The Post in Which a Word-Lover Parries Body-Shaming

I was blessed with good thigh gap. I’ve been aware of this quality because as a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, Christian, attorney, community volunteer, and generally law-abiding citizen, I spend a fair amount of time in front of the mirror making sure I measure up. I focused on it recently, though, because a friend at the gym said she noticed it when I was running on the treadmill. I took her compliment as it was intended and even preened a little bit.

Later, I reflected on how bizarre it is that the phrase “thigh gap” exists at all. That modern usage provides a term to describe those few square inches of a female’s silhouette in a way that suggests her entire appearance, essence, and ultimate worth can be measured in part by whether her legs touch when she stands with her feet together.

We have a host of other words that describe hyper-specific pieces of a woman’s body.



“Bunt” is particularly choice.

What I find interesting about these terms is that they are not neutral, like descriptions of hair or eye color are. Each suggests that a female’s character, dignity, and value are reflected in the presence or absence of a particular feature. While one might have a preference for brown eyes over blue, or prefer red hair to blond, we generally don’t think the owner of one over the other has greater inherent worth.

More disturbing is that, in most cases, less is better. Less fat here. Less hair there. Less soft tissue overlying the distal tibia and fibula. The female who invites these nasty descriptors, or whose thigh gap is insufficient, is considered too stupid to know that she’s supposed to take up less space—or too greedy or lazy to stop using more than her share. Not only do these terms reflect judgment upon the female under scrutiny, they suggest that the best way for her to improve is to become less, not more, than what she currently is.

How do girls fight their way through adolescence, to grow into the women they were meant to become, if the low-hanging fruit of acceptance is to shrink? Why develop in character and virtue if the presence of an intractable physical trait is interpreted to mean one is deficient in those areas?

I’m not naive. I understand that fixation on female appearance is not unique to modern life.  And, yet, I can’t help but think that the terms we use today are meaner, more cutting, and more graphic than the time-honored “cupid’s bow” or “dimples of Venus.”  My lay perception of the historical record is that the feminine ideal, when encountered, was to be celebrated.  It seems that today, thanks in part to the standard set by modern media and fashion, the ideal is expected, and any deviation from it is to be denigrated.

So what do we –as mothers–do to support our daughters?  While encouraging modest dress and comportment is important, I do not think it’s enough.  I expect my child will observe and absorb society’s opinion of how she should look, however unattainable that is.  The judgment she metes in front of the mirror will be far harsher than anything her peers would provide.  I also refuse to take appearance off the table entirely and compliment her only on her non-physical qualities.   If my daughter doesn’t hear that she is beautiful, she will assume that she is not.  And yet, no matter how convincing her father and I are in this regard, she’ll rationalize us away.

These solutions feel unsatisfying in part because I don’t think they get to the real issue.  When a girl hears that something about her appearance is lacking, she infers that something about her character–her value and virtue–is lacking.  And yet, today’s vocabulary has precious few terms for specific virtues.  Words like:









If the words feel old-timey in the mouth, modern language is the poorer for it. We are willing to suffer the specificity of “thigh gap.”  Why don’t we also comment on our daughters’ (and our own):







The more our daughters are measured against these ideal qualities, the less relevant their comparisons to an unattainable physical standard become.  So rather than rail against the judgement reflected in disgusting terms like “cankles”, and instead of pretending they don’t exist, I resolve to displace them with standards of substance.  Ideals that matter. Virtues.

Turns out there’s a word for that.[hr]

Katy is a San Antonio native who spent seven years on the East Coast. She is back home now, married to her sweetheart, rearing her children Claudia (5) and Thomas (3), and practicing tax law.


  1. Powerful and true – body imagery is an issue we all face, regardless of how successful we are in life, love – we always come back to this to judge ourselves against. We totally need to stop and keep conversations like yours going.

  2. This is beautifully written. I don’t have daughters (yet) but I do have sons and something I need to work on is using less of these comparisons when I’m talking about my own appearance. I want my boys to grow up and be attracted to a girl for so much more than just a perfect physical appearance that society has created. Who gets to to say what perfect is? Thank you for sharing this post.

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