Cool Story

What Did I Learn By Freezing My Fat Cells?

In my quest to determine if the body contouring fad CoolSculpting actually works, I uncovered a deeper query: Why do I need it?

By Abby Ledoux December 31, 2018

CoolSculpting, the fad body contouring treatment, freezes and destroys fat cells beneath the skin.

There I stood, mostly naked as a stranger covered my body in brown Magic Marker, questioning every choice that got me here.

A cheerful medical spa manager named Natalie had the distinct pleasure of identifying my “problem areas” that afternoon, a process that required I strip down to my skivvies, stand before a full-length mirror, and announce what I most hated about myself. At times, Natalie would gently guide me: “And what about bra fat?” she might say. I’d nod, she’d pinch the pocket of flesh and diagram its borders, and we’d move down my anatomy.

By the time we got to my “flanks,” though, I decided to call it. “I hate my stomach and my thighs, but I can’t do this anymore,” I said.

No matter—we’d identified more than enough from the waist up to get me through the 12 cycles of CoolSculpting I was about to sign up for. I’d never even heard of the localized fat reduction technology but, when offered a trial, I nonetheless gamely agreed. I was certain, if nothing else, it would result in a good story—my primary consideration for doing anything—and if it just happened to make me look thinner in the process? Well, talk about a win-win.

I knew little more at the consultation, except that it was non-surgical, FDA-approved, and endorsed by U.S. Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir—good enough for me. Natalie showed me what was essentially a commercial disguised as an informational video, where promising before-and-after photos were supposed to illustrate how "revolutionary technology" targets, freezes, and destroys fat cells beneath the skin. The freshly killed cells are then eliminated through sweat and natural liver function to leave you with “noticeable, lasting results” as quickly as three weeks after treatment, proponents say, though most people report seeing changes in two to three months. We settled on treating my chin, “flanks,” and that pesky bra fat, picked a start date, and I left, dejected and drawn on.

It’s not that Natalie was unkind, but every swipe of her marker cut like a knife. It wasn’t her fault; she had no way of knowing. I was full of good-natured, self-deprecating jokes, as I always am. But beneath every quip is the truth: I have an extraordinarily complicated relationship with my body, and I’ve put it through a lot—namely severe anorexia in my teens, when, at 5’6", I weighed as little as 89 pounds. I recovered before I could inflict any permanent damage, but the dysfunctional thinking is ever-present. I was intimately familiar with my problem areas long before Natalie pointed them out. To some extent, I cycle through them in my head every minute of every day.

A few weeks later, I returned for my first appointment. We were to start with my chin, knocking out all three 35-minute cycles in one visit, a decision I’d soon come to deeply regret. Somewhere along the line, I’d been promised this would be “painless,” and while I figured that might be generous, I expected no more than mild discomfort.

CoolSculpting the chin: not for the faint of heart.

Image: Abby Ledoux

It began that way when I assumed the position on the treatment bed, my head and neck lodged in a plastic support akin to what emergency responders use to stabilize a potentially paralyzed patient’s spine. A rolled up hand towel attempted to plug the awkward space between that apparatus and the base of my skull, and then the piece de resistance—basically a super-strength suction cup—was strapped to my chin, wrapped around the whole setup, and secured with Velcro. Time to lay back and relax!

Once it felt like my face was ready to rip right off, a rush of icy cold surged through the suction cup as temps dropped to 39 degrees Fahrenheit, the optimum level for cell death (a gel layer protected my skin from frostbite). “The first five minutes are the worst,” said Nurse Tina, my CoolSculpting spirit guide, and she did not lie. Waiting for my chin to go numb felt like an eternity, but eventually—mercifully—it did. By the time I listened to a dozen songs and snapped a few dramatic photos for my friends, Tina was back for round two.

But first, we had to finish round one. The anticipation of relief—finally losing that painful, icy suction—made what happened next exponentially worse. The moment the suction released was like a swift kick to the stomach; feeling returned stat, and it was sheer misery. It worsened as Tina massaged the injured area for an agonizing two minutes to help break down the newly damaged fat cells, making them easier for the body to absorb and eliminate. Her fingers might as well have been meat cleavers. This hurt, and I felt hot tears. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated all the while, assuring me everyone reacted this way and promising the chin was by far the most painful area to treat—a conveniently well-kept secret up until that point.

She waved the carrot of quitting now and rescheduling the remaining two cycles. Most people didn’t do more than one at a time, she said, let alone three—another convenient secret. I knew if I took her up on the offer, though, I’d run now and never come back. I grimaced. “Let’s get it over with.”

Reader, it was bad. The heretofore uncomfortable suction was now a welcome distraction from the stinging ache of the last treated area. Both times I dreaded the suction removal and subsequent massage from hell, and both times the dread was warranted. I was nauseous.

Two hours later, it was finally over, and Tina congratulated me on my pain tolerance. It took days for the sensation to subside; my chin felt the way your lips do when Novocaine wears off after a filling. Needless to say, I waited a while before returning for my remaining nine rounds of self-imposed torture.

The torture device.

Image: Abby Ledoux

But, to Tina’s admitted surprise, I did return. It was time to freeze my love handles to death, and I couldn’t pass that opportunity up, no matter how badly it might hurt. I shimmied into a pair of disposable shorts and braced myself to be sucked back up into the CoolSculpt mouth, this time through a much larger suction cup. It was still unpleasant, but certainly no comparison to what I’d endured with my chin. I froze nine more times over the next several weeks, cycling through podcasts and playlists and an exhaustive biography of Marilyn Monroe. She’d definitely CoolSculpt, I decided.

By early August, I was free. I studied myself in the bathroom each day, searching for signs that my fat cells had up and died and this wasn’t all for naught. Some days, I thought I noticed a difference, particularly in my chin, though nothing like the dramatic before-and-after shots I saw in the promotions. Then again, who knows how many cycles those patients endured. If I froze my chin three more times, it might well shrink in volume. But that I was not willing to try.

I struggled more as people inquired if CoolSculpting worked. I wanted to give a definitive answer, but the truth was—and still is—that I really don’t know. Results vary so much from person to person depending on all sorts of factors, but the reason I can’t tell goes deeper than that. At the end of the day, I’m an unreliable narrator. The hallmark of any eating disorder is the body dysmorphia that launches it in the first place, and while I’m a world away from 89 pounds today, I still couldn’t tell you how I really look. I think I might never be able to. And that’s okay—I’ve made a lot of strides in the decade since I was diagnosed. I still obsess over my body, sure, but the difference is that it’s not the most important thing in my life. Mentally, I’m far from where I want to be—as a new year dawns, I hope to leave more of my hyper-critical thinking behind—but if a virtual stranger can tug at my fat and mark every imperfection without propelling me into self-destruction, I think I’m getting there.

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