Photo: Grey Zisser
If your mind ever strays to the subject of your thighs, you probably don't think of them without also thinking about cellulite, which, by many accounts, affects nearly 90 percent of women. Did you know that wasn't always so? Once upon a time—back in the mid-1900s, when I was a girl—there was no such thing as cellulite. It hadn't been invented yet. If our thighs were large, they were called heavy, but they weren't unfortunately saddled with a full-blown medical disorder, which is what dermatologist Howard Murad, MD, calls the condition in his book The Cellulite Solution. Once, full hips suggested a woman's strength, her powerful, awe-inspiring ability to procreate; the soft slice of thigh exposed between a panty girdle and the dark top of a stocking held fast by a garter was delectable, not diseased; the natural padding on a woman's thighs was considered plush, luxurious, suggestive of a velvety capaciousness altogether female.
Somehow, in the past 40 years, we have learned to revile that padding; it has come to represent our body's recalcitrance to submit to our will, a weighty reminder that we will never achieve physical perfection. It wasn't until the early 1970s that the word cellulite was, if not invented, at least popularized by a French dietitian who offered treatments promising to reduce it. (Market-driven motive? You decide.) When short hemlines and snug blue jeans commanded fashion in the '70s, encouraging women to pay closer attention to the shape of their bottom and thighs, the war against cellulite began in earnest, enlisting a militia of combatants: creams, devices, and special exercises (remember Thin Thighs in 30 Days?), surgical procedures, including liposuction, and, most recently, lasers. The war rages to this day. Cellulite products generated $11.8 million in U.S. department stores last year, and the number of liposuction procedures performed on women increased 168.5 percent between 1997 and 2007.
You may know what it looks like and how you feel about it, but do you know what cellulite is? Here's a graphic way to think about it. Picture your body as a sofa. (Or perhaps, more kindly, a love seat.) The stuffing is fat, just below the skin. Bands of fibrous tissue run through the fat like threading. Due to genetics or hormones or inflammation—in other words, circumstances largely beyond your control—those bands can become inflexible and brittle, and the fat pushes up through them in a way that makes the skin look lumpy and dimpled. Your weight does not determine whether you have cellulite: You can be thin and have it. I know this because I am, and I do. I have made a point of not being bothered by it; it is not an affliction, I have told myself, it is simply a result of the way most of us are built. But several months ago in a presentation at the offices of New York City dermatologist Neil Sadick, MD, I became intrigued with the idea of getting rid of it. One of my favorite dermatologists, Cheryl Karcher, MD (one of Sadick's associates), was very excited about SmoothShapes, a new laser treatment that she believes can significantly reduce the appearance of cellulite. A clinical trial (funded by Elemé Medical, the company that owns SmoothShapes) has shown that the treatment is effective in reducing fat, which it liquefies through a combination of light and laser energy and then forces into the body's lymph system so that it can be eliminated. The treatment also remodels the collagen in the bands, which makes them more flexible.