Freezing off love handles sounds too good to be true? Welcome to the next generation of body contouring, writes
Welcome to the next generation of body contouring.
Let’s take a minute to fully appreciate the splendour of Spanx. Despite their universal ability to repel the opposite sex, the undergarments are now a firmly established staple in women’s underwear drawers (and in their hearts), as the brand revolutionised the market and the way clothing, particularly dresses, hugged the body. Like render over brickwork, there’s little that these loincloths of elasticised material won’t magically conceal. But that’s where the magic stops. Sure enough, those regular problem areas return as soon as your regular roster of Calvin Kleins does.
The fact of the matter is, despite a healthy diet and targeted exercise, oftentimes those problem areas – love handles, f lanks, muffin tops, saddle bags (all so creatively nicknamed, too) – are the most challenging to shift. Little pockets of contention that others seldom notice have likely grown into your bugbear, impeding a slip dress from slipping, a waisted dress from cinching, cigarette pants from skimming.
“With anyone who’s exercising, there are areas that you just can’t move no matter what you do,” says Dr Rohit Kumar, cosmetic plastic surgeon at Sydney Cosmetic Sanctuary. A study by University of Connecticut researchers, in which participants completed 12 weeks of targeted resistance training on their nondominant arm, found no evidence to suggest localised fat loss or spot reduction occurred, putting paid to the notion that although crunches will go some way to smoothing out a troublesome muffin-top, it’s less likely to nix it altogether.
The pursuit of targeted fat loss or, to put it more eloquently, body contouring, is above all a numbers game. Conventional weight control methods only contract the size of existing fat cells, meaning that while the digits on the scales may drop, there are
“THERE ARE AREAS THAT YOU JUST CAN’T MOVE NO MATTER WHAT EXERCISES YOU DO”
still the same number of cells in those niggling zones. Until recently, only invasive (and painful) procedures, often with lengthy downtimes, such is the case with liposuction, were able to alter the number of fat cells in a given area.
A hot topic Stateside, the TGA- and FDA-approved contouring device CoolSculpting is leading the charge in body sculpting. It deploys controlled-freezing technology to reduce fat cells contained in a certain area of the body. “It’s a breakthrough procedure,” says cosmetic and laser dermatologist Dr Michelle Hunt. “It’s a quick, easy, non-invasive and effective way of getting rid of those unwanted bulges of fat that don’t disappear despite diet and exercise.”
“I have patients come to me and ask for a tummy tuck and I say: ‘I could give you a good result with tummy tuck, but it is very expensive and you probably don’t need that.’ I could probably give you 90 to 95 per cent of that using CoolSculpting,” says Dr Kumar.
Heating devices have been used in the past to sculpt and tone, but more recently experts have uncovered the ground-breaking benefits of cooling. Rather ironically, scientists made the unlikely discovery of the benefits of sub-zero temperatures by observing that children who consumed ice-blocks, of all things, were losing the fullness in their cheeks as a direct result of fat cells dying off. While heat will nix everything it encounters (including nerve cells), cooling techniques are more selective in their approach. “Some cells are more resilient than others, so when you drop the temperature to negative seven [degrees Celsius] for CoolSculpting, the fat cells are going to die, but the nerve cells don’t, the skin doesn’t, the surrounding cells and collagen don’t,” he explains. “The cells then undergo a process called apoptosis, which is the same as when anything dies in our body. Our cells are undergoing this constantly, but this is doing this specifically for our fat.” To put it into terms were all familiar with, consider CoolSculpting the neck-down counterpart to Botox: a relatively painless lunchtime treatment that won’t drastically modify but will deliver a small, noticeable tweak. It’s by no means a Band-Aid solution (unlike Spanx, bless them) to replace a balanced diet and effective exercise regimen. “It doesn’t work like that at all; that’s not what it does,” says Dr Kumar, who sees his fair share of patients in search of a miracle procedure to substitute breaking a sweat. “It’s really for somebody who’s fit, exercising and near their goal, but just wants to go that little bit further.”
That “little bit” equates to around a 20 per cent reduction in bulge from the targeted area: abs, flanks, inner or outer thighs, arms and, if you’re game, even the chin. As Dr Kumar affirms: “If you can pinch it, we can freeze it.”
For one colleague, it was her mid-section that met the pinch test. What she equated to a spare tyre was little more than an inch or two of stubborn bulge she retained after giving birth. Despite a roster of spin classes, Pilates exercises and even gruelling circuit training – “surely engaging almost every moving muscle will get rid of it”, she protested – they all failed to shift that stubborn layer.
On a Wednesday afternoon at Dr Kumar’s clinic in Sydney’s inner west, my road-testers’ stomach is first assessed, before the space-age CoolSculpting device is applied via a suction mechanism that pulls in the fold of skin like a vacuum. The first four minutes are uncomfortable, she says, but not unbearable. She likened it to an acutely cold bag of frozen peas she puts on her kids’ bumps and bruises when they injure themselves. She calls her husband to take her mind off the tingling sensation, and by the third ring her mid-section is all but numb.
She works her way through her inbox (Dr Kumar says some clients have been known to order takeaway, go figure) then the hour is up and it’s time to remove the machine, leaving the area less like a tyre and more like, ironically, a frozen slab of butter. The rock-hard area of the stomach is then massaged using a specific device and technique, which softens the area back into its pre-treatment shape.
After receiving a glowing report from my colleague, I probe Dr Kumar on the possible side-effects. He’s quick to offer that
“it is possible that if you had the treatment in one area and did it again you could end up with a scalloping. So the doctor needs to be very careful in the way the head [of the device] is applied and to take into account the whole surface.”
Meanwhile, imitations are rife, but not all sculpting devices were created equal: there is a slew of me-too devices that give mixed results. Likewise, as is the case with all cosmetic procedures, the skill of the physician is tantamount. “You’ve got to rely on, to a degree, the eye and aesthetic skill of the person applying it,” says Dr Kumar. As are managing expectations: if you think you’ll look down and instantly see centimetres melted from your stomach, then prepare to be underwhelmed. A 2014 study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology found an overwhelming majority of respondents who had cooling procedures reported a positive perception of the duration, discomfort level and satisfaction post-treatment.
For my colleague, the real proof came around 10 weeks later, via her wardrobe. Modal tees no longer hung at her mid-section and everyday work dresses felt ever-so-slightly roomier. And the real test? The Spanx were relegated to the back of the underwear drawer. “I didn’t realise how much I was actually sucking in my tummy to counteract that stubborn spot,” she says. “I felt it was disproportionate to the rest of my body. Now the real plus side of it is that I don’t even have to think about it.”