Cellulite is not real. The end.
Oh, was that not clear? Allow me to elucidate: There is such a thing as subcutaneous fat and fibrous tissue beneath your skin. That’s real. And indeed, on the majority of human bodies, there areas on which skin appears dimpled or bumpy. That exists too, and always has. But until relatively recently, there was no word to define it, because “it” was not a thing. Half a century ago, no one in this country had even heard of cellulite, let alone identified it as a problem to be gotten rid of. Today, we spend untold millions — if not billions — on anti-cellulite treatments, despite the glaring lack of evidence that any of them work. Which makes perfect sense, of course, because you cannot treat a condition that doesn’t actually exist.
In April 1968, Vogue became the first English-language periodical to print the term “cellulite,” engendering both a new word and a fashionable new way for American women to hate their bodies. Since we've just hit the 50th anniversary of this massive editorial gaffe, let us tell the tale of how cellulite came to be the most endemic and untreatable “invented disease” of all time. It begins, once upon a time, in France.
In a French medical dictionary, to be exact. In 1873, doctors Émile Littré and Charles-Philippe Robin included the word “cellulite” in the 12th edition of the Dictionnaire de Médecine. This was the first-known use of the term, according to Professor Rossella Ghigi, whose thesis on the history of cellulite is arguably the most in-depth resource ever written on the subject. The crucial point, however, is that the original (and accurate) definition of cellulite had nothing to do with dimples or fat. Rather, it was a general term applied to cells or tissues in a state of inflammation or infection. It was closely related to cellulitis, a diagnosis still used today (which also has nothing to do with bumpy buttocks), and was primarily used when referring to pelvic infections.
Cellulite made the leap from medical textbooks to the mainstream lexicon sometime at the turn of the century, losing its true definition along the way. It’s hard to track its exact trajectory, but as Ghigi points out, this was an era when medical science was advancing at a rapid rate — while at the same time, another industry was also booming. The history of French beauty is nearly as old as the country itself, but it was during the interwar years that Paris cemented its legacy as the beauty capital of the world.
Professor Holly Grout explores this phenomenon in her book, The Force Of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas Of Femininity In The Third Republic, writing that the first of France’s legendary beauty institutes opened in 1895, quickly followed by many more. “The steady increase in the number of institutes before the war, however, paled in comparison to their meteoric growth after it,” she writes. Furthermore, these institutes introduced a variety of new “specialists,” employing estheticians, masseuses, and “even doctors and chemists,” Grout writes. Here, there weren’t many lines between beauty, science, medicine, and health. Today, one might call this the wellness industry.
Women, too, were having a moment. As is often the case during wartime, many traditional gender roles had gone out the window as men went off to battle during WWI. More and more women had become self-sufficient, taking on higher-paying jobs in industries traditionally dominated by men. Grout writes: “As women entered into the university, the tertiary sector, and the factory as never before, familiar debates about [a] woman’s social role, her political relevance, and her ambiguous relationship to the opposite sex acquired a new salience.”
After the war, Grout says, a new archetype of modern femininity began to emerge: She was liberated, social, unencumbered by the strictures of class and old-school etiquette. Above all, she was visible — in many ways. “It was not only the greater presence of female bodies — on city streets, in places of business — but also the display of those bodies in the media, in marketing materials, and on the stage that together influenced the way French women were seen.” The modern concept of femininity wasn’t just a byproduct of the war, says Grout. It was a product of “intertwined commercial and cultural forces at work.”
To recap: We’re in post-war France, the beauty industry is booming (and increasingly medicalized), and all these women are walking around like they own the place! They have short hair and expendable income! Patriarchy, bro, what the hell are we going to do about this?
Tell them how to spend that extra cash.
Professor Ghigi cites the February 1933 edition of Votre Beauté magazine as the first use of “cellulite” in a mainstream publication. This is where it got its new definition, too. The article, written by a Dr. Debec, defines cellulite as a combination of “water, residues, toxins, fat, which form a mixture against which one is badly armed.” The result was something like fat — but different from other fat in that it seemed impossible to get rid of. It was also, he added, a “feminine” problem.
