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When Trying to “Fix” Your Body Backfires

If you’ve ever felt dissatisfied or unhappy with your body, you’re not alone. According to the Break Binge Eating website:

  • In one study, 41% of men and 60% of women indicated being self-conscious about their weight and felt they were too heavy

  • Research shows that by the time American girls are 17, almost 80% said they were unhappy with their body

  • About 70% of women don’t participate in activities because of body image

And per the National Organization for Women, when teens and women were asked, “Are you happy with your body?”, only 43.2% of teens and 37.7% of women in their 60s said yes.


Given that, it’s not surprising that many people are willing to try all kinds of options to change their bodies, especially attempts to remove fat. These attempts all carry some risks, but one of the most popular, CoolSculpting, may be more dangerous than many people realize.


Disfiguring side effects

I may have heard about CoolSculpting before, but I couldn’t have told you about it or explained the risks until a friend sent me an article about it from the New York Times. And when I read it, I quickly became horrified.


On the surface, CoolSculpting sounds promising, providing a way to get rid of targeted areas of fat quickly and without surgery. The idea is that a device can be placed on part of your body to freeze the fat cells, and after enough treatments, those cells die off and get absorbed by the body.


Except it doesn’t always work out that way. In some cases, the patient experiences paradoxical adipose hyperplasia (PAH). That’s a fancy way of saying that instead of dying off, the fat cells grow and harden, sometimes taking on a shape that mimics that of the CoolSculpting applicator.


The only treatment? Surgery, which is what patients are often trying to avoid by using CoolScuplting in the first place. Surgery also leaves scars, can be very expensive, and may not be fully effective.


Even worse, according to the NYT article, incidents of these side effects are being underreported. According to Allergan, this only happens in 1 out of 3,000 treatments. But others estimate it to be much higher, and one plastic surgeon in Florida found PAH in one out of 128 patients.


Treatment worse than what it’s treating

Any significant side effect to a treatment is always a concern, but it seems especially terrible when the side effect makes the situation worse than it was before.


Linda Evangelista, a former model, used CoolSculpting and developed PAH, which she was not warned about beforehand. She came forward about it in 2021 and wrote this on Instagram about the treatment:

“It… left me permanently deformed even after underdoing 2 painful, unsuccessful, corrective surgeries…. PAH has not only destroyed my livelihood, it has sent me into a cycle of deep depression, profound sadness, and the lowest depths of self-loathing.”


I can’t begin to imagine what she must have experienced, but I applaud her courage in talking about it, especially since that seems to have empowered others to do the same.


This is so important because many patients felt like what they were experiencing was their fault somehow. At least with more people talking about it, patients can recognize that they haven’t done something wrong.


And my heart aches for those who’ve suffered from this, people like Kathryn Black, who was trying to treat a double chin and ended up with a mass in that spot. She said that when she sees a photo of herself now, she thinks, “That’s not me.”


I also feel for Gina D’Addario, who thought she was doing something good for herself when she used CoolSculpting on her stomach. She developed a large mass in her abdomen that required multiple surgeries to address.


Her comment about it really gets at the heart of the underlying problems with CoolSculpting and other fat removal treatments. She said, “I wish I loved my body back then… because I would never have gotten this done.”


Learning to accept your body

So many of us struggle with body image, and for many, it may feel like too much of a leap to go from being ashamed of your body to loving it. That’s okay. Even getting to the point of accepting your body will do you much more good than hating it.


Here are some suggestions for improving how you feel about your body.


Focus on all the things your body can do. Whatever you enjoy doing in life, you can only do it because of your body, so try to make that a conscious connection. If you like to knit, think about how your hands make that possible. If you enjoy listening to music, celebrate your ears. And so on.

Avoid comparisons. One of the easiest ways to feel bad about your body is to compare it to someone else’s. So don’t. Even if your body doesn’t fit into certain clothes or can’t do certain things that others can, you’ll only feel worse about yourself by making those comparisons.


Remember that most bodies you see in the media are unrealistic. When you see a movie, a magazine cover, a social media post, or anything else that shows someone looking too good to be true, remember that those images may be airbrushed or otherwise adjusted, and even if they’re not, the steps needed to get that body aren’t sustainable. For example, I recently learned that when Brendan Fraser starred in George of the Jungle, a role in which he wore only a loincloth for most of the movie, he starved himself of carbohydrates to look good, and it messed up his brain so that he often couldn’t think straight.


Shift your self-talk. You may find that your mental self-talk includes lots of negatives about your body. Try to notice when this is happening and then shift the language. For example, maybe you tried on a shirt that ended up being too small, and the store doesn’t have a size that fits. You might get upset and say to yourself, “You’re so fat! Why can’t you control yourself around food?” But you could notice that and reframe it as: “I’m really disappointed the shirt didn’t fit, and I wish this store carried it in my size. Maybe they can order the right size for me, or I can find another store with clothes that work for my body type. I deserve to wear something I like that fits well.”


List 5-10 things you like about yourself and refer back to them. When thinking of things you like about yourself, they shouldn’t be related to your body shape or size. Maybe you could write down what a good cook you are, how you’re always there for your friends, that you’re willing to take risks, or that you’re always kind to animals. Creating the list and looking back at it will help remind you that you’re much more than your appearance.


Be careful before turning to medical procedures

Using surgery or other medical procedures may end up being the right decision for you, and it may work out just fine. I’ve certainly never regretted the surgery to remove excess skin on my arms after losing weight.


But, it’s not something you should do on a whim. First, see if you can find ways to accept or even love your body as it is. And if you do look at medical treatments, do some research and find out about complications and side effects – doing that convinced me not to remove loose skin on my legs, since it felt too risky. Once you have all the information, you may decide that your body is everything you need, just as it is.

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