In my five-plus years as a spa industry journalist, I’ve learned a ton about moisturizer, massage, small business management, and preventative wellness. Recently, I also learned that when your thighs are numb from Coolsculpting, a non-surgical alternative to liposuction in which fat is theoretically frozen out of existence, you become physically unaware of whether you’re far enough back on the toilet. You might, in fact, pee all over the floor of a fancy med-spa.
On my visit to a spa for a work assignment, I didn’t expect to be trying Coolsculpting, the service through which sub-zero temperatures are employed to affect localized reduction of fat deposits. The spa director was excited to offer the free session, explaining that it was among their most popular recent offerings. In my line of work, spa treatments gratis are hardly unusual. But ones valued at two grand or more? I had entered a new stratosphere of gonzo spa journalism.
FDA-approved since 2010, Coolsculpting pinches your self-selected area with a claw-like applicator device and, for one hour per body part, this applicator’s panels cool the area to a temperature that's said to crystallize and kill its fat cells. Over the next few weeks, they’re purportedly flushed out of the body naturally, giving the area a smooth appearance.
I admit that I've had a history of being critical of certain parts of my body, and have never been fully satisfied with my physique despite years of marathon training, yoga, Spanx, and the occasional purchase of metabolism tea. The Coolsculpting offer reacquainted me with that old phenomenon with which most women are intimate: body shame. I'm typically vocal about my belief that every body is beautiful, that
thin doesn't necessarily equate to perfection. But still, I'd spent three decades
being socialized to believe there was such a thing as a perfect body — and that mine didn't
match its prototype.
Would these spa pros, I wondered, have even offered Coolsculpting to someone with a different figure? Would my feminist friends and boyfriend think less of me for pursuing societal beauty standards via the methodical murder of my own cells? Wouldn’t it be mortifying if there was a freak accident, and the verb “Coolsculpt” ended up in my obituary? I had so many questions.
The smiling technicians employed at this glistening, pristine spa — an aromatherapeutic oasis with a whale-cry soundtrack — informed me that I could choose any part of my body to “sculpt.” I was told that popular choices are "muffin tops, love handles, spare tires, and saddlebags."
As I tried to recall which part of my body I most loathed, I realized how far I’d come in the body-positivity department. After dieting my way through high school and wasting countless hours of college scrutinizing myself in the mirror, my body insecurities had indeed diminished. I wish I could chalk this up to a true sense of comfort in my own skin, but I think the truth is that by the time you’re 30, you have so many anxieties unrelated to societal beauty standards that those concerns fall further down the list. You start to look outward at the world rather than down at your body. At least, that’s the hope.
I’m proud to report that it actually took me three full seconds to recall that part of myself I hated sufficiently to subject its subcutaneous fat tissue to cellular massacre: my inner thighs. I can't remember a time when I wasn't ashamed of my thighs, when I didn't consider them the largest, palest, least proportional part of myself. At 30, I recognize that they are probably also the strongest part of me — my squats would make Beyoncé proud, and I can sprint up a hill like nobody's business. I wanted to pat my evolved, grown-up self on the back for recognizing this.
“Now, this isn’t a weight-loss procedure, per se,” said the spa tech performing my procedure. “Coolsculpting is intended for the active client who just needs a little help targeting those stubborn pockets of fat resistant to diet and exercise.”
First the spa tech would need to “assess” my “problem areas.” She led me into a sterile, white, fluorescent-lit room with a tape-marked circle on the floor, and explained that I could expect localized numbness for a few weeks, and within about three months, smoother, more contoured thighs. Then she had me take off all of my clothes, save for a diaper-type garment she secured around my waist. The fact that I did not ask why my shoes, socks, and bra had to go, how they even factored into the fate of my thighs, should raise questions about my fitness for spa journalism.
