Sochi Olympics

Members of Germany's team that won the gold medal in the Women's Luge Singles event. (Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images / February 11, 2014)

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.


FOR THE RECORD:
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?