Stylist investigates when cellulite became a thing of shame and implores us to reclaim it.
I first became aware of the concept of cellulite at the age of 12: the ‘orange peel’ effect that made perfectly serviceable thighs seem somehow gross and unsightly. I knew – from TV, teen magazines and girls at school – that this type of fat was unacceptable, not fit for display, a source of shame.
Even now, some magazines still publish pictures with glaring red circles drawn around the dimpled stomachs and backsides of celebrities. Search for the term on Instagram and, alongside a few #effyourbeautystandards body positivity posts, there are reams dedicated to self-loathing. Selfies with captions like, “Still got a way to go before I beat the #cellulite”; those mid-body transformation typing, “Hate the stubborn #cellulite.” It’s always women.
Creams, infrared treatments and specialist massages make up an anti-cellulite industry worth $845m (£663m) and forecast to grow by almost 8% over the next 10 years. We wage so many wars on the rolling hills of our bodies.
And I must have gleaned from one of these sources that dry body brushing was a way to eradicate cellulite. So, aged 13, I went to work. Now it’s a ritual which, if I’m honest with myself, is plainly absurd (I am, after all, standing in the bathroom, buffing my arse with an old scrubbing brush). That body brush is hard evidence that despite the fact that – to quote writer Roxane Gay – “I’m a feminist and […] I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance”, my body is still my battleground and cellulite is the current duel.
Is cellulite bad?
An estimated 80 to 90% of women have cellulite – almost all of us. Some beauty companies claim that it’s the result of toxin build-up, but studies have shown that it is just fat. Biologically indistinguishable from any other kind of fat, and not even directly related to dress size. Instead, it’s the layer that everyone has just below their skin. How visible it is depends on our genes. We get that dimpled effect when the net-like layer of collagen fibres holding fat in place loosens and allows some lattice. How quickly that fibrous ‘net’ loosens depends on our genes. Women are thought to be more prone to cellulite because they have more body fat than men, though around 10% of men have cellulite too.
So if almost all women have it, if it is a naturally occurring phenomenon, then how did we reach a point of cross-cultural disgust? It wasn’t always this way. In fact, ‘cellulite’, like MDF and the gender pay gap, is man-made. Subcutaneous fat has always existed but never had a name, far from being undesirable, for centuries it was celebrated as a sign of voluptuous femininity.
“If you look at paintings from history – Rubens was famed for it – you’ll see what’s described as cellulite in pictures of bourgeoisie women when they show a bit of leg,” says psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach. Her work on the impact of diet culture includes the widely celebrated Fat Is A Feminist Issue. “The thinner, smoother, more highly stylised aesthetic – the one where so-called ‘cellulite’, and I hate to even refer to it as that, is treated as abject or as some kind of medical condition – arrives around the same time in the 20th century when women begin to take up more space within society.”
The term ‘cellulite’ was invented in 1873 by French doctors Émile Littré and Charles-Philippe Robin but, even then, it related to tissue and cells that were in a state of inflammation, rather than to fat itself. It stayed in medical textbooks until the interwar period, when the first mainstream mention came in the February 1933 edition of French magazine Votre Beauté. A Dr Debec defined cellulite as a stubborn “feminine” problem.
“Cellulite was an ideal candidate, from the perspective of the beauty industry,” says Orbach, “because it is a large surface area on the body that can’t be eradicated. That’s the perfect recipe to sell a lot of products. A completely natural phenomenon was medicalised to allow companies to offer a ‘solution’.”
By the mid-Thirties, as the dream of suffrage was being realised across the western world and more women entered the workforce, French magazines became laser-focused on the unsightly epidemic of cellulite. As Peter N Stearns points out in his book, Fat History: Bodies And Beauty In The Modern West, “Women were being asked to compensate for [their] new freedoms.”
Legs, hips, even necks were targeted as problem areas, while spas began to offer myriad treatments to ‘cure’ them. A 1968 US Vogue story on Cellulite: The Fat You Couldn’t Lose Before, introduced the term to US women and signalled the beginning of a worldwide, 50-year battle with our dimpled behinds. “The preoccupation with thinness was about diminishing women,” says Orbach. “It was about making sure they took up as little space as possible at a time when they became most threatening to the dominant [patriarchal] order.
Beyond that, grooming – the quest for perfect, doll-like smoothness takes up huge amounts of mental energy. Instead of thinking about work or society, women were encouraged to obsess over their bodies.” Roger that.
Fifty years on, showing cellulite should not be a radical act, and yet it still feels like one. It still feels deserving of the hashtag #effyourbeautystandards, as if we need to justify why we’re showing our legs or backs or arms or necks. Seriously, how far have we come if we can’t even post a picture where we look like human women without claiming we’re making a sociopolitical statement?
As for the peddlers of all those products, none of which have been proven to work – if 90% of us have cellulite, if it is not dangerous or unhealthy, then surely any so-called ‘corrective’ is nothing more than an attack on women’s bodies? An attack on womanhood itself?
Holli Rubin is a therapist who specialises in body image. “Developing self-awareness around your thought patterns can help to change how you feel about different aspects of your body,” she says. That means refraining from critical self-talk and disagreeing with negative inner voices. “Move your focus from appearance to action,” she continues. Take five minutes each day to appreciate what our bodies do for us – the breaths they take, the steps they walk. “Over time, this shifts the focus away from simply how your body looks.”
Still, would I dare post a picture of my own cellulite? Probably not.
“We all feel inadequate, and we all over-focus on appearance,” says Professor Heather Widdows, author of Perfect Me: Beauty As An Ethical Ideal. “We need to start seeing this as a global epidemic of body image anxiety, as an actual public health issue, rather than one of individual choice.” Orbach advises getting a group together, online or in real life, and discussing how we feel about our bodies and, crucially, looking through a feminist lens at why we feel what we do. “We need to examine the things that cause us pain, and the things that make us feel ashamed, and ask, ‘Why should I be ashamed? Why is that OK?’”
The answer is: it isn’t. So maybe it’s time to throw that brush away and realise that obsessing over cellulite is not worth our time or money.
You can watch our video explaining why women need to embrace cellulite in 2018 here.