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October 7, 2011

Ankles Away: Cosmetic Surgery for Cankles

When one woman learned that a cosmetic procedure could vanquish her "cankles," she stepped right up to give it a try. But could it really be that easy?

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When the calf meets the ankle and there is no distinction between the two leg parts, you have what's known as "cankles." My mother has them, her mother had them, and I too was born with the lower legs of a plow horse. Centuries ago, I suspect my people were the ones who carried those huge slabs of rock up to Stonehenge. Thick ankles are one of those hereditary English traits — like rosacea and bad teeth — that made me want to disown my ancestors. They are also why I went through life wearing sensible shoes and long pants. Sexy strappy sandals and cute kitten heels were not for me because they made me look like Henrietta Hippo.

"Never mind, Sam," said a favorite uncle. "At least you'll stay upright in a sea storm."

I'm not alone. Mischa Barton, Helen Mirren, Hillary Clinton, Miley Cyrus, and British pop star Cheryl Cole have all been accused of having cankles. When Cole bared her ankles for a recent red-carpet appearance, the British tabloids went nuts. ("The Curse of the Cankles!") Not that this made me feel any better.

No amount of spot exercise or diet could contour my ungainly gams. I came to accept my cankles as something I'd just have to live with. After all, from my 5'9" vantage point, they didn't look so freakish. Distance does make things appear smaller. There were the occasional unpleasant reminders — a snapshot of me in shorts and flip-flops in South Beach, a side view of my tree trunks in a shoe-store mirror — but nothing to compel me to do anything drastic.

Then I met Dr. Gerald Imber, a renowned plastic surgeon in Manhattan. We were talking about minor problem areas, such as the flab that bulges around your bra strap. For these spots, Imber is a proponent of microsuction, a version of liposuction that uses a tiny cannula, or tube, not much bigger in diameter than a ballpoint pen. "Betcha can't fix these," I dared him, lifting up a pant leg to reveal a sturdy English ankle.

"Sure, I can," he said. And with that, I signed up for a cankle-ectomy.

For such a small area, it's a pricey procedure: $4,000 to $6,000. But when I learned that he could make normal-size ankles a reality, I realized how much I wanted this. Others might see my fixation on a body part that's an afterthought as extremely vain, and they'd be right. But I couldn't let the idea go.

Microsuction has been around for more than a decade, but performing the procedure on ankles is not exactly common. Imber says he does about 50 such procedures a year. Not everyone is a good candidate, I learned, because you need just the right amount of ankle fat so that you aren't left with lumps, which can be caused by removing tissue too close to the skin's surface. Those with more muscular ankles and big, thick bones are less treatable. I had ample fat pads on my ankles — lucky me. In a pre-op consultation, the doctor confirmed that he could remove enough tissue between my anklebone and the bottom of my calf muscle to lose at least an inch in circumference per ankle. I'll take it!

Imber said I would be given a cocktail of sedatives and antianxiety medications to put me in a rousable state. I would have to pay an extra $750 for an anesthesiologist, but it was necessary: The ankle fat is in an area where there are lots of veins, muscles, nerves, and tendons, so it's best to keep the patient lying still. One false move could nick an artery or cause nerve damage. It's rare and wouldn't be fatal, but recovery time would be slow.

On the day of the surgery, a nurse ushered me through Imber's birch-paneled Park Avenue offices to a space-age operating room, where I drifted off to sleep to "Rhapsody in Blue." When I woke up 45 minutes later, I saw a canister containing what looked like roofing insulation. It was my own fat, enough to fill a jam jar. A nurse put my legs into black compression socks and helped me walk into the recovery room. It was only when I was halfway home and the drugs were wearing off that I registered the searing pain. Thank God for Vicodin.

The next day, I took a peek under my socks and examined the ankle situation. The swelling was intense, and there was a large purple bruise above my right anklebone. My ankles had become mega-cankles, sort of like an elephant's ankles. For a moment, visions of lipo-gone-wrong flashed through my head. But I reminded myself that there's bound to be a little trauma when you've just been poked and suctioned. I refocused, directing my thoughts to a more calming image: the elegant ankles in my future.

For the first couple of days, I had to keep my legs elevated as much as possible. My boyfriend had to wait on me hand and foot, while my own feet recuperated. But after 24 hours, I could walk around without discomfort. Two months later, there was a little lingering swelling and numbness around my anklebones, but I hardly recognized my own two ankles: As promised, I had lost more than an inch on each.

Friends and family have noticed the difference, as have I. The ankle straps on my summer sandals had to be adjusted by two notches. Recently, I tried on a pair of kitten heels for the first time ever. I'm wearing capri pants. And perhaps best of all, my boyfriend, who used to draw caricatures of me with Fred Flintstone feet, has run out of material for his sketch pad.


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