Cellulite won’t hurt you, but the ‘treatments’ might

Cellulite. It’s the bane of every woman’s existence, or so we’ve been told repeatedly.  Do a search for “cellulite” on the internet and the first thing you’ll see are pages upon pages of treatments.  Oprah.com has an article about the “cellulite cure.”  Self promotes “5 simple ways to cellulite-free skin.”  Dr. Oz calls it the “number one skin complaint” of women, and ranks treatments from most effective to least. Even the Mayo Clinic includes a section on their website about treatments for cellulite, which they admit mostly “do not live up to their claims,” but do not fear! “Researchers are studying possible medical treatments.”

I did not have to possess advanced google-fu to find information about treatments for cellulite, but what has been really challenging to find has been any discussion of possible adverse health effects of cellulite.  I did find this post from the Cellulite Investigation talking about painful cellulite but that’s it.  Most reputable medical sources talk about cellulite in terms of the fact that it is not considered aesthetically pleasing, which causes a lot of stress and anxiety for a lot of women, many of whom say they won’t even wear shorts in public because they are so ashamed, which in turn has given rise to a multibillion dollar industry of anti-cellulite treatments.

It’s interesting to me that so much money and attention is being focused on a “disease” which, as Juniper Ross writes for Yahoo!, didn’t really exist prior to the 1960s:

On April 15, 1969, Vogue magazine published an article describing cellulite as an increasingly common skin disease, and advertising solutions to “cure” this imagined problem. The term “cellulite” existed within a medical context, to describe the secondary sex characteristic, beginning in the 1920s, but practitioners did not regard it as a disease or a problem. Today, many women believe that they have a skin condition because of visible cellulite. In fact, these people are simply displaying normal traits associated with womanhood.

It’s a fascinating example of the way capitalism and beauty standards colluded to pathologize something experienced by the vast majority of women (and  a lot of men, too).  And yes, cellulite is something that most women have.  Amber at Go Kaleo has been writing about the science behind cellulite, making the point that this condition that is framed as being in desperate need of treatment is actually an anatomical fact of life for us ladies.  She goes on to write:

Cellulite is a normal function of the way women’s bodies store fat. 80-90% of women have cellulite to some degree. Lean women have cellulite, healthy women have cellulite, vegan women have cellulite, paleo women have cellulite, celebrities have cellulite, body builders have cellulite, bikini models have cellulite, women in isolated cultures who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle have cellulite, women with access to unlimited amounts of plastic surgery have cellulite. Most of the women reading this have cellulite. You’re not flawed. You’re normal.

By the way, I’m one of those women.  If you’ve been following my blog for any period of time, you know that I am very physically active, I make an effort to eat healthfully (even though I don’t follow a particular style of eating), I drink plenty of water, I lift all the weights, I’m thin with low-ish body fat, and my once-rampant vices  have now shrunk to include nightly glasses of wine, a weekly cheeseburger and diet soda.  My numbers are always excellent, my doctors always tell me I’m in great health, I’m basically the picture of physical health.  And yet there it is – cellulite on my booty.

But at the same time I’m aware that it’s easier for me to overlook my cellulite because, for one, my cellulite is rather minor, and two, I am conventionally attractive in that I am thin, able-bodied, young-ish, white, etc. etc. I know that for a lot of other women, this is a legitimate source of anxiety for them.  I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s one of those things that is totally understandable considering that we live in a society in which most of our exposure to women’s bodies is heavily mediated via Photoshop, make-up and expert lighting and photography.  Not to mention clueless people like this magnanimous fella who wrote into Dear Prudence last year to say that he found his wife’s thighs to be a turnoff  – but it’s “not a deal killer”! how lucky for his wife – and he wanted to know how best to bring up the possibility of cellulite treatments.

So I think I understand the anxiety, even though it is one I have somehow managed to elude this far in my life.  But what really bothers me is that this anxiety, which you could argue – as both Go Kaleo and Juniper Ross do – that it is artificially generated, means many women are ripe to be exploited by unscrupulous charlatans, many of whom promote the aforementioned treatments that are at best useless and at worst utterly dangerous.

Now, I’m not talking about the treatments that are just basic good sense, like eating a diet that consists mainly quality whole foods and making sure you are adequately hydrated.  I see a lot of anti-cellulite tips like these, and I have no beef with them (beyond that they supposedly purport to defeat cellulite). Rather, I’m talking about the creams and wraps whose effects fade after a few days or weeks, which conveniently means the woman must continue to buy the product or service.  These treatments seem to be relatively harmless (although one’s bank account might beg to differ).  Amber at Go Kaleo cites a study by Dr. Molly Wanner in which she comes to the conclusion that “[t]he best of the currently available treatments have, at most, shown mild improvements in the appearance of cellulite, most of which are not maintained over time.”

