LET'S TALK LEGS
Writer April Long tracks her journey to pin perfection
There were, in retrospect, a few indications that maybe my legs were never exactly spectacular. The time, for example, my Jordan Catalanoesque school crush looked me up and down and said, “You don’t have calves. You have cows.” Or the moment my sister and I, teenagers on our first trip to Europe, stood in front of Michelangelo’s “David”, admiring the statue’s magnificent physique, and she said, “He has legs like yours.” Then, clocking my confusion: “You have legs like a man.”
Still, I never felt so much as a shadow of insecurity about my lower limbs. What mattered to me was what they could do: I was the fastest runner in my grade; I could swim further and climb higher than virtually anyone else I knew. If asked, I would have said I looked pretty fetching in a mini-skirt, even though I recognised that my solidly built legs possessed an entirely different aesthetic than the slender, perfectly shaped gams of my mother and sister.
I didn’t particularly mind when, in my early thirties, the skin on my shins began to testify to decades of SPF denial with a sprinkling of freckles, or even when I saw the first wrinkle creasing my kneecap like a permanent wink (that’s going to happen to leg hinges, right?). But then one day I found myself in the unforgiving fluorescent glare of a department store change room, trying on a thigh-skimming dress, and realised that something more nefarious had happened: it was as if some mass from the upper part of my thigh had gone fwump – and landed on my patella. I peered closer. Were those dimples? I pinched and pulled, feeling a twinge of panic. Is knee cellulite even a thing?
So I lowered my hems and upped my barre, started doing squats while drying my hair every morning and pummelled my knees nightly with slimming creams. I longed to go to the Leg School at the Capri Palace in Italy, where extremities are massaged with ice-cold marble stones and packed in cool mud until they emerge, sylph-like, free of bumps and bloat. Instead, I bought several pairs of opaque black tights. As the wrinkles proliferated and the bulbousness grew more bulbous, I began to realise I could lunge my way to the moon and back, and it would make no difference. Which is how I found myself standing in the minimalist office of dermatologist Dr Misbah Khan with no pants on.
I had read about a “knee contouring” procedure Khan had developed – involving multiple resurfacing and tightening lasers and, when needed, small amounts of fat transfer – and had hoped, to be honest, that when I went in for a consultation, she’d take one look at my legs and tell me I was suffering from some kind of localised dysmorphia. Instead, when I pulled off my jeans for the big reveal, she simply nodded and said, “I see exactly what you’re talking about.” The bulges, the creases and the dimples (“puckering”, she calls it, not knee cellulite) were all caused, she said, by an age- and sun damage-related loss of underlying soft tissue in my lower thigh, which was causing the whole area to slump. “There are five pockets of fat around the knee,” she said, tapping her way around my patella, “and over time, they kind of prolapse. The three on top begin to rest on the knee, so you see heaviness and folds when you stand up. And the bottom two become more pronounced and start to stick out. So the knee loses its beauty and its architecture.”
Legs can be challenging for experts to treat because, dermatologist Dr Dennis Gross says, “the skin on the body is more resistant to firming than the skin on the face.” Gross, who uses combination laser therapy and in-office peels to keep leg skin smooth and free of Uv-caused discolouration, says that while fat pockets can be dissolved with devices such as Sculpsure, “there’s nothing great yet for laxity on the body, as far as devices go. There’s a demand for it, but no company has really cracked the code and brought anything to market.” Knees, specifically, are notoriously tricky. The skin is thin and subject to constant movement; a nip/tuck would show evident scars unless very well done. To make matters worse, “everyone’s knees age
differently,” Khan says. “If you’re very skinny versus someone who’s heavier, versus somebody like you, who exercises a lot but has a lot of sun damage – it all affects the way the knees look and the way we’re going to treat them.” Even though I’m told it’s going to be painful, there may be more than a month of recovery and it might not make a big difference, I sign up. What’s the harm in trying to make things better before they inevitably get worse?
