Jane magazine had a column called Don’t Let Them Do That to You. One of the things Jane said not to let them do was cut your cuticles. I never let them do that anymore. I’m borrowing the title here to tell a story I’ve been wanting to tell for five years.
In 2009, my husband and I planned a big trip to Paris and the South of France. I was EXCITED. Obsessing over what to pack for an entire month in France robbed me of sleep. I also didn’t want to worry about makeup on this trip. So it was perfect timing when a company that makes a radio frequency anti-aging device offered a free treatment so I could write about it for a luxury magazine I was writing for at the time. Maybe I could have that no-makeup look and actually not be wearing any makeup.
I met the PR director at a dermatologist’s office in San Francisco. He also invited a woman who’d undergone the skin-tightening procedure and sang it’s praises. She was in her 40s and looked like she was in her 30s. She told me the treatment, which costs around $3,000, involved very little pain—it was so painless, in fact, that she could have fallen asleep during the procedure. The result was a lifted, more youthful face. If money were no object, she’d do it again in a heartbeat, she said.
It would be free for me so, you know, twist my arm! It did occur to me that 1. She may have been paid by the company to say nice things about the procedure (or at least have gotten free treatments) and 2. God knows what else she had done to her face to look so young. But I accepted those unknowns and took the freebie.
They asked me to come to the company’s research headquarters for the treatment. They took very precise images of my face from three angles (see above), then introduced me to the technician who would perform the procedure. If I remember correctly she was a nurse (or nurse’s assistant?). We entered a large, very white room with the type of reclining chair you often see in a dermatologist’s or dentist’s office, but bigger and whiter.
Alongside the chair was a machine with a wand attached to a cord. She showed me the wand—the tip was approximately two square inches and would emit radio frequency energy, thereby heating and causing injury to the collagen in my epidermis. The collagen would then go into emergency repair mode, which would result in a tightening and lifting of my face. Simultaneously, a cooling mechanism would prevent the top layer of my skin from burning, and mitigate some of the pain.
The technician drew a grid on my face so she could follow a pattern. She also applied numbing cream. Then she zapped my face with that thing and it was all I could do to not slug her in the jaw. Remember when you were a kid and some joker snapped you with a rubber band? It felt like that if the rubber band were on fire. It was the kind of pain that induces involuntary sweating and flinching, regardless of how tough you think you are. And I was tough! I’d had plenty of facials and dental procedures and hair-pulled incidents that “didn’t hurt.” I was a good patient. I did not complain about things hurting because people who do that are weak.
“On a scale of one to four, how painful is it?”
“Um. Three,” I replied, though I couldn’t bear to imagine a four.
“It’s supposed to hurt a little,” she said. Was “don’t be such a baby” implied? They had warned me there could be some discomfort, and they said the higher the level, the better the results.
“OK.” I could take it. I could take it.
She zapped me again. More sweating, more flinching. She continued as I retreated further and further into the corner of the chair. After a few more horrid zaps she said, “Hmm,” and called someone on the phone. She told the person on the other end she was seeing small blisters on my face, was that OK? Despite how alarming that sounds now as I write it, I wasn’t worried. She knew what she was doing, right? She was a licensed… something.
She continued. She asked me again for a number.
“Four.” There. Happy?
She turned down the power and I felt bad about myself.
She zapped again and it felt THE SAME. I braced myself to just get through the first side of my face, after which she said we’d take a merciful break. It took about 30 minutes with my jumping away and sweating and crying. It’s one of the few times I’ve experienced purely physical pain-induced tears. She finally completed the first half and gave me an ice pack. She was quiet and I projected annoyance thought it may have been something else like worrying about her role in the facial torture that just took place by her hand.
After a short reprieve, I felt renewed and wanted to get it over with. I promised myself I would sit still and allow her to abuse me quickly. She started up with the left side of my face and DEAR GOD. After exactly two zaps, I couldn’t take it. I sat up, looked into her black eyes and said, “I can’t do this another half hour. It’s like a five out of four. I’d rather leave here with a lopsided face than continue.”
“I’ll be right back,” she said in a way-too-singsongy voice.
When she returned she casually mentioned she had changed the tip on the wand and, oh what the heck, let’s see if that makes a difference.
She zapped. It felt like a goddamned tickle. At this moment I simultaneously loved and hated her. Because wow that was a relief but OMG why had I just suffered for 30 minutes? Blisters? A patient leaping from the chair? WHY DIDN’T YOU CHECK THE TIP BEFORE??
She finished the left side in 10 minutes.
No one ever actually admitted that the first tip was dysfunctional, but the PR director sent me back to that same dermatologist from the beginning of my story. Luckily, I have just one nearly imperceptible scar, from the red, angry blisters that covered the right side of my face until they scabbed over a couple days later. The dermatologist urged me to keep the scabs soft (apparently this is the key to preventing scars) with an antibiotic ointment he prescribed along with Biafine, a French ointment unavailable in the United States. He gave me bags of samples.
Ironically, Biafine was available in full-sized bottles in every pharmacie in Paris. I remember sitting in the center seat on the plane, my husband in the window seat, imagining the guy to my right must think I have some tragic skin disease. The scabs fell off soon after we arrived overseas. A potentially terrible PR disaster was mitigated by a Paris vacation.
My point: If something hurts, don’t let them do it, because something is probably wrong! They’re either doing it wrong, or the equipment is faulty, or maybe it’s just a painful procedure and not worth suffering for. Was it? What do you think, do you see any difference in the before (top row) and four months after (bottom row)? I perhaps look a bit more tired in the top photos? I don’t know.
One last thing I’ll say: posting these bare-faced mug shots without applying a filter or editing them in any way was really hard. Because of vanity.