Thin facts for women only: Is female fat different? Hester Matthewman on cellulite

EVERYONE gains a few pounds over Christmas. But if your buttocks are as dimpled as a baby's smile though not as cute, if you increasingly resemble a puckered human orange between the waist and knees, you may have to do more than simply cut out sugar in your tea for a few weeks. Because this is not just any old flab. It's that fashionable, hi-tech version called cellulite.

Men tend to escape it. According to some theories, this is because they don't need to lay down fat reserves to get them through childbearing, so male fat is distributed round the body, rather than coagulated round the bottom. According to others, cellulite in women is a toxin store (presumably men are toxic all over). Others blame hormones, or even gravity. Some anti- cellulite practitioners bluntly admit they have no idea why men don't get it, and it doesn't seem at all fair.

Slimmers of both sexes, however, need a PhD in biochemistry to grapple with the trendy technicalities of combination diets and decreasing metabolic rates. But women get a particularly raw deal from current dieting theory. Female fat cells are 'smart, efficient and stubborn' explains American diet guru Debra Waterhouse. 'No amount of slimming can shift cellulite]' warns Woman's Journal darkly.

The UK's first specialist holistic cellulite clinic opened last year at the London College of Massage. 'It's not just cellulite on your hips, there's a reason,' says Penny Davenport, who overhauls victims' diets (initial nutritional consultation pounds 40). 'People tend to be constipated, their bodies carry an awful lot of rubbish around, and all the toxins stay sitting in little fatty pockets.' The cellulite clinic regime consists of a rigorous detoxifying diet (plenty of prunes, vegetable juice, herbal tea and live yogurt) combined with daily use of a stimulating cactus fibre body brush ( pounds 6.45 - 'it's quite prickly,' admits Penny Davenport.') Hour-long anti-cellulite massages ( pounds 30 each) up to three times a week are also recommended.

The initial treatment ( pounds 40) is to find where the cellulite is lurking. Christine surveyed my thighs and bottom. 'That's not too bad]' she said encouragingly, before attacking my left leg with geranium and juniper oil. 'Aha,' she cried triumphantly, finding a lump in the back of my thigh, 'Can you hear it crackling?'

The treatment is extremely vigorous. As I recovered on the couch, Christine drew my cellulite chart, mapping deposits in blue biro. I was aggrieved to find that I'm lopsided, with more on the right than the left, though apparently this is quite normal.

Theories about what exactly cellulite consists of, and how to eliminate it, are many and varied. 'It's not only fat, it's toxins and fluid that get trapped between tissues. Ninety per cent of women have it. It's hormonal,' says Katie de Lapuente of Champneys Health Spa. She recommends a Draconian regime: 'no caffeine, no alcohol, no smoking, obviously cut out all fats, no fast foods, targeted exercises, aromatherapy ( pounds 39) to speed up circulation, and body wraps ( pounds 32) to make the products sink in. You can't expect miracles,' she warns.

'It's lumpy, liquidy stuff with blood mixed in,' says a nurse at a liposuction clinic where tummy, hip and thigh fat can be instantly slurped away (around pounds 2,200). Out-of-condition men can also opt for a gynaecomastia operation to eliminate saggy breasts (around pounds 1,200) using the same procedure. 'The surgeon makes a tiny little incision and inserts a tube thing. He puts saline in to break everything down and then the fat is sucked out into a machine. Up to three litres can be taken out at a time.'

Less gruesome remedies that don't involve surgery or exercise include seaweed. French beauty company Thalgo recommend Plasmalg gel, a micronised marine algae filtrate (seaweed in water, translated a spokeswoman). She explained: 'We use the Plasmalg under a wrap of cool bandages dipped in Frigi-Thalgo lotion - menthol, camphor and seaweed extract - wrapped round the client's tummy and leg area for 30 minutes. Then we massage with a seaweed cream. You see a loss of at least four inches after the first session; sometimes as much as 20 inches.' Sadly, the effects only last for 48 hours after a single session. 'We recommend six to 12 treatments initially, then once a month. Prices start at pounds 30.'

The medical viewpoint on cellulite is bracingly sceptical. 'Cellulite?' snorts Dr Margaret Ashwell of the British Nutrition Foundation. 'That hoary old chestnut - I've never seen a shred of evidence for it. It's straightforward adipose tissue - fat, fat, fat. If you are pear- shaped,' she adds sternly, 'you should be jumping for joy] It's great fat. It shows you are a true woman with true womanly hormones.'

An added bonus of the pear- shaped figure is natural resistance to heart disease and diabetes, according to Dr Ashwell. She has her own attractive anti-fat strategy. 'Instead of spending money on wonder potions, we should all be using it on sunshine cruises, getting away from the horrible weather here, and exposing our thighs on the beach.'