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.”