Fat Chance

What Dove and others aren't telling you about cellulite

The New York Times | Op-Ed

By Jessica Seigel

The marketing campaign generating so much free publicity for a giant cosmetics company shows real women, rather than anorectic teenagers, in white bras and panties posing next to the slogan, ''New Dove Firming. As tested on real curves.''

I personally love the images, but woe to Neanderthals like Richard Roeper, a columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times, who derided the Dove gals as ''chunky,'' igniting apoplexy over how much of a male chauvinist pig he is. With the ink flying, Mr. Roeper defended himself as just being honest -- something we never doubted.

If only Dove would also come clean about its firming lotions. The truth is that anticellulite creams don't work.

That's why Dove, which is owned by Unilever, makes the campaign about images, not facts. Perhaps that explains why the multinational company's elaborate marketing includes a 48-page report on women's attitudes about beauty, but not one sentence giving information about how its firming ointments were ''tested on real curves,'' reducing flesh dimpling in just two weeks.

Despite my repeated requests, Dove declined to release testing data -- not surprising considering the pseudo-scientific babble driving this more than $40 million market, according to figures from the research firms NPD Group and Information Resources.

Of course, snake oil isn't all bad. The Dove lotions largely contain glycerin, an old-fashioned moisturizer that your grandmother might have used. And studies show that women see improvement from fake creams with no active ingredients -- a visual placebo. Considering today's pressure to be beautiful, women may need that.

But according to 27 years of medical literature recently reviewed in The Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy, scientific proof that creams make a real, lasting difference does not exist. ''There is no evidence to show that any topical medications improve cellulite,'' says Dr. Mathew Avram, the study's author and a Harvard Medical School faculty member.

Yet marketers and even some doctors promote the idea that lumpy flesh is a shameful but treatable condition caused by aging and obesity. That is, if you call puberty ''aging,'' because that's when skin dimpling first appears, likely connected to the release of female hormones. (For that reason, oral contraceptives may worsen skin puckering, and males who lose testosterone after prostate surgery may develop it.)

Cellulite is a concocted idea imported from France. Hardly a disease or condition, it is how fat is arranged inside the female body, especially on thighs, hips and rear. And it affects some 90 percent of adult women. To change it, says Dr. Avram, you'd have to rejigger underlying body architecture, which is why exercising and losing weight helps some. But only some. ''What you have here is normal female physiology,'' he says. ''Skinny women have it too.''

While laws in the United States allow companies to hedge product claims with phrases like ''appearance of'' or ''look of,'' that doesn't fly in Britain. This spring, the British advertising industry's self-financed watchdog ruled that Estee Lauder's advertising for Body Performance Anti-Cellulite Visible Contouring Serum misled consumers. The beauty company's research, the agency found, failed to prove that its ''thermogenic complex'' actually ''melts away the fatty look of cellulite,'' reducing ''the appearance of cellulite.''

Why didn't the British accept the ''appearance of'' trick in a ruling affecting the whole industry? ''We believe,'' says Matthew Wilson, of the British Advertising Standards Authority ''the consumer might be confused.''


Though Estee Lauder executives insist their research is valid, the company pulled the advertisement, sparking bad publicity and debate in Britain over truth in advertising. Yet the scandal received little or no coverage in the United States, though Estee Lauder has run nearly identical advertisements here (in this paper, among others), sells the cream here and continues to make even stronger claims about the product's virtues on its Web site.

Instead, this summer the American media ran dozens of articles and broadcasts debating the ''look of'' and ''appearance of'' the images in Dove's campaign. Journalists, at least, should go beyond ''appearances of,'' even if the embattled, overburdened Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission can investigate only the most egregious, dangerous frauds.

On the bright side, at least Dove's firming lotions are cheap, averaging about $8 a bottle compared with $50 a bottle for Estee Lauder's cream. It's nice when snake oil is reasonably priced. But if Dove truly wants to ''help women feel that beauty is within their reach,'' as its campaign claims, the company should stick to soap, moisturizer and the truth: Any woman worried about dimpled flesh while vamping on a giant billboard in white bra and panties would benefit far more from a little chiffon wrap than bogus lotions.

August 15, 2005 Monday

Jessica Seigel teaches journalism at New York University and comments on culture for National Public Radio.