What is Body Contouring

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

Achieving a weight-loss goal is always admirable, but it can have major effects on the body, including leaving excess skin behind. Whether this happens from diligent weight loss through exercise and dietary choices, bariatric surgery or liposuction procedures, the end results are often the same – unsightly folds of loose skin that serve as a constant reminder of one’s previous weight. Following this type of rapid weight loss, many people turn to essential oils and other natural remedies to tighten and tone the skin, as well as dietary choices and certain exercises, but many of those strategies are unable to fully fix the problem. At that point, many people turn to body contouring to solve this challenging problem.

What is Body Contouring?

Body contouring, as the name implies, is a group of procedures that can re-shape the appearance or contours of the body, typically after a period of significant weight loss. More than 75,000 people have some sort of body contouring procedure every year in the United States alone, but these procedures are practiced in some form around the world. In cases of bariatric surgery of liposuction, some doctors perform body-contouring procedures during the same operation, as it minimizes the risk of complications.

Woman measuring her waist with a measuring tape and holding an apple.

Sustained weight loss can occur only with a healthy lifestyle. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The areas of the body that experience these folds of loose skin following weight loss include the torso and stomach, arms, thighs, chest, neck, and buttocks. Not only are these patches of loose skin unpleasant reminders of one’s previous obesity, but they are also prone to irritation where the folds rub against other parts of the skin, making them prone to infection. Furthermore, hygienic issues ranging from body odor to fungal infections are more likely when these excess folds of skin are present on the body. For this reason, various “lifting” procedures have been developed in recent decades, to account for the recent epidemic not only of obesity but of subsequent weight loss. [1]

Body Contouring Procedures

The most common body contouring processes are arm lifts, breast lifts, stomach lifts, and lower body lifts, all of which are surgical procedures. In recent years, certain non-surgical approaches have also been developed, such as ultrasound therapy, low-level laser therapy, cryolipolysis, and suction massage.

Stomach Lift

This is the most common form of body contouring, as the hanging folds of skin on the stomach are the most noticeable for many people following weight loss. A panniculectomy can be performed, as well as a belt lipectomy, which includes certain elements of liposuction that help to tuck in the remaining flesh, typically hiding the scar beneath the underwear line. [2]

Breast Lift

Another popular procedure, a breast lift (or mastopexy) consists of removing excess tissue near the top of the breast. With that skin out of the way, the remainder of the breast can be pulled up and reattached, giving the breasts less of a droopy appearance. [3]

Arm Lift

The folds of skin on the upper arm are another very obvious sign of weight loss, but a Brachioplasty can remove it quite simply. Cutting from the armpit to the elbow, the excess skin is snipped and the remaining skin tightened around the muscles, with the scar often being hidden on the inside of the arm. [4]

Lower Body Lift

This procedure is for the buttocks and thighs, where excess fat is eliminated through liposuction, and the remaining skin is tightened around an incision from the groin to the knee. Sometimes the flesh of the buttocks can also be lifted with a hip-to-hip incision, achieving a tighter and more contoured buttock. [5]

Ultrasound Therapy

As a popular non-invasive procedure, ultrasound therapy uses the same technology as is used to image infants in the womb, but this high-frequency variation, collagen production is stimulated beneath the skin, which can tighten the skin on a cellular level. This approach requires multiple sessions, as the progress can be quite slow. [6]

Suction Massage

Also known as cupping, this procedure loosens and stretches the skin cells, while also stimulating circulation to those areas. This can increase the production of new cells, as well as collagen, which can gradually tighten and tone areas of loose skin. [7]


This clever strategy uses localized and targeted cooling to freeze subcutaneous fat cells without damaging the skin above it. In the weeks and months following this procedure, these dead cells will be eliminated by the body’s natural processes, and the skin will gradually tighten and “fill in the gaps”. This strategy can take months before results are seen, as well as many individual sessions of the treatment. [8]

Low-level Laser Therapy

In a similar sense to cryo lipolysis, low-level laser therapy seeks to destroy fat cells beneath the skin, which the body will then remove over time. Unlike high-level laser therapy, which can actually burn or cut the skin with extreme precision, low-level laser therapy stimulates cell production and healing internally, which can lead to more collagen and healthy skin cells, relieving loose skin problems. [9]

Risks and Side Effects of Body Contouring

As with any surgical procedure, there are some risks to body contouring surgery, as it requires general anesthesia and can be somewhat invasive. There are the inherent risks of any form of surgery, as well as an increased risk of infection, blood clots, intense scarring, numbness, and uneven skin tone.

  • Numbness – Following a body-contouring operation, some people experience numbness near the area of the scarring, something akin to “phantom skin”. This nerve sensitivity often fades but can be uncomfortable for weeks or months after the operation.
  • Scarring – Most lift procedures will leave noticeable scars, some in rather prominent parts of the body. These marks will fade over time, and technology for scar removal is improving all the time, but sealing up large areas of skin is rarely done without leaving any trace behind.
  • Blood Clots – These procedures have been most commonly linked with blood clot formation, including embolisms and thrombosis. The best way to avoid this is to keep surgical procedures relatively short and break up a full-body contouring procedure into several parts, as well as walking around and remaining active (in moderation) following the procedures.
  • Anesthesia Risks – Every surgical procedure that involves anesthesia runs certain risks, which are increased if you are a smoker, have high blood pressure, or suffer from diabetes, obesity or seizures.
  • Skin Tone – After the skin is removed, the body will try to adjust to the new dimensions of skin, but the tone and smoothness of the skin may not be perfect, and in some cases, some of the tightened skin will also droop or sag slightly. A common complaint from people who have undergone these procedures is a pitted appearance in the skin, similar to cellulite, where the excess skin has been treated.

Does Body Contouring Surgery Work?

The traditional form of body contouring, the lift procedures, are extremely successful and still widely used. However, as non-invasive procedures have become more popular, more questions have been raised about their efficacy. There is some controversy over how well they work and how long the effects will last.

Studies have found that these techniques are effective, but they are slower and may require multiple sessions. For certain cases, months of regular sessions for non-invasive procedures is required for even a small measurable improvement. However, for those who want to avoid invasive procedures (lifts) at all costs, there is statistical evidence that newer body contouring procedures work. [10]

Is Body Contouring Surgery Right For You?

If you are debating about undergoing a body contouring procedure, you must consider both the potential benefits and the possible risks. Millions of these procedures have been done around the world, and the risks are relatively small, while the benefits are significant. Body contouring procedures can increase the quality of life, improve your motivation and determination to stay thin, make your clothes more comfortable, boost happiness and physical confidence, and generally aid your self-esteem. [11]

People with pre-existing medical conditions may be at greater risk when undergoing body-contouring surgery, so one must be upfront and honest with their plastic surgeon to ensure that one of these procedures is the right choice for you.

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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