I just couldn’t take it anymore. The comments started when I was a baby. “Look at those cheeks!” strangers would cry when they saw my full, Churchillian face. And while an angelic moon face is adorable on a child, mine never really went away — and neither did the comments. Whenever I showed up at a family function, someone would pinch my cheeks. What began as an affirmation of my cuteness curdled into something negative as the decades wore on. Even when I was at my lowest, scary-skinny weight as a teenager or entering adulthood in my 20s, my cheeks were a focal point, and I hated them. I desperately wanted cut-glass cheekbones and a snatched jawline. “But you’ll be so happy you have those cheeks when you’re older,” people said whenever I would express my discontent, implying that my full cheeks would stay plump even as the less robust faces of my peers naturally sagged with age. You know what’s not fun to hear? That you’ll have to wait decades to be happy with your appearance.
I don’t remember exactly when I learned about buccal-fat removal, but it was certainly before Chrissy Teigen went public about hers, before the return of “thin culture” buoyed by the Ozempic craze, and before #buccalfat garnered over a quarter of a billion views on TikTok. By the time I decided to have my buccal fat pads removed almost four years ago, I had tried basically everything to be happier with my appearance: pumped up my cheekbones and augmented my jawline with filler; sat through one skin-tightening procedure after another, like Ultherapy and radio-frequency microneedling; and had threads implanted below my skin. None of it gave me the chiseled look I craved.
The thing about cheeks is that everyone has them. Buccal fat pads are basically just self-contained balls of fat that sit under the buccinator muscle deep inside your cheek. The size of these pads varies by person to create a fuller or more hollow look but is usually about the size of a quarter or a walnut, says facial plastic surgeon Lesley Rabach, M.D., of LM Medical in New York City (who did not perform my surgery).
In 2019, when I underwent my procedure, it was relatively unknown outside of the plastic-surgery field (even though it has been performed for decades). I found out about it through my work as a grooming and beauty editor, a perk of the job being the chance to grill every plastic surgeon I met about what buccal-fat removal was and whether it was right for me. After what felt like a symphony of yeses — and I was 35 and couldn’t stomach the thought of someone pinching my cheeks when I was 40 — I was sold. In my consult, plastic surgeon Philip Miller, M.D., of Gotham Plastic Surgery in New York City walked me through what would happen. Local anesthesia would be applied to my cheeks, meaning I would be awake throughout the operation; then he would make a tiny incision inside both of my cheeks, tease out the fat pads through the slits and stitch the cuts back up with dissolvable sutures. All in all, it would take about 45 minutes.
The procedure itself happened exactly as he described. I can still feel the sensation of Dr. Miller’s tools digging inside my cheek until the pads gently popped out like a bubble. I remember looking down at his table and seeing two orange globs that resembled raw chicken thighs staring back at me — my large buccal fat pads saying their final good-bye. I remember thinking, Good riddance.
My cheeks were swollen for about a week, like a chipmunk hoarding nuts for winter, with hardly any pain (I threw out my painkillers after two days). Once the swelling went away, I looked … the same. Dr. Miller had warned me that it could take up to a year to see the full results because once the pads are removed, your body has to figure out what to do with the holes left behind. I didn’t notice any real difference until I was in a store about six months later and caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. My cheekbones looked suddenly snatched. There we go — finally, I thought to myself.
Even now, nearly four years after my surgery, the only way people know I’ve had it is if I tell them. I walk into a room and no one says anything about my cheeks. When I told my aunt I was writing this story, she said, “Oh, don’t ever do that.” I told her I already had, years ago. Her reply: “No, not your beautiful cheeks!” as if they were suddenly gone right before her eyes. The fullness in my cheeks still fluctuates with my weight, yet there’s always a definition in my face that was never there before. I certainly don’t always look like Bella Hadid, but the focus on my cheeks is gone.
I felt as if, when I walked into a room, people just saw me for the first time, rather than my cheeks. But other than that, my life didn’t change that much.
While for me, it was a small price to pay (around $8,000) to be happy with my reflection for the first time in my life, it’s still a highly specific procedure that isn’t for everyone. “Everyone’s face is different, and there are certain facial structures that make buccal-fat removal appropriate,” says Dr. Rabach, who has seen buccal-fat-removal consults double in the past few months, usually at the request of young women. “People see the trend and automatically just want it.” She is reserved about whom she will perform the surgery on, particularly dissuading those looking for a snatched look in the short term but not thinking about long-term changes to their face. “I’m not a huge proponent of it because I’m very strict in who I think is a good candidate, and buccal fat alone isn’t always going to sculpt you,” she explains. Dr. Rabach did confirm that it can age you in the long run since we all naturally lose volume in our faces over time. For those who aren’t candidates, she often suggests other options like filler or Ultherapy skin tightening to achieve a more chiseled look without getting surgery “just because it’s popular.”
I have never regretted getting my buccal fat pads removed for a single moment, but seeing the procedure blow up on social media has made me glad I waited so long to do it. I spent years trying other treatments and researching my options. I vetted multiple surgeons and made sure, before going under the knife, that I understood the ins and outs of both the operation itself and what to expect afterward, especially the risk of a more hollow face as I got older — a risk I am willing to take no matter who says otherwise. And while I’ve never been shy about sharing my experience with others, I look at the current buccal-fat bonanza on TikTok with caution. Altering my face permanently was not something I decided to do on a whim or because my favorite celebrity had allegedly done it too. I chose it because it helped me finally and slowly become comfortable looking in the mirror. No one has pinched my cheeks in years — in fact, no one has even mentioned them — and I couldn’t be happier about that.