Steve and Allen
Blessed are the ectomorphs, the skinny minis, and naturally thighgapped women of the world—or so the marketing industry claims. “Toned bodies, we want toned bodies,” they say. New images of thinness promote strength, but still showcase slim ideals. Athletes should represent the pinnacle of fitness and desire, yet magazines like Women’s Health slap these athletes with aesthetic failure. Slender ideals work against what many fitness gurus and athletes need in order to succeed, including the development of thick, strong, muscular—whatever you want to call them—thighs.
In Making Sense of Muscle: The Body Experiences of Collegiate Women Athletes, Molly George (2005) says female athletes experience pressure when it comes to physique and strive “to build just the right amount of ‘sexy, feminine’ muscle” (p. 317). The right amount of sexy apparently lies within the pages of newspapers, blogs, and magazines like Women’s Health. With bold fonts, skinny legs, and slim down rhetoric, these articles tickle viewers’ senses and prepare their taste buds to consume an appetizing combination of images and verbosity.
Picture your thirteenyearold self gazing in the mirror; what do you see? Braces and pimples? I see sausage legs—thighs bigger than my peers’, warranting an obsession with slimming them. Now look at the perfectly shaped, smooth, and thin legs of the Women’s Health models. Photoshop’s delicate digital surgery appears to bless these babes with a thigh gap. Los Angeles Times writer Mary McNamara (2014) describes the gap and its allure:
“A thigh gap, for the six people still unfamiliar with the term, is created by thighs so slender they do not touch when a woman stands with her feet together. One does not have to get all “Da Vinci Code” divine feminine about it to argue that it has become the holy grail of female body obsession” (para 3).
The difficulty in attaining a thigh gap presents a challenge and challenges fuel athletes and alas, a dangerous mix is born. We forget we do not need to look like the models, we forget why we want to look like models, because we forget the media creates and perpetuates these models and their fictionalized standards.
A knife and fork clatters as Carla scrapes at the last morsel of chicken on her plate. The restaurant vibrates with chatter as my teammates inhale their dinner. Sam remains silent amongst the chaos. Across from Carla, I watch Sam lift her napkin and release it. The delicate white edges of the cloth droop and parachute down onto her steaming plate. The fabric drapes over her food, the way a doctor would cover a cadaver. Sam twirls her fork and stares at her napkin. Her grey eyes hang heavy like lead balloons in their socket. Whispers of Sam’s anorexia spread amongst the team.
Sam is fifteen.
At sixteen, my small figure represents an internal source of pride, allowing me to take on the role of team “guinea pig”. Raised and tossed like a stringless puppet, my teammates lift and contort my small frame above the ice and above their heads. I never hit the ground. For the first time, my legs are the smallest of them all.
Then Steve and Allen entered my life; a subtle arrival that spanned several years of late nights at the rink, afternoons at the gym, and sunny weekends running outside along the Toronto lakeshore.
At eighteen, the rookie days of soaring above my teammates eventually ceased, thanks to Steve and Allen.
No longer would my petiteness receive praise or attention, thanks to Steve and Allen. Steve and Allen, as my teammates deem them, are my thighs.
Black spandex hugs twenty-three pairs of sore legs. I catch a glimpse of the full-length mirror that runs along the short axis of the arena. The mirror reflects a tall slender figure dressed in black. A narrow crevasse separates her legs into two distinct cylinders. I squint.
Maria’s head peaks out from the change room door. “Where the hell did Steve and Allen go?” Maria shouts. “My legs are bigger than yours now!”
Instead of fuming from Maria’s words, instead of yearning for another round of squats, instead of crushing my competitive spirit, Maria awoke a voice inside me that said: you are good enough now.
Without the strength and endurance of Steve and Allen, I am nothing as an athlete. The fulfillment of a media constructed standard lead to the disintegration of a real standard: being sexy, feminine, and ideal at the cost of my fitness. The less I ran, the skinnier my legs became and the more I succumbed to the very forces that drove Sam into a mental, physical and emotional disorder. Was I on this path too?
Shame set in. The shame of knowing I gave into an institutionalized fabrication, the shame of knowing I could not help my friend. In a few weeks, Steve and Allen would grow plump until the next training camp and so the cycle continues; a waxing and waning of faux happiness and athletic dissatisfaction.
Women’s Health needs to work out their portrayal of women’s bodies. But hold on! A recent search on their website shows positive signs of change, showcasing articles like Goldman’s (2014) There Are Now “AntiThigh Gap” Jeans and Gueren’s (2013) More Proof That the “ThighGap Trend” Is Ridiculous. The magazine still provides the latest tips and tricks on how to slim your thighs and features the same gapless models on their cover pages. Thanks for trying, Women’s Health. To my fellow athletes and women: stop seeking these sources as exemplary material and start looking at the people who surround you. Beauty encompasses a vast spectrum and is not a definable point on this continuum. Instead of indulging in a thigh gap, I say fuck that.
Time to embrace Steve and Allen as a tool, a foundation, and a source of strength. I am not a showpiece.
And I’m okay with that.
George, M. (2005). Making Sense of Muscle: The Body Experiences of Collegiate Women Athletes. Sociological Inquiry, 75(3), 317345. Retrieved from http://journals2.scholarsportal.info.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/pdf/00380245/v75i0003/317_ms omtbeocwa.xml.
Goldman, A. (2014, April 25). There Are Now ‘AntiThigh Gap’ Jeans. Women’s Health. Retrieved from https://www.womenshealthmag.com/life/antithighgapjeans?cm_sp=Hotlist_Life_ThereAre NowAntiThighGapJeans.
Gueren, C. (2013, Dec 19). More Proof That the “ThighGap Trend” Is Ridiculous.
Women’s Health. Retrieved from http://www.womenshealthmag.com/weightloss/innerthighgap.
McNamara, (2014, Feb 22). Athletes pay no mind to ‘gap’; the powerful quads on the women at the sochi games illustrate the beauty in strength. Take that, thigh gap. Los Angeles Times Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1500896151?accountid=14771.
Research and personal story are mingled well in this much-needed exploration of body image with a compellingly specific focus. The author’s wry humour makes an easy read of a sometimes unsettling subject.
This was an entry in the 2014/15 Writing & Photo Contest.