On a recent afternoon, I found myself lying on my back in a lower Manhattan salon as a woman slapped me in the face over and over. It wasn’t hard and I’d commissioned her to do it. Sean Paul’s soft and upbeat “I’m Still in Love With You Boy” played from a speaker overhead. My slapper’s slaps flitted from one cheek to the next, perfectly in time with the music.
I was minutes into my appointment at FaceGym, a new beauty complex that purports to “tone and tighten the forgotten 40 muscles in the face.” By this point, I felt I could count at least 77.
This location of FaceGym opened in late January at 670 Broadway, one of Manhattan’s nexuses for zeitgeisty wellness facilities. Within a several block radius, even a self-care neophyte would be hard-pressed to miss the hulking, 35,000 square-foot Equinox on the corner, the storefront peddling Goop’s wares down the street, the kickboxing studio offering an adaptogen-infused product called “Rumble Juice” a few hundred feet north, or the sparkling CBD beverage shop right next door with a sidewalk sandwich board that reads, “We canned a feeling and then we created a space.”
As I approached the entrance to FaceGym, I’d had to swerve to avoid colliding with someone in a three-piece leopard-print suit who’d stopped short to photograph a vintage Corvette Stingray. Gaggles of well-coiffed brunchers teetered past her, their lightweight jackets adrift in the breeze of a spring Saturday—“It looks so good, for its age,” said one, of the car. My own jacket hung limply.
The FaceGym franchise was founded in 2015 by former “Chronicles of a Spa Junkie” columnist Inge Theron in London, as a sort of non-invasive take on a facelift. Its other New York outpost opened last year in Saks Fifth Avenue. At either location, for $70 to $275 (plus tip), one can select from a host of different “workouts” to lift and tone facial muscles. Optional add-on procedures abound, requiring one’s “trainer” to wheel over various carts full of pointy-looking tools, pert IV bags full of mysterious liquids and buzzing rods that evoke a robot reconstruction scene in Westworld.
Though FaceGym touts itself as “the world’s first gym for your face,” facial fitness broadly is nothing new. New York City alone has been home to several facial fitness and massage businesses for years, like the roving outfit Face Love, which has held court in Manhattan since 2015.
Face Love offers facial fitness (like FaceGym), as well as facial massage. The industry distinction between the two services is hazy. Descriptions of both often include words like “muscle activation,” “lymphatic drainage,” and “sculpting,” and available treatments appear to rarely involve one without the other. Face Love settled into more permanent digs in the Flatiron neighborhood last fall, within a business called Strech*d where you can pay to be become just that. (The building’s bathroom contains a placard announcing that CBD and turmeric are “NATURE’S ADVIL & XANAX.”)
There’s also CAP Beauty in the West Village, where the standard facial incorporates stimulating massage; a whole host of spots that supply microcurrent facials (which deliver tiny toning shocks to your muscles and skin); and FaceXercise Skin Fitness Studio in Tribeca. These sorts of facial fitness and massage studios cropping up throughout major U.S. cities are taking cues from cosmetic industries abroad, where similar products and techniques have been ubiquitous for much longer.
“In Korea, facial fitness has long been a part of the skincare industry,” says Alicia Yoon, founder of Korean skincare brand Peach & Lily. “There are facialists who provide a wide range of facial massages. There’s one particular technique called ‘kyung-rak’ that’s all about ‘molding’ the face through a very intensive, extremely high-pressure facial massage that kneads muscles and even shifts bones.”
Thuyen Nguyen, who founded FaceXercise, tells me that he learned the facial sculpting method he’s practiced for decades from his mother in Vietnam.
After I finally made it into FaceGym but before the slapping, my trainer Tela explained that FaceGym’s PureLift tool — an oblong device with two disco ball–like protuberances that look like they might be able to guess all of my deepest secrets, but which in reality dispense high-intensity muscle pulses — comes from Japan. She noted that two key massage strokes applied in FaceGym’s program are adaptations of Korean techniques.
It’s no wonder that the youth-obsessed U.S. is starting to catch on. Last year, a study by Northwestern Medicine found that 20 weeks of regular facial exercise conducted by middle-aged women resulted in participants appearing roughly three years younger. Of course, one must weigh the cost of 30 minutes every other day against the benefit of a three-year face regression — my own mother, who recalls an enthusiastic vow to partake the moment she read the research, quit her regime after just four days.
Despite offering nothing novel, FaceGym’s integrated and stylized approach paired with its rising popularity suggests it could do for the American facial fitness industry what Drybar did for the blowout. That is, make it accessible, though not exactly cheap, by opening up lots of franchises. Take FaceGym’s expansion in London: Since founding the original location only a few years ago, there are now six U.K. outposts. Meanwhile, in New York, several of Nguyen’s FaceXercise protocols were recently selected for the spa menu of the forthcoming Equinox Hotel.
“Something like FaceGym coming in can be a complement to what I do,” he says. “It’s a very exciting time for me and what I created, because it’s finally coming to be not so niche as it was before.”
One look around FaceGym’s new neighborhood implies that the rise of facial fitness in the U.S. is just one piece of a larger cultural moment, wherein the cultivation of aesthetic perfection is shifting from the invasive to the less-so. (Incidentally, statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons show that cosmetic surgical procedures were up only 1 percent year-over-year in 2018, and down 5 percent from 2000 — but “cosmetic minimally-invasive procedures” have skyrocketed by 228 percent since 2000.)
It remains to be seen whether the uptick in the number of brick-and-mortar boutiques commodifying low-lift ways to look and feel better — many of which could be duped with ease in one’s home — say more about the appetites of consumers or purveyors. And whether they’ll stick around. In her account of visiting FaceGym’s Saks location last year, the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino writes of these sorts of new beauty emporiums: “The overwhelming trend is toward escalation, as evidenced in the nationwide proliferation of blowout bars and eyelash-extension places. Once beauty practices become normalized, they are, for the most part, here to stay.”
At FaceGym, Tela recalled the facial toning craze of the 1970s and 1980s, during which she’d come home to her mom’s VHS tapes of instructors demonstrating comically exaggerated expressions. “But that was you, by yourself, making extreme facial expressions. Here, we’re all licensed aestheticians,” she said, likening the experience of a FaceGym visit to one with a personal fitness coach: more targeted and effective than the unguided version.
The crux of my treatment — after a brief portion that involved having a large red ball rolled up and down my cheeks — was the “cardio,” where the light slapping came in, followed by a good deal of by-hand muscle sculpting, and finally a nerve-racking interlude with the PureLift wand. When all was said and done, my face looked ineffably tauter, almost as if I hadn’t had two gin martinis, an order of rigatoni and only five hours of sleep the night prior. Days later, someone at work told me I looked “relaxed and glowy,” like I’d “been to Montauk at least once in my life.”
Tela recommends weekly appointments, which is what Face Love’s cofounder Heidi Frederick endorses for her clientele as well. Nguyen, whose roster sounds like an invitation list for the Oscars (he held a facial fitness session with Amal Clooney right before the royal wedding), prescribes his regulars a program of once-monthly visits. Facial fitness aims to take advantage of muscle memory by building on toning and tightening effects over time.
According to Yoon of Peach & Lily, “even doing a small, three-minute facial massage each day with your skincare routine can have outsized results.” She also suggests saying “a-e-i-o-u” five times a day, as exaggeratedly as possible, to give muscles around the mouth and cheeks a workout.
If my past dalliances with body fitness are any indicator, I’ll be back to facial torpidity in no time. But if I ever do need to take a photo of something that looks really good for its age, I’ll always know where to find that well-maintained vintage Corvette Stingray.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.