One afternoon in January, I stood in an office at UT Southwestern Medical Center and opened my white robe. “Hmm,” the doctor said, pinching the skin of my tummy. He was wearing a shiny beige suit, and I felt a tad underdressed in my bra and panties. This was probably a normal consultation in the plastic surgery department, but it felt like the worst date ever. “Your outer thighs could really benefit from this,” the doctor said, and I tried not to be insulted. (It did not work.)
Dallas is a town of med spas and cosmetic enhancements—last year, Men’s Health ranked us among the most vain cities in the country—but I was in that office for journalistic purposes. UT Southwestern had recently acquired a CoolSculpting machine, a nonsurgical alternative to liposuction, and they extended an invitation to writers to act as guinea pigs. I doubted Jim Schutze over at the Dallas Observer would be leaping at the offer, but I figured, what the hell?
Frankly, the CoolSculpting machine sounded nuts. The idea is to freeze fat cells, which then die and get metabolized by the body. But, hey, the internet sounded nuts at one point. I was open to being amazed. The machine is promising enough that a respected medical center was willing to drop approximately $100,000 to buy one. The doctor, Jeffrey Kenkel, told me studies showed a 20-percent reduction in deposits of stubborn fat, and that sounded encouraging to a woman who’d spent many fine dinners wheezing in Spanx.
I have fought my curves most of my life. Liposuction hit its stride in the mid-’80s, right as my adolescent misery peaked, and I couldn’t wait to grow up and let some surgeon split me open and fix me. By my 20s, I’d found self-esteem and beer, and I grew wary of any beauty regimen that involved a knife. Liposuction was expensive and looked ghastly on news segments.
But CoolSculpting is part of the boom in noninvasive procedures, which accounts for 83 percent of the entire plastic surgery market, according to statistics from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. No scalpels. No recovery time. I was intoxicated by the idea that a magic machine might alter my stubborn form.
“I want to stress that this is not a quick fix,” Dr. Kenkel said, going on to explain the importance of diet and exercise, but in my head all I could think was, Yesss! Quick Fix!
About a month after my consultation, I finally had my date with the machine. It looked like a small photocopier or a large vacuum. A long, snaky arm had a suction device at the end, roughly the size of a legal envelope, and I lay on my side in a hospital bed as friendly nurses latched that sucker onto my thigh.
One of the nurses had gotten the treatment on her lower abdomen, and she raved about her results. The only problem, she explained with a laugh, was that her upper abdomen looked flabby in comparison now, so she needed to treat that, too. I teased her that I would be back in a month to get my inner thighs done, but the joke masked a real anxiety. I may not love my thighs, but I had always been proportional. What if this threw my body out of whack? What if I had to keep CoolSculpting myself forever? I don’t dabble in cosmetic procedures for the same reason I don’t dabble in cocaine: I fear I’ll never stop.
But then she pressed the start button, and I could feel my soft flesh being air-lifted inside the alien ship of that nozzle, and there was no turning back. The procedure lasted two hours (one hour for each side) and would have cost $1,400. It did not hurt, but afterward, the skin was pink and raw, like ground meat pulled from a deep freezer. Sex-ayyy.
For the next six weeks, I stared at my legs. I took pictures of them with my iPhone. Sometimes I noticed how strong and healthy they were. Other days I resented how this process had brought back sixth-grade insecurities. One day, a divot appeared on the right side of my thigh, like an adorable dimple. And that was … it?
Dr. Kenkel had warned me that results take three months, so maybe my body will transform in the next 30 days. (I doubt it.) Reviews on the internet are filled with these kinds of mixed results. Some bodies take the treatment better than others. I think the machine does work, but there’s only so much you can do without a blade. Change is incremental, whether you are trying to freeze-dry your fat into submission or finally accept the troublesome thighs that have been with you all your life. I gave the first one a go. I’m working on the second one now.
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