I was 10 when Suzanne Somers debuted ThighMaster in 1991. I hadn’t yet spotted the first patches of cellulite on my upper legs, but I was keenly aware of the way they expanded whenever I sat down. So I perked up whenever Ms. Somers would promote her fitness gadget on television, telling viewers with a twinkle in her eye, “We may not have been born with great legs, but now we can look like we were.”
Ms. Somers, a sitcom actress who died last Sunday, embodied its promise: In commercials and infomercials, she presented her own slim legs as proof of the resistance gadget’s powers. “I used to do aerobics ’til I dropped,” she told viewers. “Then I found ThighMaster.”
It was savvy marketing: For decades, women shared a mounting collective anxiety that any set of thighs bigger or more dimpled than a Barbie doll’s was a problem, in need of fixing. “There’s something that’s very unruly about jiggly, fatty bits of us,” said Heather Radke, the author of the cultural history book “Butts: A Backstory.” Society, she added, has long tried to “turn them into shapes that they are not naturally.”
The anxiety about thighs persists for many women today. But where did it come from?
Until the mid-20th century, women mostly hid their legs under skirts. But as hemlines rose in the 1960s, women’s magazines began advising that readers get to work. “Until now, it was fairly easy to find clothes that helped you hide figure faults,” Ladies’ Home Journal noted in 1965. “But today’s pared-down, knee-baring fashions have you out in the open now, and the only thing to do is Shape Up Fast.”
The era also saw the explosion of form-fitting jeans. In 1969, Levi Strauss & Co. released its first women’s wear line, which called new attention to a woman’s thighs.
As thighs became increasingly public, they turned into a source of dissatisfaction for some women. In 1968, Vogue became the first English-language magazine to publish the word “cellulite,” introducing it into the cultural vocabulary. And in the early 1980s, the rise of gyms and aerobics classes — where attendees sported skintight workout wear — promised to help women burn their legs into submission. “Thunder thighs” became an insult.
Sabrina Strings, a professor of Black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in an email that her extensive research into the racial origins of fat phobia reveals that this idealization of thin thighs also reflected deeply ingrained beauty standards that are biased against Black bodies. In 19th century America, she said, women with fair skin and thin bodies were held up as the ideal. Still today, she said, “whether women’s thighs are meant to be taut or not, mass culture says they’d better be thin.”
As women fretted more over their thighs, the fitness industry began offering remedies that only reinforced their worries. In one 1989 gym commercial that was emblematic of the era, a crowd flees from a movie theater as a blob “oozes menacingly through the doors,” according to a New York Times article. “A puckish narrator asks, ‘Thighs getting out of control?’”
Two years later, the ThighMaster hit the market. Since then, more than 10 million units have been sold — making Ms. Somers and her husband, who helped brand the product, tens of millions of dollars.
In the book “Where the Girls Are,” published in 1994, the media scholar Susan J. Douglas noted that part of the appeal of so-called flawless thighs was the reality that, for most adult women — who are biologically predisposed to collect fat on their thighs — molding them into a socially celebrated form was an incredibly difficult, if not impossible, feat. “Perfect thighs, in other words, were an achievement, a product, and one to be admired and envied,” she wrote.
Ms. Somers personified that pressure — when she promised women “great legs,” she implied that legs that were less toned, smooth and shapely than hers required work. But her life — as a celebrity in the business of being professionally beautiful, with the time and money to hone her figure — didn’t reflect the reality of many women trying to tame their thighs. Nor was there evidence that the ThighMaster actually gave women the gams of their dreams: Despite the focus on fixing so-called problem areas, exercise physiologists caution that “spot toning” alone produces little change.
The decades that followed gave rise to an obsession over the “thigh gap” — maintaining thighs so slim that they don’t touch — and the demonization of “hip dips,” or indents where the hips meet the upper thighs.
Social media has reinforced many of these ideas, with influencers offering ways to smooth one’s thighs, often under the guise of creating “long, lean muscles.” But in recent years, it has also been used to advertise a new set of products to help women live happily with the thighs they have, like the anti-chafing shorts and balms that I now swear by.
For me, these products aren’t about “mastering” my thighs the way Ms. Somers might have wanted. They are just about feeling more comfortable in my own skin.