker ones, is still body checking. “The focus is still on obsessing about the size and appearance of your thighs instead of focusing on yourself as a whole person,” she explains. “Rather than focusing on body ideals or extremes, we need to encourage girls to focus on things that are more meaningful and purposeful than achieving a particular ‘look’ that will likely change as a new trend emerges.”
While being thick may be becoming the new ideal on TikTok and social media, the physical attribute is often only celebrated in conjunction with a small waist, which excludes larger people from the so-called “body positive” messaging. Georgia Sky, an LA-based actress and creator who aligns with the fat acceptance and body acceptance movements, says this leaves plus-size creators out of the body positive movement on the app.
“Thick thighs are the new thing right now but society wants a certain body type for thick thighs. They want you to be a Coca-Cola body type with thick thighs. No fat anywhere but the ‘right’ places,” she told i-D. Georgia says she’s not deemed the “desirable” thick thigh type. “A lot of people have opinions on my body on that app and tell me that I need a tummy tuck or BBL in order to be ‘more attractive’. Fatphobia is rooted in anti-Blackness so I know there are racially motivated comments I get.”
Georgia says that she and other plus-size users are still struggling with TikTok’s admitted suppressing of disabled, queer and fat creators that were deemed “vulnerable to cyberbullying”. “Our videos get taken down for wearing a bikini, which is what a lot of the smaller creators do, but with our body type we are violating community guidelines,” she says. “Also, when I want to talk about problems in the plus-size community and explain why something is fatphobic on the app, TikTok will suppress it, but let a smaller white creator say what I said in a video and they will go viral.”
Despite her issues with fatphobia on the app, Georgia still views the shift away from the thigh gap as a step in the right direction for body acceptance overall. On videos she’s seen about how to gain a thigh gap, she’s increasingly seeing commenters write “No” or “Go away, this isn't Tumblr anymore”.
While it’s comforting to think that the thigh gap might not have as much of a grip on teenagers today as it did in the Tumblr era, celebrating thicker thighs is only the beginning. Without also celebrating larger stomachs or other highly scrutinised body parts, the content is fuelling the dangerous BBL epidemic and upholding another unattainable beauty standard. After all, the thigh gap may have originated in the 00s, but the fatphobia it was rooted in is still very much alive today. It’s going to take a lot more than a few videos saying that the thigh gap is “cancelled” for that to change.