On TikTok, a number of tweens in the “Sephora generation” have recently made videos promoting “legging legs,” which is exactly as vile as it sounds: thin legs being the only ones that “look good” in leggings. There’s even a viral soundbite that goes with it: “Nothing in my life is fair,” Paris Geller says wistfully in Gilmore Girls. The text on one video reads: “When you see a girl with perfect legging legs.”
TikTok didn’t exist in 2013, but Tumblr did — and it provided a perfect breeding ground for eating disorders. Acquiescent teens began to glorify “Ana” — internet code for “anorexia.” Hashtags like #anorexi4, #an0rex1c and #sk1nny proliferated online by skirting around any censoring with its letter and number combinations and put countless adolescents at risk. Although much progress has been made since then, “legging legs” is a regressive idea that threatens to dismantle the body-positive messages of today.
Luckily, many TikTokers feel the same way. An outpouring of millennials and older Gen Zers criticising legging legs are bucking the original trend: “Do we understand what we are doing to the younger generation of women?” Emily Pearl, a social media consultant and content creator, asked in a video. “Do we understand that there are 15-year-old girls that wear leggings every single day that now feel that they cannot wear leggings because they don’t have legging legs?”
Some people have smartly tried to explain the trend away: “Just a little reminder in case you’re on TikTok today and are confused as to what legging legs are, I’m going to clear it up! If you own a pair of leggings and you have some legs — it doesn’t matter what size or shape they are — leggings and legs are legging legs! That’s it,” online fitness coach Molly Ava said.
Backlash videos like these are a welcome change from the Tumblr era. The fact that the vitriolic response to legging legs is now louder than the original trend is evidence that TikTok need not be a vehicle for toxicity — it can be leveraged as a powerful tool against it.
Of course, the desire to be skinny predates the internet. TV ads and magazines have long promoted unrealistic body image standards. But social media has been a catalyst like no other. For example, teens today do not only compare themselves to stick-thin models on Instagram, they judge their bodies against the filtered highlight reels of their peers — classmates and friends they’ve grown up with.
Today, an estimated 9% of Americans — 28.8 million people — will develop an eating disorder (ED) in their lifetime, a figure that has grown almost three-fold since the dot-com bubble peaked in 2000. These disorders often follow a person through life, putting not only their physical body in peril, but also their mental health, personal relationships and even bank accounts.
According to a recent study by STRIPED, Harvard’s Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, EDs hurt an individual’s ability to function, resulting in absenteeism, presenteeism, disability and even premature death. More than 10,000 American lives are lost each year to the illness, equaling one death every 52 minutes.
Beyond the individual level, there’s a societal cost when negative trends that promote body dysmorphia win. Between 2018 and 2019, eating disorders cost the US economy $64.7 billion — almost $12,000 per person with the illness.
Although it initially seemed like TikTok was risking a repeat of the abhorrent “thigh gap” trend of the early 2010s, the widespread retaliation against legging legs is a welcome sign of evolution. The fact that so many women were willing to openly speak out against the dangers of the trend shows that the internet has evolved and learned a lot since my days in high school.
Aspiring to unhealthy standards is neither cool nor trendy, which is a positive thing not just for young women on TikTok, but for society as a whole.