A social media trend encouraging women and girls to compare the look of their legs in leggings has prompted warnings from experts and led to the associated hashtag being banned on TikTok.
Warning: This article mentions eating disorders.
The “legging legs” trend was gaining traction on TikTok until the platform redirected all searches for it to eating disorder resources.
The videos largely involved women and girls sharing their concerns that their legs didn’t look good in leggings, and attracted the ire of many social media users.
It has also been labelled as the Gen Z version of the “thigh gap” or “bikini bridge” movements that plagued Millennials in the 2000s and 2010s.
Australian fitness and lifestyle influencer Steph Claire Smith was among those to criticise the trend.
“I remember being obsessed with having a thigh gap … because social media told me that that was what was attractive,” she said.
“If you have legs, and you’ve got a pair of leggings on, you have legging legs.
“Don’t worry what the internet is saying.”
Trends can promote ‘unachievable ideal’
Experts said social media played a large role in shaping attitudes, particularly around body image.
Lauren Gurrieri, an associate professor of marketing at Melbourne’s RMIT, has researched how idealised body standards spread on social media.
She said young people turned to social media for information and cues about their body.
“When people consume content like this, it communicates a message that they need to engage in body work in order to achieve a specific and possibly unachievable ideal,” Dr Gurrieri said.
She also said users could buy into the trendiness of a hashtag.
“But a term like ‘leggings legs’ is simply code for skinny or thinness,” Dr Gurrieri said.
Dr Gurrieri said while there had been some social shifts towards more body positivity and diversity, there were still prevailing ideals around smaller body sizes for women.
“What is particularly interesting about such an ideal, is that it shifts cultural messages beyond generalised ideals of body perfection,” she said.
“Being thin isn’t enough, you have to strive to achieve very specific ideals of perfection related to a part of your body.
“In this case, it’s having legging legs, in the past we have seen the same pressures for women to achieve a thigh gap or bikini bridge.
“They are very specific ideals related to women’s bodies that foster new ideologies of attractiveness.”
Trends promote ‘narrow idea of beauty’
Melissa Wilton, head of communications at the Butterfly Foundation — a non-profit providing support for people with eating disorders or body image issues said social media trends were “extremely dangerous”.
“They portray a very narrow ideal of beauty and suggest that the perfect body exists, while also enforcing the belief that your appearance or body is what makes you worthy,” Ms Wilton said.
Research from the Butterfly Foundation in 2022 indicated that almost half of Australian teenagers said social media made them feel dissatisfied with their body.
“Research shows that the more a person internalises these unrealistic body and appearance ideals, the more likely they are to experience body dissatisfaction which can lead to the development of disordered eating and eating disorders,” Ms Wilton said.
Eating disorder research fellow at not-for-profit mental health service Orygen and the University of Melbourne Stephanie Miles said young people could be particularly vulnerable.
“When you’re a bit older to you tend not to care as much, but when you’re young, you worry what your peers think of you and how they’re judging you,” she said.
“It can feel like your appearance at that age can say something about your worth as a person.”
Call for content to be removed by platforms
Eating disorder advocate and recovery coach Lexi Crouch – who has lived experience of an eating disorder – said these trends were no different to the diet culture norms of the 2000s.
“The underlying message is that these trends haven’t gone away, they’re just showing up through a different broadcast system,” she said.
“Social media has become a world of its own and we don’t have the boundaries or control for anyone [accessing the content], they’re not at an age where they can decipher it.”
Ms Crouch said these trends also undid progress made to reduce the prevalence of eating disorders.
“I see this so much in my line of work where we’re wanting to do better and we’re wanting to make the change,” she said.
“But the reality is, we have this snowball effect of social media, the information is in front of our youth right away.”
Ms Crouch wants to see platforms remove potentially problematic content.
“If we can get that [content] up there, we can equally take that down,” she said.
But Ms Crouch said she was still hopeful these trends would die off.
“It’s all about getting the message across there that these are fads, they come and go and we really need to focus on the longevity and the health of everybody,” she said.
The ABC contacted TikTok for comment.