Earlier this month, the former supermodel Linda Evangelista took to Instagram to announce that she was suing the company behind the cosmetic procedure known as CoolSculpting for tens of millions of dollars because, she said, she had been “brutally disfigured.”
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit against Zeltiq Aesthetics, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Ms. Evangelista in the midst of her saga. While there are known risks associated with all cosmetic procedures, and Ms. Evangelista must still prove her case, no one deserves to enter a doctor’s office seeking treatment, only to emerge disfigured.
There is a mythic component to the sobering and revealing mirror her circumstances now hold up to our culture. Ms. Evangelista’s story invites us to consider it in a broader context.
For those who remember her feline stare as she stalked the runways of the 1990s, Linda Evangelista epitomized the era’s omnivorous glamour. Like the other top models of that time, she was tall and lithe, but it was her astonishing face that made her fortune. At the height of her career she notoriously claimed she wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000.
Hers was a ferocious beauty: dark, intense blue eyes tilting cattishly upward at the corners, brows arching dramatically like Sophia Loren’s, the perfectly carved mouth of a classical statue and an arresting nose no plastic surgeon could ever approximate. It was a photographer’s dream — a hypnotizing play of light, bone and angles.
That a mere mortal was tasked with reshaping her, trying, that is, to wrest the chisel away from the hand of Nature herself, makes for Greek levels of tragedy.
CoolSculpting, which promises to freeze away fat cells without surgery or pain, has been around for years, with ads on television, social media and in many dermatologists’ offices. My own dermatologist has one of the big white machines in her office and has suggested the pricey treatments to me as a quick way to slim midriff or bra-line areas for swimsuit season. I resisted out of a combination of frugality (it costs thousands) and mild suspicion. But I am a mere civilian, a bystander on the sidelines of beauty warfare. Linda is a warrior-goddess.
And so, like Athena, into battle she went — the battle, that is, waged incessantly against age, and flesh, and “bulges,” and any other perceived deviation from bodily perfection. For women’s bodies, that is. And who can blame her? Though 56, Ms. Evangelista apparently still had modeling options, an exceptional longevity shared by only a few of her age peers. (Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Kate Moss and Amber Valletta still find work.)
Though she is 56, Ms. Evangelista apparently still had modeling options, an exceptional longevity shared by only a few of her age peers, like Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, seen here with Ms. Evangelista in 1989.Credit…Getty
But CoolSculpting, according to the lawsuit, left Ms. Evangelista with the purportedly rare side effect known as paradoxical adipose hyperplasia (PAH). The “paradox” of this term refers to the fact that, instead of shrinking away, the fat cells actually rebound and accumulate, causing fatty deposits to multiply and swell in the treated areas. According to Ms. Evangelista, the many areas she had treated between 2015 and 2016 — chin, thighs, abdomen, flanks — now appear heavier than before.
Even stranger, this new fat results from the treatment itself, not from any weight gain. Weight loss, therefore, cannot help or reverse it. Even full-body liposuction (which Ms. Evangelista said she tried) did not fix the issue. According to her lawsuit, this has deprived her of her livelihood and plunged her into deep depression and self-loathing, leading her to become a recluse.
Her body has done the precise opposite of what it was supposed, or expected, to do — on several levels. On the most obvious one, it has resisted the “sculpting,” the lawsuit says, and apparently grown less shapely. But on a deeper level, her body seems to have resisted something else: It somehow refused to conceal the trauma inflicted upon it.
Let’s face it, however “mild” or “noninvasive” a treatment like CoolSculpting claims to be, the concept of freezing your fat cells to death with a giant machine suggests a certain, inherent violence at work. And while it is reputed to be painless and require no downtime, anecdotes online from former patients are starting to pile up, detailing side effects such as severe pain and reduced mobility, lasting for weeks.
A spokeswoman for Zeltiq’s parent company, Allergan, declined to comment for this article, on either the lawsuit or the reports from former patients of the procedure’s side effects.
Many people might find those reported side effects unsurprising. How could anything powerful enough to blast away your very flesh not also inflict some other, attendant damage? How could there not be hidden consequences (even if Ms. Evangelista’s situation is more rare)? Why had we not heard tell of any of this before?
The answer lies in how much our society invests in disappearing the violence of beauty culture. We gloss over the possible side effects, pain and distortions of cosmetic surgery. Despite talk of body positivity and diversity, we still do little to address our national obsession with thinness and dieting, with youth, with polishing our human skin to the smoothness of glass.
Five minutes at Sephora is all you need to grasp the ever-multiplying categories of things we can do to “improve” our bodies. There is no part too small to be monitored, controlled, embellished, augmented or removed entirely, from eyelashes (extend) to lips (inflate) to body hair (eliminate) to pores (reduce) to eyebrows (reduce, but also enhance) and so on, through nails, hair, teeth, ad infinitum.
Some of this body modification is, I admit, fun and interesting, and I do not claim to live apart from my own society: I both enjoy and feel obliged to practice certain beauty rituals, which have changed over time, as I age. It’s simply impossible not to internalize some part of these overpowering demands.
But this is precisely why Ms. Evangelista’s lawsuit is so startling and important: It actually reveals the processes we are meant to disappear or disavow. Not only did this mishap force her to acknowledge that, yes, a woman in her 50s would need “help” to appear as slim as a fashion model of 25, it also spectacularly demonstrated, even performed, the internalization of artificial beauty culture.
The “paradoxical” fat deposits she cites in her suit are not the crucial paradox here. The real paradox is middle-aged women expected to look 30 years younger than they are. The films and magazines filled with impossibly smooth-skinned 50- and even 60-somethings, Pilatified and Botoxed and wearing hair extensions. They are living paradoxes yet presented without comment or explanation. The paradox is that a world obsessed with women’s hyper-visibility can dispatch them so swiftly to invisibility, to exile, should they fail to adhere to certain diktats.
And then there’s this detail, again worthy of Greek myth: According to Ms. Evangelista’s lawsuit, and to other people who have suffered the side effect of PAH, those stubborn fat deposits that balloon beneath their skin do not look like normal flesh. Instead, they resemble longish, solid rectangular bars — which in fact, reproduce perfectly the shape of the hand-held CoolSculpting wand, the device that is passed over the flesh to “freeze” the fat.
In other words, in cases of PAH, the body permanently takes on the precise contours of the tool used to reshape it. The body has literally, visually, internalized the weapon that deformed it and conformed to that weapon. In Ms. Evangelista’s case, she says her body created a permanent, visible record of what it — and she — were supposed to conceal.
Face Forward is a column about self-presentation, beauty standards and bodies.