I’m not sure the same could be said for a treatment like Cellulaze, through which a woman can hand over enough money to pay for a trip to New Zealand so she can have her cellulite zapped with a special laser. Some women swear by it, but another woman says it left her thighs looking like “holes had been carved out by a potato peeler.”  Putting aside the fact that it doesn’t seem to be have been peer-reviewed by scientists yet, the price tag alone – $6,500 is the cost cited by the New York Times – should be enough to give one pause.

Mesotherapy is another popular treatment for cellulite, which basically involves injecting various combinations of pharmaceuticals, vitamins, plant extracts and who knows what else into subcutaneous fat.  Medical professionals – including the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and the Academy of Dermatology – are wary of it. And the FDA doesn’t regulate it, which is incredibly scary considering that this stuff is being injected directly into people’s bodies. In 2004, dermasurgeon Naomi Lawrence told USA Today that “no one says exactly what they put into the (syringe).”  In at least one case, a Utah woman filed a lawsuit, alleging the mystery miracle injections gave her heart palpitations, lumps, hot flashes and intense pain.  You can read more about mesotherapy at Quackwatch.

Maybe one of the most egregious examples of the legitimization of this non-treatment treatment comes in the form of this article from Scientific American, which gave a platform to Lionel Bissoon, who runs a mesotherapy clinic, wrote a book called The Cellulite Cure and appears to basically be the go-to guy for any media outlets in search of a sound bite in favor of mesotherapy (among other things).  Among other bits of information he disseminated in his SA article, Bissoon cited homeopathy and thong-wearing (!!) as treatments for cellulite and wrote, erroneously, that women in developing countries don’t have cellulite.  (Wrong!)  Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson ably dismantles this guy, and gives him the excellent nickname “Doctor MagicWater” in the process.

Granted, no one has actually died from mesotherapy (although developing skin abscesses and mycobacterial infection doesn’t sound like a day at the beach either). You can’t say the same about liposuction, which remains one of the most popular treatments for the condition.  The death rate is relatively low – I think the most recent numbers are 1 out of 50,000 cosmetic procedures results in death – but it is an actual thing that happens, and even to high-profile women, who you would assume would have access to the best care possible.  And yet it happens, because surgery of any kind, especially when they put you under general anesthetic so they can cut your body open, is serious shit that is not to be taken lightly.

So, to summarize: women are handing over fistfuls of hard-earned money so they can undergo treatments that might not even work and that could actually disfigure or kill them, and all for a condition most women have that is widely acknowledged to be harmless.

Surely I am not the only one who thinks this is sheer madness.

We can look back derisively at Victorian times with their arsenic-laced face powders or the practice of Chinese foot binding and act as though we’ve come so far since then, but the fact remains that as long as a normal part of female anatomy is considered so problematic that women are willing to subject themselves to god knows what for the sake of even temporary relief from it – well, it’s hard to say that we’ve really come all that far.

37 responses to “Cellulite won’t hurt you, but the ‘treatments’ might

  1. All the things you said. Cellulite = a normal way women store fat. Cellulite isn’t cause for violent surgical intervention any more than normal-sized feet were cause for mutilation throughout 800+ years of Chinese history, etc.

  2. Still trying to become okay with the cellulite I have. Even though I know it’s normal and fine, it’s still extremely unsightly to me and makes me sad when I see it on myself. Trying to read more of these kinds of articles and hope to change my views!

  3. I’m always very wary of anything that has “not been evaluated by the FDA.” It’s not been evaluated because it’s not real! You can see all the warning signs in the language they use in the advertisements: “improves the appearance of” or “you will feel more youthful.” Phrases that are very carefully selected to be not legally definable.

    This is not exactly the same thing, but I highly recommend a fascinating documentary that examines the way pharmaceutical industries try to turn a non-existent condition into a medically defined disorder, so that they can sell drugs to “treat” it: Orgasm, Inc. I saw it on Netflix, so it’s pretty widely available.

  4. A-fucking-men. I remember being freaked out when I first developed it in my teens. But thankfully, somewhere and somehow (I can’t remember) I had access to that 80-90% stat you quoted, and I though “Huh, if so many of us have it, it can’t be that bad.”

    For me it’s another example of how women’s bodies are culturally pathologised. For Western world example, probably no-one gave a shit about “bikini lines” when bathing suits were different.

