As summer approaches, so does the imagined scourge of cellulite. In glossy magazines and online tabloids, headlines devoted to the condition flourish—some of which scrutinize celebrities for failing to deal with the issue appropriately ("15 Celebrities Who Battle Cellulite," "Imperfections of the Rich and Famous") and others which intend to instruct women how to avoid it themselves ("How Do I Get Rid of Cellulite?" and "10 Ways to a Smoother Bottom").
Our culture's current hostility to subcutaneous fat is extremely well documented; biologically, however, cellulite is pretty much inevitable. "It is a secondary sex characteristic, just like breasts," says Max Lafontan, a senior research fellow at Inserm, the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, and an expert in adipose tissues.
According to him, at least eight out of ten women are affected by this kind of fat, which most often settles on the buttocks, the thighs, and the stomach. It is a useful stock of energy in case pregnancy or breast-feeding. "The structure of women's skin is different from that of men," says Lafontan. "Cellulite appears when fat cells begin to swell and disturb the nice homogeneity of the tissue."
"Cellulite" has always existed, although women only recently declared war on it. As French historian Georges Vigarello underlines in his book, A History of Beauty, "Cellulite stems from [...], a culture of examination [of the body], which more than before confronts destitution and decay." Stroll along the alleys of an art museum, and you become aware of this evolution. For instance, at the Prado in Madrid, Peter Paul Rubens aestheticizes orange peel skin in his painting "The Three Graces." When it was painted in the 17th century, this masterpiece showcased a beauty ideal.
Even the word "cellulite" is rather recent: it was invented in France at the end of the 19th century. Its first appearance dates back from 1873, in the French medical dictionary Littré & Robin. Cellulite is described as "the inflammation of the cell tissue or laminate tissue." But doctors during this time period "used this term to denote something different," notes Rossella Ghigi, an associate professor at the University of Bologna. About fifteen years ago, while she studied in Paris, Ghigi wrote her thesis on the history of cellulite—one of the few studies on this subject.
Before the first articles about cellulite were published, nobody was writing to ask how to get rid of it.
In the interwar years, media scrutiny of cellulite underwent a notable increase in France. Paris' beauty centers began imagining targeted remedies against this "scourge." Women's magazines started filling their pages with expert advice, and readers' letters grew increasingly concerned. According to Ghigi, who analyzed several French fashion magazines from the time, "There was this frenzy, fueled by the physicians and readers in turn. Before the first articles about cellulite were published, nobody was writing to ask how to get rid of it."
Take, for example the monthly Votre Beauté, launched in 1933 by Eugène Schueller, the founder of l'Oréal Group, today the world's leading cosmetic firm with brands such as Maybelline, Lancôme, and Kiehl's. As early as February 1933, the magazine published a long article about cellulite, signed by a "Dr. Debec." Cellulite was described as a blend of "water, residues, toxins, fats, which form a mix against which we are rather poorly equipped." According to the doctor, this was an infection which no workout could eliminate. Readers immediately began writing worried letters to the editor. In May 1935, for instance, one of them pondered about the true nature of this "sickness." The response: "It is degenerated flesh. It is a mix of water, of substances more similar to urine than to blood or water... It can be caused, for example, at the top of the thighs, by wearing a belt too tight which will hinder blood circulation."
Long remaining a French concern, cellulite mania eventually made its way abroad, first of all to the United States. There, again, the archives of the specialized press bear witness of its propagation. On April 15, 1968, the US edition of Vogue featured a headline on its front page: "Cellulite, the new word for fat you couldn't lose before." In her best seller The Beauty Myth (1990), feminist journalist Naomi Wolf argues that this resulted in a pop culture tendency to re-interpret healthy "adult female flesh" as a "condition."
Soon, like a boomerang, the concept cellulite traveled back to the Old Continent. According to Ghigi, the term took a few years to enter the British consciousness: "In 1986, the Encyclopedia Britannica featured only 'cellulitis,' defined as the inflammatory state," she wrote in her thesis. "Twelve years later, it featured only 'cellulite,' defined as the fat deposit."
In olden times, beauty was envisioned as a privilege of those to which Mother Nature had been kind. Today, it has almost become a meritocratic ideal, a goal to reach through discipline of the body—and of the wallet. Between March 2014 and February 2015, 919,108 containers of anti-cellulite cream were sold in France, for a net profit of 22.8 million euros, according to IMS Health Pharmatrend. In the US, sales for the prestige beauty industry in general amounted to 18 billion dollars in 2015, a 7 percent growth compared to 2014.
In addition, science-fiction-like inventions frequently appear on the market purporting to help women eliminate their cellulite for good. Take suction pads or cryolipolysis, which freezes the love handles. Since an April 2011 decree by the French National Authority for Health, five of these fat freezing techniques are forbidden in France. These non-surgical alternatives to liposuction entail risks of lesion, infection, and rash for the patient.
"What irritates me awfully about all this is that all this discourse is essentially fabricated by merchants who want to get rich," biologist Max Lafontan says. Some years ago, he collaborated with the firm LPG Systems to test the Cellu M6 machine. Very popular in beauty centers, the machine reproduces the rolling massage of physiotherapists used to reduce cellulite. "I demonstrated that it impacts the capacity of response of cellulite fat," Lafontan reveals. "But there is nothing sensational about it, because the adipose tissue, even if you disturb it a little, will resettle down as soon as you stop the treatment."
The lesson? To try to make cellulite disappear is like chasing someone on a moving walkway: It goes nowhere and takes all your energy.