I have cellulite. Such an ugly word for what is reality for most women. As most sources cite that 90 percent of women have cellulite, all I’ve really done here is admit I am not that lucky one woman in ten who does not have cellulite. But despite the vast numbers afflicted and the leaps we’ve made in society, we have yet to fully banish the social stigma attached to cellulite.
According to a March 2013 online study of more than 1,000 U.S. women conducted by Harris Interactive (commissioned by Cynosure Inc.), women with cellulite perceived themselves on average less attractive than those who did not feel they had cellulite. The study also concluded that a staggering 97 percent of surveyed women would change a part of their body, though it is unclear whether they would wish to change said body parts because of present cellulite.
Of course, if you’re like me, you don’t need studies to tell you cellulite is undesirable. America is hyper-obsessed with body image, pairing photo-shopped magazine pictorials of gazelle-like creatures with messages of love and respect for every body type flush up next to full-page ads for the latest skin-smoothing cream or lotion. Underneath the digitally slimmed cover girls in the grocery store are rags bragging about how they’ve “caught” celebrities with –oops! – visible cellulite. Watch your pick of blockbuster comedy and you’ll see plenty of males cringing when they encounter these so-called unsightly bumps. Our culture tells us plainly and in no uncertain terms that cellulite is not ok. The study’s mere existence reinforces the notion that only the smooth skin of adolescence is acceptable.
I wish I could say I’ve lived my life above the empty promises of beauty products, but I am guilty of shelling out big for lotions or gadgets that promise to banish bumps. The shame associated with having such a common and often genetic bodily appearance has driven me to the Internet for insider secrets. I’ve lost hours of my life reading blog testimonies or comment threads to determine the validity of the next greatest cure. Will eliminating excessive fats from my diet work? Will this new clinical treatment work or will it be a waste of money I simply do not have?
And though we should focus on our character, our health, our friends, our family, the mark we want to leave on this world… anything but the body we bring to the beach, I know that this struggle is central to our identity. It is difficult to feel empowered or confident when our culture shouts loudly and consistently that you need to look this way or fit into this jean size.
It is a difficult concern to lay to rest. So here is what I suggest. If you’re going to spend your money trying to bolster your confidence, I beg you… leave the country. Your self-esteem with thank you.
I am proud of the three passport stamps I’ve managed to come by thus far. My husband and I vacationed in Cancun, Mexico, in January of 2009 fully expecting hoards of college students but were delighted to find the white beaches quiet. In January of this year, we traveled to Hopkins, Belize, for our friends’ wedding, soaking up as much sun as possible in our two and a half day stay. But it wasn’t until this last May, when we took our long-delayed honeymoon in Aruba that my body-conscious nerves finally calmed.
I stressed for weeks before, obsessing over the numbers on the scale and doing my very best to exercise and eat better. And yet when we arrived, giddy with the knowledge that an entire week of sun and sand lay open before us, I felt the all-too familiar twinge of shame when I put on my swim suit. Would people point, gasp, and laugh at me? Did my body deserve to be here? The fear of walking among scantily-clad vacationers instantly eclipsed my joy. And then we walked the beach.
It became clear we were walking into a thriving cornucopia of diversity and positive self-image. We had left the confining boundaries of America’s “display-only-ideal-bodies” standard. The human form was showcased as I had never seen it before and, in this environment, my perception of beauty widened vastly and quickly. Sure we saw several bronzed bodies with less than two percent body fat. We also saw new mothers and grandmothers alike braving two-pieces, speedo-clad gentlemen strutting the surf and dudes with bellies spilling over waistlines. Banished were the beach cover-ups. Towels lay strewn on chairs or in the sand, forgotten.
On our third day on the island, we trekked to Baby Beach, a snorkeling locale on the southernmost tip of the island. A couple with their toddler took up residence to our right, the mother braving a two piece. She had cellulite. And a radiant smile, a warm, inviting laugh and energy for days. Rather than cling to the safety of a cover up she encouraged her young son to wade into the turquoise water and chase her in a game of tag on the sand. She was teaching her son that vitality is so much more important than appearance, and I have no doubt he will grow up to see women of all shapes and sizes as feminine and gorgeous.
On the fourth day we crossed to the opposite tip of the southern point. As we napped in the shade, a group of local ladies set up shop in our cabana. Their bodies were a varied palette and yet they all waded into the water, flesh (both firm and wobbly) out from tankinis and stringy two-pieces. Their colorful swimsuits were bleached from long days in the water and sun, badges of body confidence. The only thing these ladies seemed to wear in excess at the beach was sunscreen.
Each stay outside the country has taught me that what mainstream American culture perceives as beautiful is most often an unrealistic expectation. There is something liberating about stepping onto a beach so tangibly unconcerned with whether your bathing suit emphasizes your curves or highlights too much of them. I shed much of my body inhibitions in Aruba and am not about to pick them back up simply because I’ve come home to the states. Months later, I feel the same way.
A weight has been lifted from my shoulders and indignant rebellion has taken its place. I’m tired of a culture that celebrates the Lena Dunhams of Hollywood for “bravery” in showcasing bodies different from the celebrity norm; a culture unaware that by using such words it is reinforcing that she has something to be ashamed of. And still, even after citing these women for such bravery and courage, this culture fails to apply the lesson of courage at home. That is not the message I want to send to my fellow women.
In the heat of this summer I’ve been wearing shorts in public for the first time in years. I know my legs are not perfect, but I am tired of hiding behind the unwritten rule that says bodily imperfection is not ok. And though the record-breaking heat is quickly cooling to sweater season, my hope is that by being brave about my body image (knowing full well that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my body in the first place) I can encourage other ladies to drop the invisible bonds that shackle them to long pants.
I want to inspire others to leave their body burdens behind. Think of the pressure that mounts every year before summer. Ads from every medium chide you to assess your own appearance. Do your arms jiggle too much? Do you suffer from “unsightly lumps?” Are you not at the body weight you were ten years ago? The shortcomings in our physical appearance, so different from the tiny Zoe Saldanas and Kristen Bells of the silver screen, are trotted out in front of us mere seconds before ads for super-sized burgers held by dainty twenty-something women. Perfect your imperfections! Eat this calorie-bomb burger! Don’t be fat, but eat this fattening food!
Screw that messaging. We can do so much better for ourselves. Forego the products that do nothing for our confidence except lighten our wallets and start putting that money toward a real self-esteem boost. If only for a few days, park yourself on the beaches that have lived thus far only on your desktop background or wall calendar and rediscover that beauty is multi-faceted.
None of this is to say that fitness is bad or that being overweight is healthy. I will always advocate for health. But something as superficial as cellulite should not be keeping you from wearing the bathing suit you love or the adorable running skirt you don’t think you deserve to wear. Buy it. Flaunt it. You are allowed to be proud of who you are; of what you have accomplished, are accomplishing, and will accomplish. Live the message that you are not ashamed of your body so you can empower other women to do the same.
And if you can, jump-start that positive growth by experiencing life and beauty abroad. Like I said, your self-esteem will thank you.