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.