BALLWIN, Mo. — Experts in eating disorders are concerned about an Internet-fueled trend in which teenage girls and young women pursue an elusive and possibly dangerous weight-loss goal: to become so slender that their thighs don't touch even when their feet are together.
Specialists say achieving a so-called thigh gap is risky and virtually impossible. But some exceptionally thin models have the gap, which is upheld as a beauty achievement on countless Tumblr pages, blogs and other social media sites.
"The issue of focusing on a particular body part is very common," said Claire Mysko, who oversees teen outreach and digital media for the National Eating Disorders Association, an advocacy group. "What is new is these things have taken on a life of their own because of the Internet and social media."
When the vast majority of people stand with their feet together, their thighs touch. A tiny percentage of people have thighs so slim that they don't come together. The "thigh gap" refers to this space.
Studies suggest that peer pressure from social media plays a significant role in eating disorders. A 2011 study at the University of Haifa found that adolescent girls who spent the most time using Facebook had a greater chance of developing a negative body image and an eating disorder.
"The intrusion and presence of social media in our lives really does make it very difficult," said Nancy Albus, chief executive officer of Castlewood Treatment Center, a suburban St. Louis facility that focuses on eating disorders. "The important distinction about thigh gap is it gives you an actual visual to achieve, this visual comparison of how your body does or doesn't stack up."
Dr. Vonda Wright, a Pittsburgh-based orthopedic surgeon and fitness expert, said the spacing between a person's legs is based mostly on genetics. And even extraordinarily thin people may not have a body type that can achieve a gap. You have to be both skinny and wide-hipped, she said.
Besides, Wright said, it isn't a goal worth chasing. Most fit people won't have a thigh gap because their thighs are muscular enough that they touch, she said.
"Skinny does not mean fit or muscular," said Wright, who works with Division I athletes. "I cannot think of one athlete I deal with" who has a thigh gap.
Experts say it is impossible to know if the pursuit of a thigh gap has caused any deaths, nor is it known how many eating disorders are blamed on the phenomenon. But Mysko said experts believe that "exposure to online images of extreme beauty standards and the drive to compare does increase the risk of developing eating disorders."