This stranger circled me slowly, scrutinizing my naked flesh, and scribbled something down on her clipboard. She turned and reached into a cabinet, and retrieved a red Sharpie and a large Polaroid camera. It was time to take “before” pictures. She proceeded to use the permanent marker to trace Xs over pockets of my thighs, and then took photos of me from all angles. With all the self-love I could muster, I reminded myself that my legs were good, that I was lucky to have them, that they’d carried me to the finish lines of marathons, that they’d afforded me great hikes, great sex, great times on the dance floor. That was hard to do when they looked like this, but I recited these words in my head nonetheless.
The technician led me to another, more dimly-lit and lavender-smelling room, where I was to climb onto a recliner next to a Coolsculpting device. The clamping, I was told, would be extremely cold. After I swaddled myself in blankets, the tech had me stand up and grab a fistful of my own graffiti’d thigh flesh. Then she got out the encyclopedia-sized pincers and informed me of the vacuum-like sensations they would produce. I began to panic. My lips always get purple in the pool — what if, I thought, my circulation couldn’t handle the freeze? What if my thigh fat got stuck forever in the machine? How exactly would my legs’ nerve endings manage to survive this ice-slaughter?
As the woman administered the clamp, the device loudly whirred. The cold sensation that followed was sharp, painful — too severe to be taking place at any peaceful-smelling spa. The intensive suction made it feel like my flesh was being pulled right off of my body. Imagine getting a hickey from an ice robot with plungers for lips. For two hours.
It was after the tech pointed out the emergency "Stop-Coolsculpting" button — “You have 10 minutes to halt the machine if you just can’t handle it” — and left the treatment room that the cold began to feel normal, neutral. My body even got used to the clamp. I text-informed a friend that, should I die in there, she was in charge of curating a photo montage for the news.
Imagine getting a hickey from an ice robot with plungers for lips. For two hours.
After two hours of this, the tech un-clamped me and performed a painful “massage” — really a two-minute thigh-beating — to reawaken frozen tissue. I asked to use the restroom and surreptitiously cleaned my own urine off the floor. I left the spa with instructions to expect red, numb, and bruised thighs for the next few weeks. The driver’s seat of my car was not unlike the toilet in that I had little sense of where on it I was sitting. I was perched atop a chunk of my body I couldn’t even feel, that didn’t feel connected to the rest of me.
When I got home, I jumped into the shower. The idea was to scrub myself clean of demarcation before my long-term boyfriend came home from work and became privy to the highlighted "problem areas" this procedure had been so kind to point out. However, as I began to scrub, I realized that permanent marker on skin is like red wine on a cotton dress — it just won’t come off.
Unfortunately, my paramour came home, drew the curtain, and surprise-joined me in there. My body was covered in pinkish suds, yet I’d only slightly diminished the redness of the marks, giving my legs the appearance, apparently, that I was badly bleeding. It was not the sexy shower my man had been anticipating.
“Baby, what happened!?” he yelled. “You have lacerations all over your legs!”
Sheepishly, I explained. While relieved that I was not in fact nonchalantly bleeding to death, my man wasn’t pleased to hear this was wreckage care of a comped Coolsculpting session.
“You underwent a voluntary medical procedure for a fucking spa story?!”
Had he never heard of gonzo journalism, I wanted to know?
He ignored this. “What if you end up with permanent nerve damage?!”
“You were perfect the way you were! When are you going to get it through your head that your body is beautiful, that you shouldn’t be doing weird shit to change anything about it?”
That, I wanted to say, is a very good question. Because the beauty industry is of course doing its damnedest to make sure no woman ever believes she’s fine as is. Its livelihood depends on the body shame so many of us internalize in abundance.
Three months have now passed, and my thighs are at a three on the numbness scale (they peaked at 11 that first, piss-soaked day). They still feel disconnected from my body, like how I imagine slowly-thawing meat implants might feel. Whenever I'm feeling panicky about this, the doctors of the Internet are quick to inform me that there are no long-term negative effects, to date, of CoolSculpting. And the truth is, my body looks about the same — But I do spend more time critiquing it in the mirror nowadays, trying to discern any differences in the inner thigh region. That doesn't feel like a win.
The catchphrase concluding many Coolsculpting ads is, “Get Your Mojo Back!” Right now, I would settle for getting the feeling in my thighs back.