When I return for the procedure, it goes like this: after numbing my legs with lidocaine injections from mid-thigh to mid-calf, Khan siphons out a small amount of fat from the bulges sitting atop my knees with a cannula, then triple purifies it in a sterile Puregraft bag (“I call it liquid gold,” she says, showing me the fat’s mustard-yellow colour – and, to my surprise, I do not gag). Then she reinjects it into the areas above my knees that need more support – to lift the wrinkles and dispel the divots – as well as behind the wrinkles themselves, for extra smoothing. When that’s done, we move to another room for laser treatment: a quick pass of fractional CO₂, which should rebuild deep collagen over the next few months, followed by a blast of resurfacing Fraxel. The entire process takes about four hours, and it sounds much, much worse than it actually is. Afterwards, she sends me home with instructions to keep my legs elevated, take antibiotics for three days, avoid exercise for two weeks and try not to be afraid of anything I see in the mirror for at least six weeks. “Your skin will be bruised, dry, icky and red,” she says. “It’ll be a while before it looks pretty.” As I heal, I vow never again to neglect my precious stems – to keep them out of the sun and treat them with the same vigilant TLC with which I treat my face. Gross suggests looking for the same active ingredients in body products that you would seek out in anti-ageing skincare, since, he says, “you’re seeing the exact same changes on the body – the loss of collagen and natural hyaluronic acid – as you do on the face. In both cases, the goal is to protect collagen, so topical vitamin C is excellent.” Dermatologist Dr Annie Chiu suggests “mixing a small amount of retinol with leg moisturiser and applying it before bed. This will fight off crepey skin and unevenness for years to come.”
Regular exfoliation is also key to keeping gams looking gleamy and feeling silky – “especially in summer,” Gross says, “when the body reacts to ultraviolet light by creating more dead skin as a barrier.” His at-home Alpha Beta Glow Pads mimic the skin-smoothing effects of his in-office peel, while also imparting an imperfection-blurring hint of colour. Chiu recommends “using products with glycolic or lactic acid to help dissolve the dead, dulling skin cells that lead to ashy, scaly, less-than-baby-soft legs.” (If you’re pressed for time, she adds, “simply try swapping out your body wash for one that contains glycolic acid.”) For an everyday beach-ready bod, she encourages a pre-shower buff with a dry brush, “which increases circulation and temporarily plumps the skin for an even, less dimply appearance,” as well as “body creams that contain peptides, which can give a firmer appearance to legs.”
For the first 24 hours after Khan’s ministrations, my knees are like something out of a horror movie, purpled with bruises and oozing lidocaine from the injection sites. After a week, the bruises turn yellow, and circular red blotches appear from the lasers. By the third week, some of the swelling subsides, so they begin to vaguely resemble normal appendages, but the lasered areas have started to itch like crazy, and they’re still extremely sore. I keep forgetting, accidentally crossing my legs – ouch! And getting into the compression tights Khan recommended is a mortifying physical battle that, if filmed, would go viral. After six weeks, the redness disappears, and I can finally stand back and assess. My kneecaps are still a tad puffy, but the overall effect is a vast improvement. When I go in to see Khan, she’s as delighted as I am. The transplanted fat seems to be settling in nicely and, she says, although there’s still some wrinkling (which may merit another blast of Fraxel in a few weeks), “the skin texture is a lot smoother, making your legs look so much healthier.”
She’s right. Healthier is the word. My legs look prettier, firmer. Not necessarily younger, but I’ve come to realise that maybe that doesn’t matter. Ageing is inevitable, and there’s nothing to lament about showing signs of it (especially in a place you can cover with a skirt). After having treated them with kid gloves for two months – careful not to bang them, lavishing them with moisturisers – I’ve gone back to appreciating my legs not for the way they look, but for the power they possess. They’ve carried me forward – through jungles, up mountains, across deserts, on hundreds of great adventures. I may never have the lithe, short shorts-worthy limbs of a dancer – or even the Bey’s knees – but my legs are beautiful, just the same.