At the Sochi Olympics, the 'thigh gap' thankfully comes out a loser

This post has been corrected. See note below.

Even if you don't know a halfpipe from a flying camel there are many reasons to watch the Winter Olympics: Johnny Weir's mink, the sight of actual reindeer, the most in-depth ice crystal analysis since "Smilla's Sense of Snow."

Here's the best one though: No thigh gaps.

Women in the Olympics: A critic's notebook on the beauty of muscular women athletes in the Sochi Games in the Feb. 22 Calendar section referred to professional women's basketball as the WBA. It is the WNBA.

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. 

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Though it's just one more method of equating female beauty with skinniness (see also: pronounced collar bones, visible hip bones and the "bikini bridge"), the thigh gap has become a ubiquitous enough goal to spawn a welter of "how to" guides and, increasingly, an accompanying backlash, complete with its own hashtag: #Stopthighgap.

That backlash has not yet reached the teen/tween set, or at least not in L.A.; my 13-year-old daughter reports that many girls at her school have been known to sigh repeatedly, "all I want is a thigh gap."

Not a million-dollar YouTube contract, not a boyfriend (though presumably that would follow), not world peace or, heaven forbid, an A in Advanced Algebra. Nope, they'll trade it all, along with breakfast, lunch and dinner, for an open space where, on most women, flesh should be.

My daughter will never have a thigh gap if for no other reason than she plays soccer, which has made her thighs muscular and strong. Already she has taken more than a little flak about them and already I've been warned by parents of older girls that "soccer thighs" can become an issue. Even talented young players are daunted by the specter of being perceived as "fat," of not looking good in the fashions of the moment that now include the ever-shrinking skinny jeans.

Daunted enough, in some cases, to stop training or even playing a sport they love. 

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Which is why we've been watching the Winter Olympics. In Sochi, women's thighs are not about looking a certain way, they're about doing amazing things, and they come in a gorgeous assortment of shapes and sizes.

The powerful luge and speedskating thighs, the dense proportions of figure-skating thighs, the wickedly controlled and very serious slalom and downhill skiing thighs, even female snowboarder thighs, so cool they're allowed to be covered in baggy pants.

Over the years, many micro-shifts have been made in the cultural definition of female beauty; straight women swoon over Kate Upton too, though mostly because she does not seem to be made of Popsicle sticks. But every two years the Olympics present us with a panoply of female athletes who are beautiful in a way we are simply unused to seeing, and remind us how far we have to go.

The masculine ideal may remain rooted in athleticism, but 42 years after Congress passed Title IX and launched an explosion of women's and girls' sports, the standard of female beauty is still based more on the narrow space of runway than the wide-open playing field.

Some of this is simply a matter of ignorance. In this country, women's athletics, with the exception of tennis, rarely make it onto national television. There are no professional women's football or baseball teams and the WNBA gets little or no prime-time play. 

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The U.S. continues to willfully ignore soccer in general and women's soccer in particular, except when it comes time for the Olympics or the World Cup, and honestly, if it weren't for the Olympics, would most of us even know there was a U.S. Women's hockey team?

Thanks to Jane Fonda's workout tapes and the rise of gym culture, certain muscle groups have been gradually introduced into the collective notion of attractiveness for both genders; men do not have a thigh-gap issue but they can easily be made slave to the six-pack, and not the fun kind. For a woman, though, this usually boils down to looking good in a tank top and comes as the result of a home gym or Pilates experience. Slender thighs, narrow hips and bony shoulders remain objects of general reverence.

There are notable exceptions, of course. Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, even the Kardashians continually defy the thigh-gap mentality. But the fact that these women are considered defiant or brave simply for not changing or apologizing for their body types tells you all you need to know: The thigh gap is winning.

Except in Sochi, where even the zero-body-fat grace of gold-medalist ice dancer Meryl Davis is anchored by some well-defined and powerful quads, the result of a thousand hours of practice and training, of a lifelong commitment to a beauty that is the result of strength, not the other way around.

Pre-Olympics, my daughter had found some solace in the hilarious videos of Soccergrlprobs, in which a few real soccer players address many issues, including the reality of soccer thighs. "All those wall-squats," a young woman moans as she writhes on the floor trying to get into her skinny jeans. "Why didn't I play tennis?

Last week, my daughter and I watched the women's luge. We wanted to see local girl Kate Hansen of La Cañada Flintridge, and we kept watching as Erin Hamlin became the first American to medal in the event.

More important, though, was the moment when having completed their amazing runs, each of these female athletes stood up in all their Lycra-ed muscular glory.

"Bet they don't worry about thigh gaps," my daughter said.

Nope, and they probably look great in skinny jeans too. Once they get them on.

[For the record, 6:25 p.m. PST Feb. 21: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the WBA. It is the WNBA.]


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