Behind the calm exterior of millions of seemingly sane American women lurks a raging obsession so severe it clouds all common sense.
It's called "thigh anxiety"--that fear and worry about the current or future terrain of one's upper gams, their total land mass, their wrinkles and dimples, their bumps and lumps and cottage-cheese ripples.
Thigh anxiety knows few boundaries, striking women of all locales, sizes and races, in many cases exceeding concern with breasts, knees, tummies, waists, buttocks or turkey necks. (Men either don't care or don't get it.)
And if you think this thing is imagined, guess again--industry insiders say thigh cream sales for this year will top $90 million.
Another shocking figure: Thighs account for about one-fourth of a woman's body weight.
Glenna Matthews, a UC Berkeley research associate who has written three books about the politics of being female, says it's usually at about age 30 that thigh jitters fully storm in.
Says Matthews: "It's terrifying to see flabby thighs appear because of the weight they carry in the rest of a woman's world. It instills rage and anxiety."
And Matthews says Californians are among the leaders of this thundering thigh herd.
"It's in California that youth and physical beauty are social markers and entrees," she says. "They take the place of family connections, what prep school you went to and economic status. This creates a democracy for those who are sufficiently good-looking, but it also creates heightened anxiety about the decay of physical beauty."
Take the case of Lisa, 42, a 5-foot, 7-inch, 122-pound mother of two who on many accounts has everything going for her--everything, she says, except her thighs.
She's embarrassed to admit it, and asked that her last name be withheld, but the reality is that she's had a three-phased thigh liposuction, walks with hand weights an hour each day, eats with fat-free thighs in mind, employs a personal trainer and dabs on thigh cream called Inches Away--which she also sells via a multilevel marketing company--once or twice a day.
"I've made it a lifetime study--these thighs," she says, adding that she's a transplanted New Yorker, and "suffered there as well."
Are hers thunder thighs? Have men shunned her saddlebags?
No. Lisa's childhood was happy, she's always been able to attract men and she's a Size 6.
"If you saw me in a long skirt with a belt at the waist, you'd think I was extra thin," she says. "But if you saw me in a bathing suit, you'd say 'poor thing.' It's my thighs--they're bigger than they should be. My thighs have a life of their own."
She sighs. "I know that at the age of 42 I should've accepted the fact I don't have great thighs, but I can't. It's always in the back of my mind that I haven't done enough, that someday I'll figure out the secret and my thighs will go away."
And then there's Marla Miller Mazura, a Newport Beach society columnist in her 40s. She's of "normal weight" and considers herself a feminist, but she still worries about her thighs.
"I can't help myself," she says. "It's the only part of my body that I've ever worried about."
Why? Because they're exposed, she says. "I've always been obsessed about my thighs because my mother always said the legs are the last to go. I like my legs and I want to keep liking them."
She laughs. "I look at other people and compare (thigh) dimples," she says, segueing into a story about the time she saw actress Geena Davis on a late-night talk show.
"There she was with her perfect lips and her beautiful face. She sits down in this gorgeous white mini-dress, crosses her legs and there were her dimples. At 12 o'clock midnight, I was thrilled."
Biologically speaking, fat distribution in women is concentrated in the upper arms, hips, breasts and thighs, whereas in men, extra fat tends to settle in the abdomen and scalp areas.
Victor Katch, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan, says for an average woman who weighs 125 pounds, 22.8% of her body weight is in her thighs.
So why was Mother Nature so generous with women's thighs?
"We can invent all kinds of reasons," says Prof. Emeritus Stanley M. Garn, a University of Michigan physical anthropologist and nutritionist. "One is that fat storage is useful for nursing children," he says. "But we may be throwing an invalid explanation at the data."
He adds: "Peak lean body mass is at age 25. After that, supportive tissue decreases. Then again, I know people in their 50s who (then) drop like a tweed suit that's been washed."
He attributes worry about fat thighs to self-obsession.
"Narcissism enables people to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to have more or less fat or move it around," he says. "You're with yourself around 24 hours a day . . . for people who don't have other things to do, it's a natural to put (focus) on this."
He stresses that our cultural obsession with fat is nothing new.