The Internet is notoriously a place of tricksters. From Photoshopped pictures to embellished social network profiles, to more sinister kinds of personality fraud, the World Wide Web can be a tangle of fakery. Fact is often hard to unpick from fiction. Yet even when cynicism and scepticism are recommended as the most sensible approaches to all virtually found information, it seems we are still easily hooked and duped. Despite 'catfish' becoming a term almost as widely accepted as 'selfie', wolfish online realms still seem able to don all-too-convincing sheepskins. Only this week sites were made to look like early April Fools over reporting of an apparently new Internet hashtag and obsessive trend - the 'bikini bridge'.
Thinspiration blogs (which, for the uninitiated in this murky online world, are full of weight loss tips, photos of skinny girls with jutting hipbones and swathes of 'motivational' before and afters) were populated by a new selfie meme in the last couple of weeks, which focused on a slim woman's bikini-ed crotch. Specifically, the gap formed as her exposed hipbones pushed her bikini bottoms fractionally above her midriff. This is the latest 'gap' to be broadcast as a desirable female attribute; the bikini bridge is the younger sibling of the thigh gap and it shares the same bodily obsessed, low self-esteem DNA.
But, hey, it's okay - these photos, which often appeared accompanied by taglines such as 'they called me fat, so I built a bridge to get over it', are just a trick. The bikini bridge trend was all a hoax. It was a funny bit of fakery, a joke, a mockery of our general gullibility and an example of the Internet's rapid generative power. It was an experiment of sorts, which has now revealed itself. So that's fine, right?
Well, no, not really. Because the trouble with Internet fakery, as opposed to old school, real life tricks, is that when hoaxes are confined solely to the virtual world, they can rapidly become just as real as any other virtual information. A meme's power is it's uncontrollable nature; once released into the online ether, it is almost impossible to contain and easily categorise. Celebrities and politicians alike have felt the power of the Internet, as stories about them, embarrassing photos, or inadvertent slips of the tongue have spiralled out of control on a variety of online platforms. And while superimposing the image of Boris Johnson dangling from a zip wire may be entertaining in any context, other, potentially false, memes can be more malicious and harmful. Drawing clear lines over what is a self-occurring trend and what has been planted is difficult once the original seed has been submerged by rapidly reproducing copies.
Once the term exists, so does whatever the term defines. It doesn't matter whether the anonymous users of 4chan who apparently masterminded the dispersal of photos, references, Facebook pages and hashtags deem the bikini bridge their creation - and a fake one at that - it now has a definite online presence. In 24 hours the term was retweeted almost 3000 times. It currently yields over 180 million Google search results. While some of these are articles announcing the spread of the term as harmless fun, many are the thinspiration sites initially targeted by the hoax, which have now claimed this 'trend' as their own. Some are the more deeply worrying 'pro-ana' sites, which make no attempt to hide the potential link between those seeking skinny encouragement and those with anorexic disorders. These dark and disturbed webpages actively promote what they like to term 'the anorexic lifestyle' - and into this they have only too easily accepted the drive towards a bikini bridge.
This hoax may purport to play on our collective gullibility and Twitter-trigger happiness, but it actually plays straight into the mental vulnerability of our society's young women, who are already overly bombarded by images of hollow cheekbones, washboard stomachs and thighs that don't meet. It is hardly newsworthy that this hoax had us collectively fooled. We are used to female bodies being scrutinised part by part and for the general message behind this scrutiny being a push to slim down, hollow out, even to disappear. The thigh gap trend is after all, all too real. While the virtual desperation expressed on thinspiration sites might be material for mockery for some outside eyes, the reality of young girls doing all they can to shave off guilty centimetres from their legs is far from funny.
Concave midriffs are the last things that are needed in a climate that can relate self-starvation to sensible day-to-day decision-making, let alone any kind of glamorous lifestyle choice. We want our young women to be strong and confident, not focused on hollowing successive body parts. It is the responsibility of all of us to build people up, not chisel them away.