Vitals & Bits #20: Cellulite
“A plague on both your butt cheeks!”
I have a recurring nightmare. In this nightmare, I am running around my former high school stark naked. I dash into the bathroom and frantically MacGyver an outfit out of toilet paper. But my makeshift frock falls apart. It’s then that I notice the urinal, and realize I’m not in the girls’ bathroom. I’ve accidentally ducked into the wrong bathroom, and numerous pubescent males are gawking at me.
Now, I’m not some closet Freudian who believes the mind buries its urges in obtuse dream riddles. But there is one minor detail of my recurring nightmare that always leaves me shaking my head when I finally wake up. In the dream, I never attempt to cover my breasts or groin with my toilet paper garment. Instead, I fashion a little backflap to conceal what my dreaming self is so urgently desperate to hide: cellulite.
My cellulite and I have a … complicated relationship. I’ve been trying to break up with my cellulite for years now, but the stubborn bastard just won’t take a hint. It doesn’t matter how many hours I spend at the gym. Cutting back on calories doesn’t do the trick. For seven years now, I’ve been telling myself that if I just work a little harder, I’ll finally achieve the smooth lifted backside I want so badly.
One night in the not-so-distant past, I found myself in tears over the dismal rear view in the mirror, despite my years of hard work and persistence. After wallowing in my self-pity for awhile, I became angry. I wiped away my tears defiantly, and marched to the medical library. “Screw you, cellulite!” I hissed. “I’m going to blast you away once and for all, with science!!!”
I pored over textbooks and journal articles, attempting to understand the evil dimples colonizing my backside. I searched, high and low, for the best weapons to demolish my enemy. Liposuction! Cryosurgery! Laser beams! Take that!!! I expected to find a smorgasbord of fat-blasting options. But much to my horror, the scientific literature on the topic was strangely sparse.
Despite the fact that humans possess the technological sophistication to land a robot on Mars, we still don’t really know exactly what cellulite really or how it differs from “normal” fat. What we do know is that cellulite occurs almost exclusively in women and usually on the lower body. Though the exact mechanism behind cellulite has yet to be discovered, it probably results from the complex interplay of numerous factors like hormones and circulation. This condition, defined by doctors as “a localized metabolic disorder of subcutaneous tissue that provokes an alteration in female body shape,” affects up to 98% of women.
The media often portrays cellulite as a shameful side effect of weight gain, but in reality, there is little correlation between body mass index (or ratio of weight to height) and cellulite. Although extra weight can exaggerate cellulite, not all heavy women have cellulite. In some cases, weight loss improves the appearance of cellulite. But weight loss can also worsen the appearance of cellulite, when previously plump skin hangs loose. The vast majority of lean women have cellulite, and this condition is not associated with any health problems at all.
If cellulite affects up to 98% and women is a completely benign condition, should we really be defining it is a metabolic disorder? Metabolic disorders, like diabetes and hypothyroidism, are pathological conditions that cause significant illness. Cellulite is a complete wimp compared to these health wreckers. Even defining cellulite as a cosmetic disorder is a bit of a stretch. Some cosmetic problems, like balding and varicose veins, can come with risks such as increased chance of skin cancer or blood clots. Not so with cellulite. Physically speaking, cellulite is a total pacifist.
Since the jury is still out on what cellulite is and why it happens, I feel at liberty to offer up my own interpretation. Starvation was a very real problem for our ancestors. Now imagine trying to breastfeed throughout those lean winter months, when you’re already low on fuel. The thighs, hips, and buttocks are known fat storage sites in the female body (FYI, women who store fat in these areas rather than on the abdomen have a lower risk of heart disease). In fact, research shows that the fat stored on the lower female body is much more resistant to lipolysis (or the process of breaking fat down for fuel) than other areas on the body. This means that the body only burns those stylish saddlebags in times of significant calorie deprivation. I think that cellulite is probably some sort of vestigial skin/fat configuration that makes it easy to pack fat on to that area of the body and tough to break it down. Is this good for breastfeeding hunter-gatherers living off of berries and squirrel? Yes. Is it good for spring break on Padre Island? No!
Just because cellulite is normal and harmless doesn’t mean we all need to commune beneath the moonlight to embrace the organic beauty of our cellulite. Personally, I believe that whoever invents a completely safe, cheap, effective cure for cellulite deserves every damn penny of the billions of dollars she’ll make. Yet, by the same token, whining and crying over one’s less-than-perfect backside as I’ve done in the past is a lame waste of energy that our ancestors probably didn’t have the time for. This self-hatred is a form of self-obsession, which is the real modern plague with consequences far more dire than a little smattering of cellulite.
When it comes to modern women, the world is too full of perils and wonders to get caught up in the cellulite shame spiral. This is not something that will ruin your eyesight or land you in a wheelchair (unless you experience some adverse reaction to an anti-cellulite treatment). It won’t even ruin a romantic date, unless low self-esteem robs you of your enjoyment. A leg with cellulite can still dip a toe into a summer lake, or enjoy the warm sunshine, or run a marathon every bit as well as a leg without cellulite. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re a woman with cellulite, it’s your birthright to bypass the stages of grieving that I’ve subjected myself to… denial, anger, bargaining, and depression… and skip right to the acceptance part. Yup. There it is. Cellulite. Now tear yourself away from the mirror and go enjoy your life.
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