People often assume that women have been insecure about these buzzwords since time immemorial, but constructed insecurities were manufactured only recently.
TW: Discussions of fatphobia and mentions of eating disorders
By Stephanie Leguichard
In our culture, we’re constantly bombarded with the idea that any degree of “excess” fat or signs of aging are pathological and shameful. Fortunately, it’s become a bit more popular lately to call out blatant ageism and fatphobia. But it’s easy to overlook how deeply embedded these biases are in our language, particularly in the form of increasingly popular buzzwords such as cankles, crow’s feet, hip dips, (lack of a) thigh gap, gummy smiles, laugh lines, bunny lines, etc. These buzzwords are often popularized by corporations and social media marketers (or “influencers”) who invent “flaws” that they can then “treat.” The mere existence of these ridiculous terms causes (mostly) women to internalize the idea that these completely natural and inevitable phenomena make them defective.
Although people often assume that women have been insecure about “problems” like thigh gaps and hip dips since time immemorial, many of these insecurities have been manufactured only more recently.
For example, “cankles” didn’t always have its own WebMD page (and never should have, because it’s not a medical condition!), and ankle liposuction to “treat” cankles has only become common in the last decade. Google Trends indicates that before 2012, “thigh gaps” and “hip dips” were not on people’s minds whatsoever (or at least not in their search history). The ubiquity of the term “thigh gap” skyrocketed following a Victoria’s Secret fashion show in December of 2012, at which several models displayed their dangerously thin thighs. And self-loathing related to hip dips only surfaced in 2017 when the obsession with this “flaw” (AKA natural part of human anatomy) went viral on Instagram.
Buzzwords like these are clearly problematic and harmful in countless ways, and below are three of the most destructive elements associated with them.
1. The fatphobia and ageism inherent in these buzzwords are applied in ridiculously sexist ways.
Google Image searches for these words yield countless photos, and the vast majority of them are of women. “Scientific diagrams” displaying the many types of facial wrinkles invariably feature only women. It’s as if the natural and inevitable process of aging is somehow pathological when it happens to women. While men “afflicted” with wrinkles are often described as silver foxes, there is no equivalent positive trope for women.
In light of this, it’s not surprising that women receive 86% of all cosmetic procedures in the United States and that injections like Botox and fillers are rapidly becoming more common. While these procedures used to be marketed primarily to women over 40, dermatologists are now recommending that women seek what they call “pre-juvenation” treatments as early as their 20s. Some skincare advice articles from dermatologists also suggest that, in addition to seeking Botox, women could try smiling and laughing less to avoid forming crow’s feet, laugh lines, and bunny lines (But if they smile less, won’t they be harassed for their “resting bitch face?”). Whether women smile more or less, what is certain is that they will not escape critiques of their appearance.
2. Corporations and social media marketers weaponize these buzzwords to make billions in profits from cosmetic treatments and fitness programs.
While no individual should be shamed for seeking cosmetic treatments, we still need to be skeptical of the industries peddling them. Plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and pharmaceutical companies have an inherent conflict of interest when recommending cosmetic products and procedures. This is because they profit off of their popularity, and, by extension, off of our insecurities and poor body image. It’s no coincidence that plastic surgeons are the highest-paid medical specialists ($501,000 per year on average) in the U.S., and dermatologists are the 5th ($392,000 per year).
Beyond traditional marketing campaigns, social media has allowed for more creative (and sneaky) marketing tactics for cosmetics treatments. For example, many dermatologists and plastic surgeons build a large following on Instagram to promote their services and “engage” with consumers.
In fact, on Instagram, a quick search suggests that most of the thousands of daily posts related to crow’s feet, bunny lines, gummy smiles, etc. are posted by plastic surgery or dermatology practices themselves.
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The photo below was shared by a dermatologist as an example of how a Botox microdose effectively eliminated one man’s “gummy smile.”
If the term “gummy smile” was not used, the only difference I would have noticed is that the man looks significantly less happy (and mysteriously lighter) in the “after” photo. Since when do visible gums need to be “corrected”?
Another popular dermatologist shared the image below on her Instagram account in an obvious attempt to make Botox “addiction” sound like nothing but a fun hobby.
But couldn’t it be dangerous to treat Botox with such levity? Botox is the flagship product of Allergan, a 15-billion-dollar pharmaceutical company that has previously been chastised by the FDA for dishonest marketing practices and “minimizing the drug’s side effects.” Allergan has also been sued by several U.S. states for its role in manufacturing some of the opioids that killed thousands of people during the opioid crisis.
The bottom line is, even if some of these dermatologists and plastic surgeons are well-meaning, they are still undermining consumers’ mental health and profiting immensely off of it.
3. These made-up, degrading buzzwords exacerbate mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders among women.
The widespread dissemination of these buzzwords has certainly intensified our cultural obsession with scrutinizing our bodies. The use of these words to describe ourselves or others is an example of what psychologists call “negative body talk,” which has been linked to poor body image and disordered eating. In the age of social media and more prolific selfies, it’s become easier than ever to hyperfocus on minuscule details that we otherwise wouldn’t notice (imagine comparing “hip dips” before photos existed, let alone mirrors). And the unfortunate truth is that if a body “defect” has a name, we’re much more likely to see it when we look at ourselves. Before I heard the term “thigh gap,” I had never cared nor noticed that I lacked one.
Research has demonstrated that examining one’s own body—or “body checking”—is linked to eating disorders and body dysmorphia, which are becoming more common among all women, and among women of color in particular.
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According to the Huffington Post, a University of Southern California study found that “girls who are African American are 50 percent more likely than girls who are white to be bulimic.” It also found that “girls from families in the lowest income bracket studied are 153 percent more likely to be bulimic than girls from the highest income bracket.”
What this all suggests is that body-shaming buzzwords are fueling a mental health epidemic that is highly profitable for some, and life-threatening for others. This means that to tackle this epidemic, we need to address the capitalist system underlying it.
Capitalism bolsters fatphobia, ageism, racism, and sexism by making them profitable. Those who actively try to make us hate our bodies for profit fuel this oppressive system. They do not deserve our money, and we need to hold them accountable. We can start by rejecting the bullshit notion that our bodies are “defective” and by loving our bodies, cankles and all.
Stephanie (she/her) is a writer, editor, activist, and Master’s student studying cultural anthropology. She received a BA in sociology at the University of Virginia and now works out of Tampa, Florida. Her feminist writing has also appeared in Adios Barbie and Fembot. She became enamored with intersectional feminism at an early age and has since been an avid reader and advocate for social justice. In her spare time, you can find her writing songs, exploring new towns, and railing against capitalism with her comrades.