Every once and a while, a facial feature or body part nudges its way into the spotlight, proclaiming itself the new “ideal.”

Arms like Michelle Obama and full eyebrows are two we can totally get behind. Thigh gap, however, is one we definitely cannot. Not only does this bizarre body obsession promote terrible body confidence and dangerous disordered thinking, but trying to make your body shape something it’s not actually goes against science.

“We’re led to believe that any woman can get a thigh gap if they get skinny enough. Actually, the truth is, they can’t. And that’s OK.”

A thigh gap is the space left between your thighs when you stand with your feet together.
Basically, if your thighs don’t touch, you have thigh gap. If you don’t, apparently you’re supposed to desperately covet that small sliver of negative space and do everything in your power to get it. Misguided websites and books like “The Thigh Gap Hack” claim to give you all the secrets for how exactly to eat and exercise so that you can be the proud owner of separated thighs. The website even is encouraging as it states: “The truth is, technically, any woman can get a thigh gap if they lower their body fat and get skinny enough.” Actually, the truth is, they can’t. And that’s OK.

It’s structurally impossible for many women to “achieve” thigh gap.
“You’re born that way. It’s simply that,” notes Mary Jane Detroyer, New York City-based registered dietician and exercise physiologist. Just like you have a specific body type, you can work with the body frame you’ve been given, but you can’t flat out change it. “It’s purely the way your body is built,” she adds, specifically how you’re shaped and where your body naturally carries the most weight. Sure, if you put on a ton of weight and are suddenly above a healthy range, you could lose a thigh gap you once had. But you can’t change your genetics.

There are three kinds of body types:

ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph, pictured left to right, below. 

Patrick Lane/ScEyence Studios
Patrick Lane/ScEyence Studios

Most women are endomorphs—curvy, feminine and soft. Mesomorphs are muscular with a medium frame. And ectomorphs are slender, with lean muscles and minimal fat, good candidates for thigh gap. Depending on your genes, your body build will be one, or a combination, of these.

From there is gets even trickier, because we all wear our weight differently.

Some of us are blessed with love handles, others with pooch, others with arm jiggle or saddlebags or all the other adorably pseudonymed fat deposits we love to obsess about. If you’ve got a concentration of adipose tissue on your upper inner thighs, then, yeah, they’re probably going to touch. You also have to factor in hip width and the angle of the femur (thigh bone) into the equation. And what you’re left with are a million and one permutations of perfectly normal body shapes that may or may not allow for thigh gap.

beyonce thigh gap 250

Mainstream media, especially the way images and distorted information spreads on social media like wildfire, makes it seem like there’s an easy fix:

work harder, have more self control, lose more weight, get more gap. But promoting a body ideal that so many aren’t even capable of achieving structurally—even if they were to lose weight in an unhealthy way—just adds one more thing for women to worry is wrong with them. And those who already are self-conscious about their bodies don’t need anything extra to stress about.

“There’s some people who already have this kind of vulnerability that something like this can be really, really, incredibly challenging and maybe damaging to deal with,” notes YouBeauty Self-Image Expert Heather Quinlan. “Then there are some people more in the middle of the curve who feel OK about themselves usually, but every once and a while have a day where they feel bad, and this is just putting something else to feel bad about out there.”

The thigh gap obsession is just a more extreme version of women being unable to accept their body types.

“This is like if I’m upset because I’m not 6 feet tall,” says Quinlan. Anyone reading that would laugh; of course you can’t just will yourself to be taller. But when it comes to weight there’s a bit of a blurred line: you can always exercise more or cut back on eating. Some women end up striving for an ideal they can’t achieve—or one that would be incredibly unhealthy for them to achieve—and then beat themselves up when they can’t reach this unattainable goal.

If in the past you naturally had thighs that did not touch, but now do because you’ve gained an unhealthy amount of weight, then taking healthy measures to lose fat and tone your muscles is great. “But if you’re shooting for it because you read about it somewhere or someone made a comment, you may end up being dissatisfied your whole life because you can’t ever achieve this and you never feel good about yourself,” notes Detroyer.

InstagramThis past April, mainstream (and social) media obsessed over whether Beyonce photoshopped this picture she posted on Instagram while vacationing in the Dominican Republic.

elizabeth banks thigh gap 250

What about exercises that claim to give you thigh gap?

“People might say, ‘Well, do inner thigh work, squeeze your thighs,’ but you can’t spot reduce like that,” Detroyer says. You can certainly tone and strengthen those specific muscles (our squat challenge workout and inner thigh workouts are perfect for that!), but fat loss happens throughout your entire body, and you can’t just circle a section of your body to lose it from. The only way an exercise will separate your thighs, she says, is if you’re built to support gap, but are very weak. Then, toning your muscles with isometric workouts (“hold, squeeze, lift and lift”) can tighten the upper leg, pulling your thighs in and away from each other.

But that only applies to a pretty specific subset of women. To help dispel the myth that working out hard enough and doing magic thigh gap exercises will cause your legs to grow apart, consider this: Elizabeth Banks recently thanked her genes for her red-carpet-worthy body, further educating the masses that yes, your genes are responsible for much of your appearance. Yes, celebrities and supermodels train with the best trainers and have an ass-kicking workout schedule that gets them muscle definition, but their genes give them a big leg up.

The next time you hear someone pining for a space between her thighs, remember to think about it in an objective, factual way.

“In our current society, there’s always kind of an obsession with being thinner and thinner and thinner, and it’s great when once and a while the pendulum swings and being healthy and accepting of a bunch of different body types increases,” says Quinlan. That widespread acceptance starts with you accepting your own body type—touching or separated thighs, what have you. Instead of wishing you could magically have a new body build, focus on making the most of what you’ve got and take control of your own health and happiness in ways that are actually totally realistic and fulfilling.

Getty ImagesElizabeth Banks recently thanked her genes for her red-carpet-worthy body.