Scrolling down my Facebook feed recently, I came across a picture of the backside of a woman in cheeky underwear. In the comment section, men and women alike disgustedly referred to her body in terms of deli meat and other foods. The reason? Cellulite on the woman’s butt and thighs.
When I Googled “cellulite,” half of the results on the first page were either centered on or mentioned “treatment.” The word “cellulite” first appeared in English in a 1968 issue of Vogue, in which it was described as a sort of disease or disorder. It’s still commonly referred to as a “condition.”
While some medical sources are trying to combat the idea of cellulite as a condition or disease, not all are so helpful. In a study that found cellulite to be present in 85-98% of women, researchers refer to it as a “problem,” noting that “for [women with cellulite] it is one of the most intolerable aesthetic imperfections.” The Mayo Clinic’s page states: “Cellulite isn’t a serious medical condition, but it can be unsightly.” A major medical authority proclaiming that cellulite is “unsightly”? It’s no wonder that, as the page notes next, “cellulite might make you self-conscious about wearing shorts or a swimming suit.”
These medical authorities are perhaps unwittingly lending credence to the idea that something is inherently wrong with and unattractive about cellulite, and that’s the real problem. It’s part of the reason we’re uncomfortable wearing shorts or swim suits and why we find it intolerable. Pathologizing a completely normal physical feature like this one reinforces the de-normalization of cellulite in the media we’re surrounded by – pretty much the only time we encounter cellulite on a screen or a page is in a “Worst Beach Body” shame piece. And when we see it on ourselves or on another woman, we may notice a knee-jerk assumption: That should be covered up. The result is that lots of women hide their cellulite, further de-normalizing it in the mind and eye.
Exercise scientist Len Kravitz explains that cellulite isn’t just fat; the puckered skin appearance is caused by fat that protrudes through the dermis (deep layer of skin), but the reason this happens is largely related to the structure of the fat chambers, composed of connective tissue, under the skin in women’s bodies. In men, these chambers are arranged in a crisscross pattern that facilitates the distribution of fat parallel to the skin, whereas in women, the connective tissue is arranged in a more perpendicular manner that encourages the fat to push up into the dermis. Laxity of connective tissue in the skin – something that naturally begins to occur after the age of 30 – can facilitate cellulite, though it often appears in younger women. Women also have thinner skin than men, which makes the fat protrusions more noticeable. Women’s bodies contain more subcutaneous fat than men’s — a result of estrogen — and this further increases the appearance of cellulite – even in very lean women. (A small percentage of men have cellulite, and many of these cases are attributed to male hormonal deficiency.)
Cellulite is inevitable for nearly all women because of the makeup of our connective tissues, fat cells, and skin. Losing weight does not necessarily eliminate cellulite, as fat is only one component of its appearance. Cellulite is not generally a sign of bad health or laziness or poor diet or excess fat. It’s a normal product of women’s physiology.
Perceptions of attractiveness and acceptability don’t form in a vacuum. They’re not entirely subjective, as they’re mediated by cultural messages and standards of beauty. In other words, a negative reaction to cellulite isn’t just a matter of taste that can’t be challenged; our aesthetic interpretation of it is influenced by the de-normalization we’re surrounded by. And perceptions of attractiveness and acceptability certainly aren’t objective. This is a hard thing to truly understand, accept in oneself, and convince others of – there is actually nothing inherently or objectively unattractive, unacceptable, or abnormal about cellulite. It wasn’t a problem until Vogue discussed it as if it were a disease, until spas and beauty salons and masseuses and fitness experts and product manufacturers developed “treatments” for it, until photo editors began treating it as a major “flaw” to erase, or until medical experts declared it an “unsightly” “imperfection,” a “condition” and a “problem.”
It’s absurd that we would need to normalize, in the mind and in the eyes, a phenomenon which in reality is completely normal, but that’s where we’re at. How do we do it?
For one, enough with the damn food analogies. Our thighs and butts and backs and upper arms are not deli meat or cottage cheese or orange peels. Let’s refuse to talk about bodies in such objectifying, dehumanizing terms.
Let’s also work to combat the mentality that, if we can’t get rid of something, the acceptable thing to do is to hide it. This leads women to make choices based on unwarranted self-consciousness and even to shame one another if they dare to expose what most of us have, as if it were a dirty secret. Wear what you want. Show your dimples and ripples. It’s fine.
Media literacy can help us shed some of the shame and the self-consciousness around our normal, natural bodies. Cultivating an understanding of just how doctored most of the images we see are can help reduce automatic comparisons and unrealistic expectations of ourselves (and one another).
Finally, ladies, let’s have one another’s backs (dimples, ripples, and all). If you witness someone getting shamed for her body, whether in person or online, consider speaking up.