The Dirty Little Secret of the Female Athlete: Cellulite

Vanessa Bennington

Contributor - Nurse Practitioner

Sarasota, Florida, United States



It’s time I got something off my chest. I have a secret. It’s one I’ve been trying to cover it up since I was about thirteen. Until recently I was ashamed of it. In fact, I can’t truly say it doesn’t still make me a little embarrassed.


I always felt that if anyone found out my secret they would think I was not the person they believed me to be. I felt that my secret would lead them to believe I was fat, lazy, unfit, gross, and unattractive, or unlovable. What is this awful secret?



I have cellulite.


I’ve had cellulite since I was thirteen. I’m not talking about one or two dimples either. I have a sizeable amount of the dimply stuff on the upper part of my posterior thighs. My left side is much worse than my right. I know this because for the last twenty years of my life I have thought about, looked at, evaluated, and schemed about how to get rid of this stuff every single day of my life. Every. Single. Day.


This obsession, along with other body image problems and probably a genetic predisposition, led me to anorexia and bulimia. But guess what? It didn’t work. Even at my thinnest, which was a frail 90lbs, I still had a few dimples on my thighs.


Why was I so obsessed? Why did cellulite drive me to such lengths? Because every “fit” woman I ever saw in a magazine or on TV was completely devoid of the stuff. Every form of marketing and media made it seem as if only fat, unfit women had cellulite. Even the magazine geared toward women who lifted weights told me that if I got lean enough and lifted enough weights I should be able to get rid of the cottage cheese on my legs. Therefore, everyday when I twisted and contorted my body in the mirror, trying to see if my legs were smoother, I was disappointed to see the dimples were still there.


I was still unworthy of the title of “fit.” I was not good enough for a fitness magazine. I wasn’t fit enough to wear shorts or a bathing suit. I was unacceptable.



I know there are countless others who understand these feelings of embarrassment, shame, and frustration. That’s why I’m writing this article; I want us all to understand what cellulite really is and why it is not an indicator of your fitness. I want to rid you of the idea that you shouldn’t even think about wearing a pair of booty shorts to work out in if you are anything less than perfectly smooth. I want to dispel the myth that you need dimple-free legs and a smooth butt to be considered fit.


What Is Cellulite?

Cellulite really has everything to do with the structure of our skin. The outermost layer of the skin is called the epidermis. Directly below the epidermis is the dermis, which contains things like hair follicles, sweat glands, and connective tissue. Under this is the first of two subcutaneous/fat layers. When this first layer of fat protrudes into the dermis, it causes the dimpling appearance we refer to as cellulite.


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Women who have cellulite tend to have connective tissue that is arranged differently. The connective tissue forms chamber-like structures that cause or encourage fat to bulge upward and outward into the dermis. Areas like women’s thighs and buttocks are especially prone to cellulite because that’s where we tend to store body fat. Men and the few women who do not develop cellulite have connective tissue that encourages fat to expand laterally and internally but not out into the dermis. So, a man’s thighs might have just as much adipose tissue, but he has what amounts to compression stockings over the top of the fat layer, whereas a woman has a pair of fishnets lying over her first layer of adipose. These structural differences have been confirmed with MRI, sonogram, and wedge biopsies. There is no getting around it - cellulite and the structure of the skin in cellulite-prone areas are simply different and something you cannot control.


Cellulite and the Female Athlete

I bet you’re still wondering why some women - even thin, lean athletic women - tend to have lots of cellulite and their female counterparts do not. Genetics, my friend. If your connective tissue is put together differently than your friend’s, your skin is going to look different. Just like skin color, hair, and height are all genetically determined, so is your predisposition to cellulite. That’s right, Mother Nature decides if you are to be dimple free or not.


She must find the dimples cute because 85-98% of post-pubertal females have cellulite. Yes! That means almost all women have cellulite.



That’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of us, including myself. Really? My cellulite is not my fault? These dimples don’t signal to the world that I’m a fatty? No. No. And No.


It helped me to look at some studies and to really understand the structure of cellulite. Facts, research, and studies have shown us that cellulite isn’t a disease or problem of the obese. It’s normal. In fact, it is quite possible to be very lean, very fit, very athletic, and still have cellulite.


To that end, I present to you exhibit A. This is what I have deemed my body mullet: abs in the front, cellulite in the back. If you’re not laughing right now you must have missed out on the 80’s. Have someone explain “hockey hair” to you. No, I am not saying I am ripped. I’m not. I’ve certainly been leaner (still had the dimples though). But, I am fit. I eat a healthy diet. I am the strongest I’ve ever been in my entire life. I can see my abs. And I have cellulite.


My DNA is such that my connective tissues allow my fat layer to bulge. So what. I also have grey-blue eyes, frizz-prone hair, broad shoulders, and a stubborn streak. None of those things make me ashamed or embarrassed. Neither should my cellulite.


I’m not saying you have to love the appearance of your cellulite, and I’m also not saying you should abandon your fitness routine or healthy eating because it isn’t going to “fix” your dimples. No, I encourage you to keep working out and keep eating well. Keep doing what makes you feel good and what you enjoy. But do it in shorts. Do it in bikini bottoms. Screw trying to hide the dimples. That’s like someone with freckles trying desperately to cover them all up with makeup or someone with a big nose trying to hide behind their hair.


Stop worrying that everyone will think you’re not fit. It’s time to show everyone what real, fit, athletic women look like. We are not the airbrushed “perfection” of fitness magazine myth. We are all different, unique, and we come in different shapes, colors, and sizes. And most of us are probably rocking a few dimples.


Photos 1&2 courtesy of Shutterstock.

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