    I wish sceptical thinking skills were more of a feature for health products in general, too.

  5. I always really enjoy your blog, and this post is no exception! Great article, thank you!

  6. Great post. I’ve been working on a lot of body issues lately, and this was a really good reminder that a lot of what we think has more to do with marketing than with fact. Thanks for the good information!

  7. Great post! Fun fact: I have MORE cellulite now that I am in better shape. I have less overall body fat and more muscle, but my butt is dimplier, especially when I flex it. I don’t know if it is related, or just has to do with not being a teenager anymore, but I don’t really care.

  8. I don’t understand going under the knife for anything that isn’t going to A. repair an injury, B. remove something that is hurting me, or C. save my life, so I don’t get the concept of any plastic surgery, least of all on something that I can’t even see in a mirror. I don’t understand the obsession with cellulite, either. You can’t see it! Are women just constantly posing backwards in front of mirrors obsessing over their thighs?

  9. Some lines just shouldn’t be crossed in the name of beauty. Constant photoshopping doesn’t help create the image of the perfect dimple free thighs. Wish magazines wouldn’t be allowed to do so.

  10. The sheer amount of money (mostly men) make making women hate ourselves is unbelievable. Body hair, cellulite, grey hair, wrinkles,cellulite all natural occurrences that apparently must be dealt. Preferably by spending lots of money. It is not necessary.

    • Citing the deluded dude mentioned in the article who asked Prudie about getting his wife to de-cellulite herself (wondering if he might chip in for that?) – I might also point out that pathologizing something like cellulite (or pubic hair!) seems to now be detrimental to MEN, TOO. Even if it’s only their aesthetic senses being offended, I think it’s legit to feel sorry for them that they have this new thing to stress about: “My girlfriend has cellulite/pubic hair/thigh touching! =mark of ill health/poor fitness/poor hygiene in some indefinable way!” where actually if dudes were just aware of women’s physical reality, they’d probably be pretty damn happy with their partners’ (and potential partners’) personal aesthetics.

      • I’ve known men in my life – in my case they have been mostly younger men who watched a lot of mainstream porn – who were baffled, and even grossed out, by certain realities of women’s bodies. (For instance, butt hair.) Basing one’s knowledge of human bodies to what one sees on TV or in magazines is a sure way to never, ever be satisfied with the flesh and blood women in front of you, and yeah, that can really be alienating. Hopefully guys who insist on holding their female partners to these kinds of standards will mature and let go of those ideals without damaging too many women in the process.

  11. No one but me, can make me hate myself -and until all women say enough of this crap it will continue. If women keep spending the money the “conditions” will continue. I cracked up the first time I saw a commercial telling me my arm-pits should look a certain way. I hope women will start pushing back and holding the message spreaders accountable;Oprah, Dr. Oz, magazines, television talk shows, any one spewing hatred for women’s bodies, for our daughters sake.

  12. I used to not wear shorts because of cellulite on my legs. Oh the sweaty, hot summers I suffered through in jeans. But i’d heard my dad picking on my mom for it when I was a kid, plus all the ads wanting to help rid me of it, I internalized all of it. Eventually, like with many other things, I just said “Fuck it”. But I worked briefly at a spa that offered body wraps, one of which purported to reduce cellulite and take off inches. It was a cream heavy in cassia and niacin that tingled an sort of burned, and they wrapped you in Saran wrap, and stuck you under a heat lamp. Clients tended to be happy with the results, but it wasn’t FDA approved, and it was $100 a pop, and only lasted for a couple weeks. Very woo-woo, considering the same company that supplied it put out a ‘cleanse’ that had you not eating, and drinking only lemon water and takinng their supplement pills for a week. People reportedly lost ten pounds in a week, probably by not eating for a week.

  13. I generally think that a high amount of anxiety directed toward a particular physical flaw is just the manifestation of generally low self esteem. Or in this case maybe generally low body dissatisfaction. We fixate on something because we need an outlet for the negative energy. So maybe the “cure” for cellulite is to work on accepting your body in general. Or better yet, working on liking your body enough that you don’t give a crap about your cellulite.

  14. I agree it is madness. I remember being in the gym about 15 years ago when I was about 30, I was a sensible weight and fit enough, running 50 miles a week. I was on the step machine when some teenage girls came up behind me and said ‘Ew look at her cellulite’. Now I am not sensitive enough for it to have affected how I behave or dress, but I did remember it…

  15. The sad thing is, it seems women are supposed to stay forever 20 years old – just old enough to be ogled without the pedophile label, and young enough to not have natural aging characteristics yet… The acceptance of photoshopping everyone into sleeker, glamourous ideals for public media has taught us all to expect a certain form of beauty, thus EVERYONE is now ugly. (this also applies to men and children..)

