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A history of cellulite: How we’re being swindled into feeling shame

By August 29, 2021No Comments

Emma Gleeson explains how made-up “needs” keep us wasting money on snake oil…

Cellulite. If you’d never heard the word before you might think it was a new brand of weight loss supplement or a high end biodegradable fabric. It is, in fact, a normal and harmless behaviour of adult human skin that has morphed into a hideous deformity which must be removed at all costs. Shedding this myth will free us from some of the expensive and self esteem-destroying traps the beauty industry sets for us.


And once you’ve seen behind the curtain of the cellulite lie, you’re primed to question every “need” you feel stirring in you in the middle aisles of Aldi and Lidl or during your late night scrolling. The antidote to joyless consumer spending and attachment to impossible beauty standards is embracing the truth that what we are and what we have is already enough. 

A core principle of modern advertising and consumer culture is that human needs are not set in stone and can in fact be created and implanted in our minds through clever marketing. The same is true, of course, with ideas about what society thinks is beautiful or ugly at any one time. As the consumer society of the 20th century gathered pace, needs were created left right and centre and people were bombarded with products that were deemed “essential” to be a functioning member of society. An honourable mention goes to the widespread hysteria over “halitosis”, an affliction invented by the mouthwash brand Listerine which gripped a whole generation in a perpetual fear of bad breath. But my favourite (or should I say most loathed)  example of a ‘need’ which was created purely to sell us stuff was the ‘need’ to get rid of cellulite.

The word cellulite had existed in French medical textbooks since the 1870s but had little to do with female beauty standards. Then during the post-WW1 era when women were becoming more liberated, patriarchy teamed up with business and said “we need to slow these broads down, let’s make them feel awful about themselves so they have to waste valuable energy and money on their bodies instead of getting ahead of us blokes.” As Naomi Wolf famously observed in her 1990 book The Beauty Myth, controlling how bodies look is less about female beauty and far more about female obedience. 

The 1933 edition of French magazine Votre Beauté contained the first use of “cellulite” in a mainstream publication. The article reworked an obscure word into a potentially serious medical problem, and this entwining of beauty standards with vague “health” claims still wearily plagues us today. The article describes cellulite as a combination of “water, residues, toxins, fat, which form a mixture against which one is badly armed.” So it was sort of like fat but mysteriously hard to get rid of. It was also, from this article onwards, a uniquely “feminine” problem.

In April 1968, Vogue printed a piece titled “Cellulite: The Fat You Could Not Lose Before,” introducing American and English-speaking women to the concept for the first time. 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.

In 1973 the cellulite craze really took off in the US when Nicole Ronsard became a millionaire by offering treatment for this “problem” in her New York clinic. She described cellulite as “fat gone wrong” and a course of  20 treatments to right that wrong at a cost of $275 (approx. $1,685 in today’s money). According to the New York Times “Three machines are used in the treatment. One of them, looking like a vacuum cleaner in reverse, sends a jet of pressurized warm air from a hose against the grain of the skin. Another uses automatic suction massagers on stomach and legs, while the third machine consists of straps that issue low‐frequency current to stimulate circulation.” Baffling madness.

To this day so many of us hate a completely harmless part of our bodies and spend billions each year on snake oil treatments to try and rid ourselves of it. It remains impossible to prove that any cellulite cures work, so much so that the US Federal Trade Commission has successfully taken legal action against many of the makers of “anti-cellulite” creams and serums.  There is virtually no way to honestly market a cure for cellulite, because there is no cure, because there is nothing to cure.

Outside the beauty industry (or the self loathing industry), new needs are invented all the time, with corporations defending themselves by claiming that they are simply responding to our desires, as if their hands were tied and they only ever had our best interests at heart, rather than their bottom line.

Consumer demand is often touted as the reason companies began producing more and more  products for cheaper and cheaper prices (with lower and  lower quality and involving worse and worse humanitarian  and environmental practices). This is untrue. It is a lie put  forth by corporations who want to seem blameless for the waste and damage they create. We did not ask for anti-cellulite creams, they were relentlessly forced upon us. We can and must resist.

You could argue that buying crap we don’t need provides relief from the stress of our lives that is easily accessible and cheap. To that I’d say is it really that cheap if you’re doing it constantly with little lasting satisfaction? Don’t those misguided purchases made out of boredom or low confidence add up to a sizeable amount of cash? And doesn’t clinging to the lie that your body is broken in some way waste valuable energy and make you feel awful? But the craving we have for solutions to problems that don’t exist is what capitalism thrives on. And capitalism is tenacious.

Its core business model is to continuously present new struggles while also conveniently providing purchasable solutions to them. Wellness culture thrives on this, as does Big Pharma, Big Tech, Big Skin Care, Big everything. Under capitalism, nothing is ever enough just as it is. Our homes, our bodies, our children’s toy rooms, our sports equipment are insufficient in and of themselves. They demand fixing, but they are never truly fixed.

We need to step off the treadmill of self-optimisation and ask what we could work towards that would actually benefit our lives? Off the top of my head, affordable childcare, equal pay, genuine work life balance and accessible mental health care might be nice. But stepping off that hamster wheel is hard when the behaviour has been instilled in us so expertly, and seeking momentary relief through consumption is so easy.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can make living more sustainably and simply appealing to those who are not already converted. The greatest wisdom I have found is that when we see how systems hurt us, and not just our planet (which does of course ultimately hurt us, duh, but let’s not split hairs just now), our thinking shifts faster and better habits stick around longer. 

Our legs and bums are perfect just as they are. I want more people to feel angry about the joyless money sink most consumer spending has become and the best way to do that is expose the lies and manipulations at the root of many of our purchases. If we can resist the deluge of made-up needs we might find that real contentment is within our reach. In a capitalist society, cultivating contentment is a radical act. Let’s get radical!