Every body is a perfect body, and that's not up for debate. That said, there is also no shame in trying a new look. Body contouring can refer to any procedure that reshapes or refines one's physique, especially after weight loss. "Whether it's defining muscles, targeting unwanted pockets of fat or tightening loose skin, body contouring can refer to surgical, minimally invasive or completely non-invasive treatments," says Camille Cash, MD, a cosmetic plastic surgeon.
Ahead, Cash and aesthetic nurse practitioner Samantha Pang break down everything there is to know about body contouring.
What is body contouring?
Body contouring, often known as body shaping, refers to procedures that help remove fat, tighten skin and shape areas of the body.
There are various procedures that can be used to achieve body contouring, ranging from non-surgical options such as TruSculpt, SculpSure, Emsculpt and CoolSculpting, to surgical options such as folds, facelifts and liposuction. Surgical options generally provide more visible results, but also carry a higher risk. All forms of body contouring must be performed by a professional in an office or surgical setting.
Arm contouring, also known as an arm lift, generally targets what could be defined as a sagging area on the arm. The ultimate goal is to achieve a taut, toned arm and regain definition. Plastic surgeons may choose to use liposuction, but there are non-surgical options to help temporarily achieve similar results. "While many advances have been made in what can be achieved with noninvasive and minimally invasive procedures, they will never replace surgical results," Cash notes.
Abdomen and flanks
Flank is a simple way to refer to the side of the abdomen. The abdomen and flank areas are generally more prone to fat accumulation, making them areas of concern for many. "The midsection tends to be the most common concern among the wide range of body contouring patients who come to my office to address their aesthetic goals," says Cash. "This is due to factors such as pregnancy toll, excess skin following dramatic weight loss and stubborn pockets of fat that often accumulate in the love handles, flanks and/or lower abdomen and can be resistant to diet and exercise."
Buttocks and Thighs
Women are more likely than men to carry body weight in their lower body, including the buttocks and thighs. Not surprisingly, the buttocks, thighs and hips are often target areas for body sculpting. Pang recommends CoolSculpting to target these pesky areas. "It's important to note that CoolSculpting is for fat reduction, not weight loss. Therefore, ideal candidates for this treatment are those who are close to their weight goal and have stubborn pinched fat," prefaces Pang. "Clients often choose CoolSculpting because it is a non-invasive, non-surgical option to treat unwanted fat. This is a great option for many people who are looking to eliminate stubborn fat that they have not been able to reduce through diet and exercise alone.
Benefits of body contouring after weight loss
- Build trust: "For some patients who may feel like they've reached a plateau in achieving their body goals, [body contouring] can help give a boost to keep everything on track," Cash shares. "I have patients who tell me they feel more confident overall [and] that it has opened up new wardrobe options, like being comfortable without sleeves for the first time in years. Feeling self-conscious about your body can certainly take its toll.
- Low downtime: Pang says nonsurgical options like CoolSculpting are effective with little to no downtime. She finds the treatment generally well tolerated, making it a safe option for body contouring.
How to prepare for body contouring
- Reach your weight goal: For nonsurgical body contouring, such as CoolSculpting, Pang says the best way to prepare is to "start working toward your ideal weight through good old-fashioned diet and exercise." "As with any body contouring treatment, including surgical options, patients should ideally be as close to their goal weight as possible for optimal results," Cash adds. "Body contouring procedures are not a substitute for a healthy diet and exercise, especially since these healthy habits are necessary to maintain results."
- Quit smoking: "While I would never condone smoking or vaping, it is far more important for patients to quit for at least six weeks before undergoing surgery, or even certain minimally invasive procedures, because nicotine significantly impairs wound healing," Cash says.
- Schedule a visit to your general practitioner: As with any treatment, if you have a health problem, serious or minor, it is best to consult a trusted physician before booking your procedure.
Not surprisingly, pregnant women should not be treated with any form of body contouring, including non-invasive options.
What to expect during body contouring procedures
For non-surgical body contouring procedures, the patient is awake - and therefore alert - during the process. "CoolSculpting is very well tolerated," says Pang. "You can expect to feel a slight suction when the applicator is placed and a gradual cooling sensation once activated. Some describe the initial cooling sensation as placing an ice cube on the skin that eventually goes numb after five minutes. Once the treatment is complete, the area is massaged for a few minutes. The massage can be painful but quickly wears off.
Cash uses another non-surgical option, Evolution in mode. "During Evolve Tite treatments, you will feel a warm sensation that some might describe as similar to a heating pad or hot stone massage. Evolve Tone treatments use electrical muscle stimulation to feel strong involuntary muscle contractions, but the intensity level can be adjusted to each patient's tolerance and preference, even mid-treatment. The Evolve system has a call button that allows you to pause your treatment and ask the staff to make adjustments if you wish.
During surgical procedures such as liposuction, the patient will be put under anesthesia and should expect to deal with downtime and post-surgical care.
Before and after
The patient's abdomen is noticeably flatter and the skin around the abdomen and buttocks is tighter and more toned.
The patient's abdomen and hip are significantly tightened.
Potential side effects
Cash and Pang list the same potential side effects for their body sculpting procedures.
- Tingling in the treated area
- Damage to skin texture
- Short-term muscle spasms
"Side effects are rare and usually go away on their own, but adverse effects can occur, especially if the device is not used properly or if patients do not follow pre- and post-care instructions," Cash explains.
"The most important but rare side effect of cryolipolysis is paradoxical adipose hyperplasia (PAH), which is the unexpected growth of fat instead of its reduction," Pang adds. "The exact cause of PAH is unknown, but it seems to occur less than one percent of the time."
For surgical procedures, including liposuction and abdominoplasties, serious side effects can occur. Consult a health care professional for details on the procedure you are interested in, but understand that, as with any surgery, the risk of serious side effects is higher when you go under the knife.
Costs vary depending on the type of procedure and the doctor. Pang shares that she charges 750 $ per applicator for CoolSculpting. Cash shares that the price of Evolve varies depending on where you live, as well as the number of areas of the body treated and the number of Evolve modalities. An area typically starts at 2,200 $.
It is important to understand that the majority of body contouring treatments, including non-surgical, will likely result in a medical bill starting in the four figures. According to 2020 statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average base cost of a surgical body contouring treatment is 3,637 $. Note that this is the average across the country and that residents of states such as New York and California can generally expect much higher prices. Also note that this average does not include anesthesia, operating room facilities or other related expenses.
For non-surgical treatments, follow-up is minimal. There is no downtime for treatments like SculpSure, which is ideal for a patient with a busy schedule. Follow-up and maintenance treatments are about the only care you'll need.
For surgical treatments, follow-up is more intense. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons notes that recovery time is typically at least six weeks, and follow-up is crucial to maintaining safety and results. Your surgeon will give you detailed instructions, but follow-up often includes bandages and drains for the first three days, followed by compression garments for the first two weeks. Resumption of normal activities will be slow and steady, but it's important to avoid anything that could alter the recovery process.
The last takeaway
When diet and exercise are not enough to get rid of pockets of fat, body sculpting is a great option to consider. Always remember that these treatments are strictly cosmetic and never necessary. For non-surgical options, clients may need multiple rounds in the same area to see results, and the results are usually temporary, so it's important to maintain healthy habits.