Why he chose this term and this particular physical attribute to focus on, we’ll never know. It certainly hadn’t been considered a problem before. (Just look at virtually all 17th century paintings, in which cellulite is featured — highlighted even — as part of female beauty.) But after that article, others followed suit. French spas began to advertise “treatments” for this “condition,” including special soaps, massages, and “beauty rubbers.” Meanwhile, readers wrote into Votre Beauté, still trying to ascertain what exactly cellulite was, if they had it, and if so, how they could get rid of it. From the start, there was little consensus. Potential causes included tight dresses, poorly fitted belts, overeating, or glandular issues. Regardless, it was always associated with female bodies — though not always the same female body parts.
“Indeed, during the years 1937-1939, cellulite moved from the lower part of the body to the neck,” writes Ghigi. Marie-Claire’s first mention of cellulite referred to it as an issue of the neck, and, “as if by magic, the readers' complaints about a greasy ball appearing at the base of the neck also began to appear in the journals.” Ghigi attributes this to recent style trends which had made the neck suddenly visible. The bob haircut had been growing in popularity since the war, and by the 1930s, Coco Chanel had amplified the look with wide necklines and sailor-style tops, which further highlighted the neck and shoulders. Wherever our gaze moved on the body, Ghigi says, cellulite tended to appear.
The scourge of cellulite began to spread beyond France, unstoppable even by the breakout of another world war. Indeed, some cite WWII as the moment when lipophobia (fat phobia) truly materialized as a cultural attitude. Another war meant women were once again drawn into the workforce, gaining further independence and agency. As social scientist Claude Fischler wrote in his study on fat phobia, “The process triggered a number of trends which were to radically alter attitudes about food and eating as well as body image.”
New ideas about female appearance, which began in WWI, became full-blown beauty standards in WWII: The hourglass shape was decidedly out, as was the corset, which had amplified it. Now, says Fischler, the preferred body shape was “tubular” and thin. Also new was the idea that women could — and should — take control of their own body shape, rather than rely on corsets to do it for them. The concept of dieting became popularized, along with this sentiment of self-determination. (As one article put it: “You are the artisan of your own unhappiness,” if you start and fail a diet.) Even now, Fischler points out, thinness is treated as a personal achievement. “Being fit and lean is currently considered a matter of self-discipline, of dedication, of courage.” Body fat had once been a sign of prosperity and of energy storage in the body, but from this point on, he writes, it was considered “a useless, parasitic load.” Fatness was now a symbol of weakness, laziness, and even immorality. It was a personal failure.
And cellulite was the most visible and reviled hallmark of that failure. As the new standard of female beauty took root across the western world, so did the panic over cellulite. “Cellulite: The Fat You Could Not Lose Before,” declared Vogue’s headline in 1968, introducing American women to the concept. The article described a young woman who feared she had waited too long to get “diagnosed” with the disease of cellulite, but thankfully was able to get rid of it through exercise, diet, “standing correctly,” and rubbing herself with a special rolling pin.
The myth of cellulite had gone mainstream — as had its mythical causes and cures. And there, it remains. Even today, women still use rolling pins on their bodies, but the market is flooded with plenty more (far more expensive) so-called treatments. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has successfully taken legal action against many of the makers of these products, on the basis of false or deceptive advertising, including L’Occitane, Wacoal, Rexall, QVC, Nivea — really, any entity which has ever attempted to sell a cellulite cure. There is virtually no way to honestly market a cure for cellulite, because there is no cure, because there is nothing to cure.
In a nutshell, here’s what so-called cellulite actually “is”: Beneath your skin, there is a layer of fat, held in place by fibrous tissue, which forms a kind of net. Sometimes, fat cells get clumped together and pushed through the holes in this netting, creating those visible bumps and dimples on your skin. If you’d like, you can read a detailed investigation of this effect here, but that is the long and short of it. It is a normal, highly prevalent physical attribute, which occurs in an estimated 80-98% of women, and a much smaller percentage of men.
Why does it primarily affect women? What is different about the small percentage of women who don’t have it? There are many theories and little consensus on these queries. The point is, cellulite isn’t going anywhere, and in fact, it has always been there. “Before being ‘invented,’” Professor Ghigi writes, “cellulite was just female flesh.”
Today, “cellulite” appears in most dictionaries. While it is designated as a colloquial, non-medical term, it retains a firm hold over our sense of self-perception (not to mention, our wallets). Like hysteria or “the vapours,” cellulite is a condition whipped up out of nothing, and used to pathologize women. The difference is, those other afflictions have long since been recognized as fraudulent. There is just as much readily available information about the origins of the cellulite myth. So, why do we insist on believing it?