Skin-Firming as Self-Flagellation

Using a remedial lotion—that may not even work—only worsened my body image.

Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

Slathering on lotion doesn’t seem quite as punishing as other steps in a beauty regimen. Nothing’s yanked out or burned off; no blood is shed or pain inflicted in the name of self-improvement. But the hours I’ve spent in the last decade rubbing “skin-firming” products onto my thighs, breasts, upper arms, and ass might just as well have been spent furiously pinching the fat on my body in the desperate hope it would disappear.

And my God, my neck. Or rather, this fatty little double chin hovering above it. Much as I’ve brooded over the appearance of my arms and middle, no other body part has weathered such internal scorn. The cherubic profile I’ve had since infancy lost its appeal as I got older. Over time, neutral awareness of my face's outer rim soured into shame, thanks in no small part to the similarly jowled characters I saw on TV. The sexless “fat lady” opera singers I saw caricatured in cartoons had­ double chins. Disney outfitted plenty of its villains and accessory roles with thick waddles of their own: the aggressively sensual sea witch Ursula, the rageful Queen of Hearts, and the aged, matronly Mrs. Potts, to name just a few. How grotesque, how unseemly for an 8-, 12-, and 15-year-old girl to have one, too.

I would’ve paid dearly to have the pulp under my chin scraped away, along with the rest of the fat I considered excessive. By my mid-teens, I’d settled on something less gruesome: “skin-firming” body lotion.

The skin-firming promise itself is alluring, of course, because what’s the alternative? Who would seek out flabby, chunky, sagging skin? I held outrageously high expectations for a lotion—that it would make me better, acceptable, by artificially fixing the thing I was unable to fix naturally.

And that “thing” has evolved as my body has changed. When I was heavier, I wanted the gelatinous layers melted or sloughed off. When I was painfully thin, I wanted the deflated skin burned away. I dreamed of these (admittedly grisly, admittedly far-fetched) results while reading labels on beige and white bottles lining the shelves at Walgreens. But nothing was melted, nothing was burned, and despite more than 10 years of use, nothing really was firmed after all.

If there was any effect on my skin, it was, somewhat ironically, a plumping. "It's about attracting water, vasodilation, that kind of thing,” Dina Strachan, a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan, told me over the phone. “You might have the temporary appearance of the skin feeling firmer. That's usually because it's more hydrated.”

And, true, it was. Because I’ve become a dedicated worshiper at the shrine of Nivea Skin-Firming Body Lotion with Q10 Plus, I’ve gotten my share of compliments on the smoothness of my skin. It’s an intimate compliment to receive, isn’t it? I’d imagine the flatterer—the stranger, the lover, the friend—picturing me naked, serenely applying lotion in lazy circles on my shoulder or calf.

Then I’d feel further mortified by the truth: the unrefined body I knew and hated, the futile efforts to rub my excesses away. This wasn’t elegant, feminine lotion. It was repellent in its remedial nature; its advertised purpose put it on par with halitosis mouthwash or laxative-like “flat tummy” teas. I’d hide the lotion bottles from roommates and friends.

The most baffling part of all this is I have no idea if the stuff even works. Body dysmorphia removes one’s ability to take stock of oneself. As sure as I am that the lotion did little to rid my body of fat at my heaviest, I could just as easily convince myself that it made my arms and neck presentable at my thinnest.

Despite my embarrassment, the skin-firming lotion has become something of a security blanket. On occasions when drug stores have been out of stock, I’ve driven or walked out of my way to other vendors in search of the goods, because … what if? What if it does work? The Nivea lotion I use promises results “in as little as two weeks.” When we spoke, I asked Strachan if skin even has the capacity to change that quickly.

“Skin turns over every 21 days. When you're doing treatments”—that is, any kind of new skin-care treatment—“you’re usually evaluating it monthly,” she said. “But it just really depends on what you're doing … I have very low expectations that any cream is going to actually firm the skin.”

Aside from promises of speedy gratification, there might be a larger issue with the claims some skin-firming lotions make. Ashley Franz, a woman in San Diego, is suing Beiersdorf Inc., the maker of Nivea Skin-Firming Body Lotion with Q10 Plus, arguing that representing the lotion as a product that could physically firm skin would make it a drug, and that Beiersdorf failed to submit the appropriate regulatory paperwork with the FDA to get it approved as one. According to Law360, Franz had filed a separate complaint against the company in 2014, alleging that Beiersdorf misrepresented the proof behind its skin-firming claims and the amount of co-enzyme Q10 in the product. (Co-enzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that protects skin from sun damage, which can reduce elasticity and collagen—two proteins that contribute to skin firmness.) A judge dismissed Franz’s earlier case for lack of supporting evidence.

Beiersdorf has in the past faced financial and legal ramifications for making false advertising claims about several of its products, including Nivea My Silhouette! skin cream, Nivea Good-Bye Cellulite cream, and Good-Bye Cellulite patches. An attorney for Franz declined to comment on the current amended complaint, as it’s still pending litigation. After multiple requests, representatives for Beiersdorf said roughly the same thing, adding that the company “stands by the quality and efficacy” of its products, and will “vigorously” defend against Franz’s allegations.

“If a product is changing the structure and function of the skin, it’s actually a drug,” Strachan told me, though she wasn’t referring to the Nivea lawsuit specifically. “It's easier to market a product and claim it firms when it doesn't if it's a cosmetic, which most of those things are.” Topical retinol treatments, which stimulate collagen production, are another popular route to firm skin and are classified as a drug.

I asked if Strachan had any advice for the average consumer. “Buyer beware, just in terms of expectations,” she said. “Most of those creams are probably not going to be dangerous. But expectation management—something that is just an over-the-counter cosmetic is very unlikely to be able to tighten skin.”

The morning after I spoke with Strachan, I put the lotion on again.