    • Exactly. Women aren’t the only ones who experience this, and you see this with the increasing levels of body dissatisfaction with men and kids. What I find particularly sadistic is the way certain women are held up as our ideals to aspire to look like, but then photos of them without makeup or showing their cellulite* or whatever are splashed all over magazine covers, like “Ha! Not even these beautiful women are pretty enough!”

      *I actually kind of like those features because they do show how much artifice goes into presenting the public image of female celebrities, but I hate the sort of “gotcha!” attitude with which they are so often presented, like they have been caught being sneaky and deceptive instead of just being normal human beings.

  16. I didn’t learn what cellulite was until I was an adult, maybe even out of college. I have some, though! (Don’t know how long I’ve had it because it’s hard to see; impossible to see unless you know exactly what it is).

    (And I loved the explanation for its dimpled appearance at Go Kaleo. I did not know that our skin was actually tethered to the underlying muscle.)

  17. Thanks for this post, I actually remembered it this morning when I caught sight of my cellulite and my previous pride in having completed a hard spin class with my dodgy ankle disappeared immediately. Then I thought of this article and thought ‘f*!@ it!’ I should still be proud. Thanks again.

  18. I have cellulite. Tons of it. I also have stretch marks galore (since I was a teen), and dark circles under my eyes. Life goes on. 🙂

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  20. Even slim gals have thigh cellulite. They do.

    We have to move, though. Time to go bike riding and have fun.

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  22. “We can look back derisively at Victorian times with their arsenic-laced face powders or the practice of Chinese foot binding and act as though we’ve come so far since then, but the fact remains that as long as a normal part of female anatomy is considered so problematic that women are willing to subject themselves to god knows what for the sake of even temporary relief from it – well, it’s hard to say that we’ve really come all that far.”

    Completely and utterly right. We are still enslaved….. BUt hopefully we have the awareness to shake off our shackles !

  23. AMEN! I was a figure skater and ice dancer throughout my childhood and teen years. I skated about 30 hours/week during the school year and 50 hours/week during the summers and on vacations, and studied ballet, biked, swam, and did aerobics for cross-training. I was 5’9″ tall with a 23″ waist – people called me “string bean.” And I had cellulite. I’m actually glad that I discovered it when I was 16, because my own body pretty effectively proved that everything I had been told about cellulite (that it was a skin condition/disease that affected [afflicted?] inactive, middle-aged women – gosh, what a load of tripe!!) was complete and utter crap. And I’ve never really troubled myself over it since.

    • I’m glad you learned that lesson as early as you did and without having to go through the “omg what’s wrong with my bodyyyyy” phase to get there. I was a pretty active teenager – although not nearly as active as you! – and I had it, too. Sadly I didn’t have the self-possession to realize that it was normal, but then I had a lot of self-esteem things going on at the time and cellulite was just part and parcel of that for me.

  24. The thing that struck me the most about your post is that this “disease” didn’t exist prior to the 1960’s—-interesting! ….I’m sure I have cellulite too…I’ve just never looked at my derrier in the mirror! …Maybe that’s a good thing though! 😉

  25. I’m only 18 and find it hard to work out with the multitude of medical conditions I have(but I do try to get to the gym 2-3 times a week.) One of the things I’m being hounded on to work on, by my mother no less, is my legs and butt because of the cellulite I have. It’s something she always pokes fun at and must comment on and I always look into the mirror and feel it’s amplified after one of her particularly nasty comments.

    I didn’t realize it was such a common and natural occurrence in women and to such extensive, yet normal(!) amounts. It’s definitely relieving to hear.

  26. a GREAT post about one more whip for women to get them to hate themselves. And it’s all about how we look to men. At the heart of all the concern over cellulite is not “Is my body healthy?” but “OMG, what will my (male) partner think?”. I seriously doubt he’ll lose his hard-on over it, and if he does, well…. kinda limpy, don’t you think? When you are with your friends, do you want to run home at the sight of another woman’s cellulite? I didn’t realize cellulite is so, so common nor did I realize it’s considered a disease. DISEASE?! What a convenient label for all the industries that benefit from women’s self-hatred. Thanks for this smart, educational post. I learned a lot, especially that this is a great blog.

    • I’m glad to hear that you learned a lot from this. I learned a lot while researching it, and like you I was completely appalled by the idea that cellulite is a disease. Like, it’s no longer a cosmetic concern, it’s HEALTH. SMDH.

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